ACORN’s efforts to undermine credit standards in the late 1980s taught it a valuable lesson. However much pressure ACORN put on banks to lower credit standards, tough requirements in the “secondary market” run by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac served as a barrier to change. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac buy up mortgages en masse, bundle them, and sell them to investors on the world market. Back then, Fannie and Freddie refused to buy loans that failed to meet high credit standards. If, for example, a local bank buckled to ACORN pressure and agreed to offer poor or minority applicants a 5-percent down-payment rate, instead of the normal 10-20 percent, Fannie and Freddie would refuse to buy up those mortgages. That would leave all the risk of these shaky loans with the local bank. So again and again, local banks would tell ACORN that, because of standards imposed by Fannie and Freddie, they could lower their credit standards by only a little.
So the eighties taught ACORN that a high-pressure, Alinskyite outside strategy wouldn’t be enough. Their Washington lobbyists would have to bring inside pressure on the government to undercut credit standards at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Only then would local banks consider making loans available to customers with bad credit histories, low wages, virtually nothing in the bank, and even bankruptcies on record.
Democrats and ACORN
As early as 1987, ACORN began pressuring Fannie and Freddie to review their standards, with modest results. By 1989, ACORN had lured Fannie Mae into the first of many “pilot projects” designed to help local banks lower credit standards. But it was all small potatoes until the serious pressure began in early 1991. At that point, Democratic Senator Allan Dixon convened a Senate subcommittee hearing at which an ACORN representative gave key testimony. It’s probably not a coincidence that Dixon, like Obama, was an Illinois Democrat, since Chicago has long been a stronghold of ACORN influence.
Dixon gave credibility to ACORN’s accusations of loan bias, although these claims of racism were disputed by Missouri Republican, Christopher Bond. ACORN’s spokesman strenuously complained that his organization’s efforts to relax local credit standards were being blocked by requirements set by the secondary market. Dixon responded by pressing Fannie and Freddie to do more to relax those standards — and by promising to introduce legislation that would ensure it. At this early stage, Fannie and Freddie walked a fine line between promising to do more, while protesting any wholesale reduction of credit requirements.
By July of 1991, ACORN’s legislative campaign began to bear fruit. As the Chicago Tribune put it, “Housing activists have been pushing hard to improve housing for the poor by extracting greater financial support from the country’s two highly profitable secondary mortgage-market companies. Thanks to the help of sympathetic lawmakers, it appeared…that they may succeed.” The Tribune went on to explain that House Democrat Henry Gonzales had announced that Fannie and Freddie had agreed to commit $3.5 billion to low-income housing in 1992 and 1993, in addition to a just-announced $10 billion “affordable housing loan program” by Fannie Mae. The article emphasizes ACORN pressure and notes that Fannie and Freddie had been fighting against the plan as recently as a week before agreement was reached. Fannie and Freddie gave in only to stave off even more restrictive legislation floated by congressional Democrats.