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: firstname.lastname@example.org.