Chicken Little Was Right
Councilman Lew Fidler gets his mortgage catastrophe
by Katharine Jose | April 15, 2008 | Tags: PoliticsLew Fidler
This article was published in the April 21, 2008, edition of The New York Observer.
Councilman Lew Fidler spends a lot of time dealing with other people’s misfortune.
He makes his living as the general counsel for LawCash, a company that advances money to people who are expected to win personal-injury settlement suits.
More publicly, in his capacity as an elected official, Mr. Fidler is the self-appointed Chicken Little of the mortgage crisis.
He first started talking about the potentially calamitous subprime housing situation to anyone who would listen three and a half years ago, when he began lobbying for a City Council grant to begin educating homeowners about a crisis that hadn’t happened yet. (In 2006, he got the grant—$750,000 to a nonprofit group dedicated to the issue.)
Last November, concerned by what he considered to be the alarming indifference of his constituents, he circulated a flier that showed his head imposed on the body of Disney’s Chicken Little character.
“You have to get their attention somehow,” Mr. Fidler explained.
Asking him how he knew what would happen elicits a five-minute monologue. “I continued to see closings,” he said. “One hundred percent loan-to-value.”
“It doesn’t take you very long, if you’re really thinking about it, to say: ‘What’s going to happen if real estate values stop going up—forget about going down—just stop going up?”
Mr. Fidler was elected in 2001. Before that he was, at various times, a Democratic district leader, an attorney, the campaign manager for several of Charles Hynes’ bids for Brooklyn district attorney and the chairman of a community board.
Despite some health problems—he is an overweight diabetic with bad eyesight, and he sometimes walks with a cane—he is a vigorous campaigner, and was reelected by a landslide in 2005.
More unexpectedly, as chair of the Council’s Youth Services Committee, he has led a quiet, politically unprofitable campaign to direct resources and money toward helping homeless youth in the city, many of whom are gay.
His office, down the hallway off the waiting room, looks like a place where an accountant in Brooklyn in the 1970s might have worked. Fidler, who is 51, would not have been out of place there. Wearing a short-sleeved collared shirt, a narrow tie and large geometric glasses, he leaned back in his chair and occasionally paused to take a phone call.
“You’re one of my favorite people,” he said to one caller, “if not one of my favorite agencies.”
Mr. Fidler grew up in East Flatbush, not far from where he lives now, in Sheepshead Bay. He represents a section of the borough that also includes Bergen Beach, Canarsie and Flatlands, and he is eager to talk about how the mortgage crisis affects his district.
“I know that Canarsie and Flatbush in Brooklyn is really hard,” he said. “So, for me, that’s a third of my district—and I call it ground zero.”
There’s a loud catcall whistle. “Sorry, that was the computer,” he said.
“If I was willing to live in Podunksville, I could buy myself 12 acres. So, I think people are going to start making decisions like that if we don’t pull out of the recession.
“It’s very circular,” he added. “Very cyclical and circular, both, and I mean those in different ways. The economy is cyclical, but the process here is somewhat circular.”
There’s nothing the city can do to help people who are facing foreclosure, other than on a one-by-one basis, Mr. Fidler says.
This approach is reflected in legislation sponsored by Mr. Fidler that created the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, a public-private partnership that will provide legal and other aid on an individual basis to New Yorkers with foreclosure issues.
When the subject of Mr. Fidler and the subprime collapse comes up on local political blogs—which it fairly often does—almost inevitably an anonymous commenter accuses him of being in a position to profit from frequent foreclosures. Mr. Fidler says this is “utter drivel” and based on a misunderstanding of what LawCash does. In other words, LawCash lends “expensive” money, in his words, but not for mortgages.
“It’s even in our contract,” he said. “‘Make sure you’ve exhausted every other source of money before you come here.’”
“Does the business make money?” Mr. Fidler asked himself. “Yes, the business makes money. But, I mean, God bless America.”
More often than not, Mr. Fidler responds to the attacks in the comments section of the same blog posts, usually under the name “Lew from Brooklyn.” He does this, he explained, partly because of the Google factor—when people search for him, he doesn’t want them to see the attacks without also seeing his response—and partly because blogs have become “a very legitimate manner of public discourse.” And also because, he says, “I have also discovered that the way to hear from reporters is, they check the blogs and see who’s talking about stuff.”
So there we were, with him telling me how we can get out of the recession.
Good old-fashioned capital projects are the answer, Fidler thinks, and he has some ideas. “Building the cross-harbor freight tunnel, building a tunnel to Staten Island,” he began, “sinking the Gowanus Expressway, opening the West Brooklyn waterfront.”
The computer made the catcall whistle again. This time we both ignored it.
“If we do that, and do it now, instead of cocking around for 12 years while we plan it, those are real jobs. And that’s the way F.D.R. did it.” He paused. “Well, cynics will say he did it by getting us into World War II.
“But we’ve already got the war. Now it’s time to do the economic stuff. And that—that—is sound economic policy and good planning, rolled into one. To me, it’s a no-brainer.”
Chicken Little doesn’t see anything new on the horizon that New Yorkers should worry about, other than the continuing foreclosure crisis.
“I’d like to say I see a recession coming—because I saw that, too. But now it’s too late to say I see it coming, because it’s here.” He thought for a few seconds and said, “I see the Mets winning the pennant.”