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The ACLU is suing the government for surveillance tactics

(POLITICS) ICE and CBP refuse to be forthcoming about their use of surveillance technology even as invasive as it is. The ACLU is not pleased.

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ACLU protects from ICE

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is currently suing two U.S. Homeland Security agencies due to stingray controversy. Not to be confused with the sea creatures, the stingrays in question are a type of surveillance equipment – equipment that might very well be recording your information.

Stingrays are used to track cell-phones, collecting information on location, calls and even text messages. As you might suspect, this can come in very handy with investigations, but stingrays don’t just collect data from criminals. In fact, a stingray can pick up information from every cell-phone within their radius.

Seems sketchy, right? Just wait, it gets worse; we actually don’t know all that much about how stingrays operate. We do know the basics – stingrays mimic cell phone towers in order to trick phones into connecting to their network – but that’s about it. This is on purpose: stingrays are sold directly to government agencies, which range from police departments to ICE, and come with strict non-disclosure agreements.

We still don’t know the full extent of what these devices can do, or what agencies are doing with them.

To shine a light on this problem, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act to collect information from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Unfortunately, two years have passed since this initial action and both agencies have continued to refuse access to documentation.

Which is why the ACLU is now suing both organizations.

The ACLU is hoping to find information on when/where the stingrays are being used across the United States, as well as how employees are primed to utilize the machines. It’s possible that everything is above board, but without at least some transparency, there’s a real risk that this equipment could be used to violate the rights of US citizens.

As of November 2018, the ACLU had identified the use of stingray technology in 27 states by 75 different U.S. agencies; it’s a number that is likely to continue to grow. In order to fully hold these agencies accountable for their use of stingrays, we first need to have a clear understanding of the technology and practices surrounding them.

Brittany is a Staff Writer for The American Genius with a Master's in Media Studies under her belt. When she's not writing or analyzing the educational potential of video games, she's probably baking.

Politics

Housing supply crisis: NAR insists governments take ‘once-in-a-generation’ action

(POLITICS) After years of sounding the alarm bell regarding housing supply and demand imbalances, NAR is pushing local and federal governments to respond “immediately.”

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housing supply crisis

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) has repeatedly beat the drum for over six years regarding housing supply, so much so that perhaps real estate practitioners have simply accepted it as the ongoing problem that it is. But in a new report by Rosen Consulting Group, released by NAR, housing supply is officially in crisis across all regions.

NAR Chief Economist, Dr. Lawrence Yun has reiterated in most reports for years that the only relief for increasingly tight inventory levels lies an increase in housing starts, placing industry hopes firmly in the hands of American homebuilders who are strapped with lending standards that shifted after the 2008 housing crash, now paired with labor shortages and astronomically skyrocketing pricing on materials.

NAR reports that after decades of under-building and under-investment, housing is now in more of a “dire” status than previously expected. The report, “Critical Infrastructure: Social and Economic Benefits of Building More Housing” asserts that local and federal policymakers must consider “once-in-a-generation” action and that “no matter the approach,” action must be “immediate.”

For an organization that typically employs very tempered wording, this aggressive language is alarming.

As bloggers scream “housing bubble” and analysts warn the script looks nothing like 2008, the timing of this report and the alarm bells being run by NAR are not to be ignored.

“The state of America’s housing stock… is dire, with a chronic shortage of affordable and available homes [needed to support] the nation’s population,” the report asserts. “A severe lack of new construction and prolonged underinvestment [have led] to an acute shortage of available housing… to the detriment of the health of the public and the economy. The scale of underbuilding and the existing demand-supply gap is enormous… and will require a major national commitment to build more housing of all types.”

Dr. Yun notes “It’s clear from the findings of this report and from the conditions we’ve observed in the market over the past few years that we’ll need to do something dramatic to close this gap” between hopeful homebuyers and tightened supply levels.

The report urges lawmakers to “expand access to resources, remove barriers to and incentivize new development, and make housing construction an integral part of a national infrastructure strategy.”

NAR President Charlie Oppler, says that adequate increases in housing construction this decade would add an estimated 2.8 million American jobs and $50 billion in new, nationwide tax revenue. “Additional public funding and policy incentives for construction will very clearly provide huge benefits to our nation’s economy, and our work to close this gap will be particularly impactful for lower-income households, households of color and millennials.”

