Bill Faith is a bleeding heart who‚??s also politically savvy, earning the respect (and votes) of Democrats and Republicans. And he needs that Statehouse support during his never-ending battle against the payday lending industry.
Bill Faith went to Ohio House minority leader Bill Batchelder last year to gain the conservative Republican's support for limits on payday lenders. A believer in research and the power of facts, the lobbyist who advocates for low-income Ohioans was armed with carefully crafted arguments about the number of borrowers who got trapped in a cycle of spiraling debt at interest rates he calculated to be about 391 percent. But he also was prepared for a different kind of conversation.
"We talked about Adam Smith," says Batchelder of the 18th-century economist. "Wealth of Nations is a Bible for many conservatives. He definitely was prepared to discuss the thing from the conservative viewpoint, which was sort of fascinating because usually the social people don't have that same outlook-the outlook that would be shared by a lot of conservatives."
Faith chuckles a bit when reminded of this conversation. "I had to look up the clips on Adam Smith," he admits. "You know, a lot of people on the left like to demonize Adam Smith. But Adam Smith was for fair commerce."
The two also discussed whether the religious concept of usury applied to high-interest, short-term loans. "He loves that stuff," says Faith. "He loves history, he's into religion. And I like to find that common ground."
Batchelder says Faith's desire to find common ground-and the effort he puts into learning about the legislators he lobbies-makes him a force to be reckoned with. "He's very effective as an advocate because he spends a lot of time getting to know the people that he's dealing with," he says. Batchelder decided to co-sponsor the legislation, along with liberal Democrat Bob Hagan of Youngstown, and the bill became law.
"I think a lot of people in the legislature were surprised to have a Batchelder-Hagan bill," says Batchelder, "and Bill Faith had a lot to do with that."
The payday lending bill that Faith helped craft, along with his colleagues at the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO), the agency he directs, passed both the House and Senate. And when the payday lenders challenged the law at the polls last fall, they were soundly defeated-thanks largely to a low-budget, high-impact campaign led by COHHIO.
But Faith wasn't always so diplomatic or influential. Back in the 1980s, he and his friends felt demonstrations were the best way to address injustice. He couldn't help noting, however, that when he was arrested at a Statehouse sit-in and spent the night in jail, he never got a chance to talk with any of the legislators.
"At an earlier point in my life I wanted to express my values," he says. "I wanted to be right. And I wanted to stand up against what I saw as wrongs, whatever they were. You'd measure a victory like, 'Oh, we got an article in the newspaper because the cops came and we were able to get a line out about the cause.' And then I said, 'Well, yeah, but we didn't win anything.' It's like, I want to win!"
As a result of embracing that impulse, even when it means compromising, Faith has emerged as an effective leader, one who has made a significant impact on the state of Ohio. He is credited with being the driving force behind an impressive array of legislative successes other than payday lending issues, including the establishment of the Ohio Housing Trust Fund. He led the charge in the passage of a bill to provide a permanent income stream for the fund, which provides roughly $50 million a year for affordable housing. And he was instrumental in creating the Homebuyers' Protection Act, which reined in predatory mortgage lenders. He's now working on tenant protection, foreclosure reform and permanent supportive housing for those with disabilities. (Interestingly, Batchelder opposes Faith's position on revamping foreclosure laws.)
"We all rest easier knowing that Bill is at our helm," says Sammie Rhoades, chair of COHHIO's board and CEO of Findlay Hope House for the Homeless Inc., a family shelter and multi-agency human service center. "If he has a light that's shining, his is a beacon."
"Bill's work kind of speaks for itself the past few years," says Democratic Attorney General Richard Cordray, who has known Faith for almost two decades. "It's sort of like he's hit his stride."
Senate president Bill Harris puts it more strongly. "He feels it's a calling to do what he does," says the Ashland Republican. "His integrity and commitment enable him to talk to Republicans as well as Democrats."
