Red Line Blues
Red Line Blues

BY DAVID SPERO

     Lucille and Anthony Martin and their two small children
found a house in an attractive, laid-back, north St. Louis
neighborhood. They got financing, no small feat for a low-
income African American family, but without insurance they
couldn't close the deal. And insurance companies wouldn't
answer their calls.
     "They gave us the runaround," said Lucille. "I guess
they thought since we were low-income, we had all the time
in the world."
     One Sunday, an ACORN (Association of Community
Organizations for Reform Now) member spoke at the Martins'
church. St. Louis ACORN was organizing to fight for fairly-
priced insurance for all; Anthony and Lucille joined the
campaign. Six months of hard work later, the Martins have
their house, and it's insured.
     Dozens of other families in this all-American city, a
mix of southern and midwestern, Black and white, have
similar stories to tell. St. Louis has suffered more than
most from white capital flight to the suburbs -- in the '70s
a researcher called it "America's most abandoned city" --
but some have neither left nor given up. They're fighting to
renew their city. St. Louis ACORN has grown to about 7,000
members. That's not an inflated estimate of support, folks;
it's a count of actual dues-paying ($5/month) members. ACORN
has at least ten functioning neighborhood groups in St.
Louis and five more in Kansas City. In early 1993, the
Missouri groups decided to focus on insurance redlining, the
refusal or exorbitant pricing of insurance in African
American and other low-income neighborhoods.
     "We'd been thinking about [the insurance problem] for
seven or eight years," said ACORN organizer Tom Regan. "In
some neighborhoods, you never see an insurance agent. On the
phone, when they find out your zip code, they won't talk to
you. If a neighborhood can't get insurance it's going to
fall apart; no ifs, ands or buts."
     Organizers started going to churches and other
community organizations to sign up redlining victims, who
they recruited to help build the fight. They went door-to-
door and held house meetings. "When the issue of insurance
came up, you'd see heads start to nod," said Regan. "You'd
hear, `Yeah, that happened to me.'"
     New members were immediately put to work making phone
calls, lobbying officials, circulating petitions and doing
more outreach. ACORN pursued legislation requiring companies
to disclose where they write and don't write policies and to
make their underwriting guidelines public. They also went
directly to the insurers, demanding involvement in programs
to make policies available and affordable.
     Several companies agreed, in principle, to participate
in ACORN's Neighborhood and Home Safety Programs. Program
members organize to get vacant properties torn down or
repaired, clean up fire risks and take steps against drug
dealing and other criminal activity. In return, they get
affordable home insurance.
     When companies refuse to sign on or fail to live up to
their commitments, ACORN has ways of making them pay.
Allstate, the nation's largest home insurer, boasted to
potential investors that they were disengaging from inner-
city areas. They made redlining a selling point in their
prospectus, while denying to insurance commissioners they
were doing any such thing! They wouldn't budge until seven
busloads of Missouri ACORN members busted in on their
shareholders meeting and forced the issue to the floor.  Now
Allstate is negotiating. Four hundred members stormed the
National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC)
meeting last June, forcing the state officials to
investigate red-lining and make all information collected
public.

CUTTING EDGE OF RACISM

     How important is the redlining issue? Well, they don't
call it capitalism for nothing; if a community can't get
capital, it might as well not get out of bed in the morning.
As much as discrimination in employment, redlining is the
cutting edge of racism in America.
     "The companies will deny that redlining exists," says
Anna Alvarez Boyd of California's Greenlining Coalition.
"You rarely find a smoking gun. There are few regulations,
so it's hard to get the data to prove anything." When the
facts do come out, they tend to be indisputable. "After
South Central burned," says Boyd, "we found out that most
property and business owners were insured with fly-by-night
offshore companies, if they had insurance at all. Those
companies have disappeared, and, as a result, very little
rebuilding has been done." By contrast, wealthier, whiter
L.A. areas hit by the Northridge quake are recovering nicely
with capital provided by insurance.
     "I really think it's a case of middle and upper-class
white men with racist and classist ideas," says Regan.
"They're afraid to go into a neighborhood, so they think
it's a more dangerous investment than it really is.
Secretly, many believe that Black folks can't be trusted --
they might burn down the house for the insurance."
Boyd agrees. "What can you say when banks and insurers think
Russia is a better investment than American cities? It's
about color. It's certainly not rational investment
strategy."
     While Consumer Action and other progressives lobby for
legislative relief, with spotty results, ACORN's
neighborhood-based direct-action approach has made them the
national leader on redlining. "They really get their people
out," said Boyd. "They've got a program that works, and
they're so well-organized."
     Organized communities and neighborhoods can go a long
way toward addressing social, economic and environmental
problems, but only if they have access to capital. That's
why ACORN's programs, which have been criticized for a
middle-class emphasis on home ownership, are so popular.
"We've got young energetic college grads and neighborhood
people working side-by-side," says Tom Regan. "The only
requirement is being able to organize."
     To fight redlining in your community, contact the local
ACORN office, ACORN headquarters 718-693-6700, Consumer
Action at 415-777-9648, or the National Coalition for
Community Reinvestment at 617-424-6631.
     Send news, ideas and questions about neighborhood
organizing to David Spero at CrossRoads or e-mail:
mrrogers@igc.apc.org.