Earlier this year, NAR encouraged policymakers to reform zoning and permitting policies, also recommending other policies to address national housing supply shortages.

At that time, it sounded like an urgent request. Today, we hear an alarm bell, a demand.

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Politics

Evictions are mounting, affecting renters and landlords

(POLITICS) Eviction moratoriums both ending and extending are causing ripple effects of economic trouble for renters and landlords.

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The United States continues to struggle to find a balance between public health protections to slow the spread of coronavirus and economic measures to prevent Americans from bankruptcy as a result.

While eviction bans initially provided relief for renters who lost jobs and couldn’t afford rent payments, the effects bounced up to property owners who lost those payments. Though the first coronavirus stimulus package renter protections extended to landlords, property owners say banks are still expecting mortgage payments as the relief expires. Many worry the expiration of the additional $600 added to unemployment will exacerbate the problem.

In Texas, the statewide eviction moratorium ended in May. Unlike other major cities which chose to use funds from the federal coronavirus stimulus package to pay for legal representation for tenants, Houston let local protections for tenants expire with the moratorium.

In Houston, there is little recourse for tenants served with an eviction notice. Tenants only have five days to appeal, and there is no legal defense for a tenant who can’t pay at least one month’s rent to the court registry. As a result, tenants facing eviction often surrender and leave. Unfortunately, the result is tenants moving in temporarily with friends and family while they look for new housing, causing overcrowding and presenting a health risk to everyone involved. The CDC has specifically named “poverty and crowding” as a top risk factor for COVID-19.

However, not all evictions are the result of unpaid rent. Marie Baptiste, a landlord in Randolph, Massachusetts reported to the Boston Globe that she has lost recourse against a tenant who not only stopped paying rent long before the pandemic started, but caused water damage and a rat infestation. The tenant argues the structural problems were her reason for withholding rent.

Consequently, Baptiste says she is now $19,000 in the hole for this property, and can do nothing about it. In July, Governor Charlie Baker extended the eviction moratorium to mid-October. In a survey conducted by MassLandlords, one-fifth of landlords are uncertain how they will keep up with mortgage payments. Many fear they will be forced to sell or face foreclosure without relief.

Without protections for both tenants and individual property owners, the eviction moratoriums could have long-term consequences for housing in large cities. Urban centers, already struggling with rent inflation and lack of affordable units as large developers take over, could see this problem exacerbated for years to come. It is imperative that the next stimulus package consider how relief for both renters and property owners can be leveraged to prevent these challenges.

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Politics

COVID-19: NAR’s fight for independent contractor relief

(POLITICS) Economic relief is on its way for the self-employed and independent contractors like Realtors, with NAR pushing politicians to pay attention.

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Earlier this week the U.S. Senate passed an unprecedented $2 trillion COVID-19 economic relief package. The bill is now in the U.S. House and is expect to be signed by the President without any issues.

Self-employed and independent contractors have been anxious about the bill since talks began. It would not be the first time theses types of workers were left out of key economic legislation. As the majority of the nation’s realtors are self-employed or commission-based, they have been hit hard by the economic effects of COVID-19.

Just last week home buyer disinterest tripled; few are looking to buy a home right now and social distancing restrictions have made it difficult to attract new clients or show property.

Realtors want to do their part to stop the spread of the virus, but just like everyone else, they need support during this difficult time.

During the last several weeks, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) has been in constant discussion with lawmakers to ensure that these groups are taken into account for the economic relief package.

NAR Senior VP of Government Affairs, Shannon McGahn stated, “We have worked closely with Congressional leaders and the administration during the past several weeks to ensure all three bills bring relief to the self-employed, independent contractors, and small businesses. The real estate industry is responsible for millions of jobs and is key to our national recovery.”

The economic relief package includes $350 billion for the Small Business Administration 7(a) loan program. Under the terms, eligible small businesses, which in this case are those that have 500 employees or fewer, can receive up to $10 million toward mortgage interest, rents, utilities, and payroll costs. A portion of these loans will be forgivable.

In addition to relief through the loan program, self-employed and independent contractors will be able to take advantage of unemployment insurance benefits. This program could cover benefits for up to 39 weeks, a huge relief as many find themselves and their businesses suddenly devoid of cashflow.

This is the third relief package to be signed into law, with a fourth expected to be signed in the coming months. These are stressful COVID-19 times and no bill will ever be perfect, but some relief is on its way. 
 

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