The burly Faith, with a gravelly voice, a mop of curly gray hair, a direct gaze and a ready laugh, doesn't fit the image of a lobbyist. He doesn't wear Guccis, and although he works out of an office in a Town Street high-rise and carries a Palm Treo, traces of the hippie he once was still linger. An avid gardener, Faith showers his staff with homegrown zucchini from the plot he tends at his Clintonville home. His wife, Barbara Poppe-who directs the Community Shelter Board-recalls the Earth Shoes that Faith was wearing when they first met; she gave him a pair of Birkenstocks for his most recent birthday.
Faith, 53, was born and raised in Youngstown, the youngest of five children. His father was a farm equipment sales manager, his mother a teacher. It was his mother who encouraged him to think about social justice.
"Our part of town was very segregated," he says. "All of Youngstown was. She would take me to these civil rights rallies and I remember saying to my mom, 'How come there's no white people here?' " On other occasions, his mother would organize get-togethers with black families, unusual for Youngstown in the 1960s. "We would have a picnic or go out and pick strawberries together," he says.
His mother was a Democrat. His father was a Republican. Faith was fascinated when the two would argue about politics. He shared his mother's values but also was attracted to his father's libertarian ideas. He often mentions his mixed-politics background when describing his ability to craft bipartisan agreement. "I need to be able to persuade people of both parties," he says. "Maybe I feel more complete if I have that buy-in from both parents."
"I fundamentally think most people are well intended," he says. "I think most people want to do the right thing. So I love to figure out a way to translate an issue into something that people can understand. I think a lot of times we fail to do that. It's not that they're against you, it's that we fail to translate-to make it real for them."
Faith went first to Ohio University, then transferred to Ohio State, where he got a degree in social work. After college, Faith got a job at an institution for the mentally disabled. Built as an asylum in the early 1900s, Orient was Ohio's largest such facility, with thousands living in dormitory-style housing. (It was converted to a prison in 1984 and later closed.) "It was really an old-school institution. It was surprising that we still had these kind of things operating in the '70s."
He was shocked at the conditions, and also by the corruption he says he uncovered. When a patient complained to him that money was disappearing from his account, Faith found staff members were stealing from the patients. He reported it to the state police. "There was this extremely shady stuff going on," he says. "I thought, 'We can do better.' "
It was no idle thought. He left that job and took charge of a patient who had lived at Orient for 40 years. Along with some of Faith's like-minded friends, they went to live in an old brick farmhouse on Sunbury Road. They called it the Ark House. Eventually, five or six developmentally disabled people came to live there, in an informal group home arrangement that was more like a commune than a charity. Other jobs helped pay the expenses.
"It was kind of a community of people that we just sort of shared life," Faith remembers. "We'd cook dinner together, keep track of their medication." They grew vegetables. During the day, many of the disabled residents took jobs in the community; Faith and his friends started a soup kitchen and food pantry.
At the soup kitchen, Faith first became aware of people who had no place to live. "All I wanted to do after working in the kitchen was go home and take a shower," he says. His clothes were covered with food and grease, wet from washing dishes. A volunteer was in the same condition, but he would tell Faith, who gave him a ride, " 'Just drop me off downtown.' He didn't want to tell me," Faith says. "The word 'homeless' wasn't even in our vernacular. I don't know what we thought of about people who didn't have anywhere to stay. But it became like, well, we ought to do something about this."
Over the next few years, Faith and a loosely organized group of activists started a homeless shelter (Friends of the Homeless) and an advocacy group (the Coalition for the Homeless). At the same time-the early 1980s-the movement to combat homelessness was gaining traction nationally, led by activist Mitch Snyder, whose Community for Creative Non-Violence occupied an empty Washington, D.C., building and sheltered the city's homeless in the winter. Snyder went on a 50-day hunger strike to persuade the government to open a federally funded shelter-and succeeded.
