Monday, July 22, 2013

Coyotes, Title Lenders, and Other Varmints

In the last year or two, the coyotes have moved in.  Having grown up in and around the Northern Virginia area, I can say that this is a new thing.  There were raccoons, there was the occasional fox, but rangy, loping, mid-sized-dog predators?  Not so much.

In our neighborhood, they've taken down a couple of cats, and may have been responsible for tearing a young fox to pieces in my neighbor's back yard.  Nothing like finding a fox head in your lawn to give you the heebie jeebies.

Coyotes are smart enough to know to avoid us, but will on occasion go after domesticated dogs or small kids.

Meaning, they're not a welcome addition to the local ecosystem.

For some reason, their arrival coincides with the arrival of another creature in Annandale...the car title lender.  Over the last several years, as recession-blight has emptied out a series of Annandale storefronts, they've shown up on our doorstep.

First a TitleMax, replacing a failed Korean furniture store on Columbia Pike.  Then a LoanMax, on Little River Turnpike.  Then a "Fast Auto Loans" on Little River Turnpike.  Then another TitleMax on Little River Turnpike.

These businesses certainly look like legitimate enterprises, with bright signs, clear branding, and talk about service-provision to those who can't get loans.  It's all about meeting the needs of a particular population, their spokes-folk say.

But these are predators, pure and simple, and their arrival is a mark of blight on any community.  Sure, they offer up small loans to those who are desperate, with your car put up as collateral.  Don't have money to pay for an operation, or this month's rent?  You can get that cash quick.

Then, you have to pay them back, or lose your car.  And the interest rates?  At TitleMax, offering "the best rates in the industry," that means an annual percentage rate of just a tick under 300%.

Three hundred percent APR.  That's not a typo.

A recent report from the Center for Responsible Lending showed that the average recipient of a car title loan held that loan for half a year, and paid two dollars in interest for every dollar borrowed.

Interest rates that abusively high are banned in 28 states, and on the Federal level, car-title loans are explicitly prohibited for individuals in active military service, after a proliferation of such businesses around military bases began to have a crippling effect on the financial well-being of young enlisted personnel.

But in Virginia, where State Senate Leader Dick Saslaw has actively championed the interests of title lenders, things are different.  His support of these predatory businesses has allowed them to grow and expand their range, an action that was reinforced by a 2011 Bill...introduced by allow title lenders to prey on individuals holding out-of-state titles.

And as a pastor who lives and votes in Virginia but serves a flock in Maryland, that matters to me.

My own state representative voted for it, as did my state senator, which is beyond disappointing.  I expect more from folks who claim to be progressive, unless by "progress" you mean "making the world progressively worse for the poor."  Sometimes you need to go beyond the press of the party bosses and actually care about those in need.  Even if they happen to live across state lines.

These businesses explicitly prey on the vulnerable, the gullible, and the struggling.  That is their entire business model in a nutshell.  Encouraging and supporting their presence in a community is like intentionally stocking your neighborhood with coyotes.   I mean, really, why not?  If your kids are too slow or too unwary to avoid them, well, that's the law of the jungle.  Right?

Having been preaching from Amos for the past couple of weeks, I find it amazing that such businesses thrive in a state where a substantial portion of our population claims to be "biblically based."  Preying on the poor and the struggling is one of those things for which every corner of scripture has little patience.  Unlike our endless arguments about abortion and homosexuality, which are at best marginal interests in the Bible, the defense of the poor and needy against predators is consistently front and center.   Wisdom teaching?  The prophets?    Oh, the prophets.  They have a special place in their hearts for "businesses" like this.

And Jesus?  Well, he started his whole Jesus-thing with an affirmation of God's concern for those oppressed and in need.  

Lord, but this sort of thing troubles me.