Faith saw Snyder, whom he'd gotten to know, as a role model of sorts. "He would stand up and go make it happen. The guy did amazing stuff. He put demands on me-he used to bug me all the time about ramping up the debate on homelessness. And I did it. I did it in my own way. Obviously I didn't do hunger strikes"-Faith looks down at his expansive waistline-"but I did it."
"We did a combination of street actions and service, but we didn't really know," he adds. "We didn't have an idea what the world of government was about."
Faith and Poppe met during that period at a statewide organizing meeting. The match was not immediately apparent to her. "I came from a women's college. I'd been in a sorority. I was considered the more 'straight' person, in the sense that I had a more conservative demeanor," she says. She saw Faith and his friends as "the ragtag group from Friends of the Homeless. Bill wore Earth Shoe sandals and blue jeans and long shirts . . . you know, it was more the activist look. But he was certainly articulate and passionate about the cause."
In 1990, Poppe moved from Cleveland to Columbus to direct Friends of the Homeless. She married Faith the following year. He adopted Poppe's 3-year-old daughter from a prior marriage (Faith, too, was divorced) and they had a son together. (Their daughter now works in a low-income women's health clinic and is studying to be a nurse practitioner. Their son, in high school, would like to be a musician.)
If there can be such a thing as a housing and homelessness power couple, it's Barbara Poppe and Bill Faith. In addition to their local leadership, both are nationally known advocates who have served on the boards of organizations such as the National Alliance to End Homelessness (Poppe), the National Low Income Housing Coalition (Faith was the chair for six years) and the National Coalition for the Homeless (Faith was president of the board).
Does the topic of homelessness dominate conversation around their house? "Sometimes we complain about the craziness of our day," says Poppe. "He's a consultant to me when I need it, I'm his when he needs it," which is not always comforting. "All you really want [from your spouse] is support," says Faith. "And that's not always easy for us, because we know too much. We're like, 'Why are you doing it that way?' Sometimes I wish I was married to someone who had nothing to do with what I do because it would be a nice break. But in most of what I do and my life and career I'm fanatical, and I had to be married to someone who shares my values."
Faith began taking a leadership role when he became the director of the Coalition for the Homeless in 1986 (it became COHHIO in 1994 when it merged with the Housing Coalition, a tenants' rights organization). His first statewide victory at the coalition was leading a successful referendum to have housing declared a "public purpose" in the state constitution, the equivalent of roads and schools. The Housing Trust Fund that was established by the same ballot was to provide resources that would incentivize the development of affordable housing throughout the state.
But for years the trust fund had little money. Establishing a dedicated source of funding for affordable housing was the challenge that put Faith squarely in the public eye. During the economic doldrums of 2002-'03, with Ohio's foreclosure rate the highest in the nation, Faith used research and statistics to convince a Republican legislature that money spent on housing would promote jobs and economic development. The legislation passed, ensuring roughly $50 million a year for affordable housing. The money comes not from taxes, but from the recording fees collected by county clerks when deeds and other documents are filed.
"He brought everything he had to bear on that fight," says Kate Monter Durban, assistant director of Cleveland Housing Network. "All his knowledge, all his personal relationships, everything he had."
Faith found that he loved being part of the process of policymaking. "It reminds me of the old parable," he says. "They were pulling bodies out of the river, and all these people were injured and some of them were dead. So the community decided to come together and build a hospital and provide the best care for all these people who were coming out of the river until one day someone came into town and said, 'Why don't we go upriver and find out where all these people are coming from? Why is this continuing to be a problem?' "
"That's what I think policy work is like," he says. "You get to go upriver and try to fix what's happening so that all these wounded people don't come out the other end."
After winning the dedicated funding stream for affordable housing, Faith received quite a few accolades. The Cleveland Plain Dealer named him Ohioan of the Year, and the Fannie Mae Foundation selected him as one of six recipients nationwide of a prestigious fellowship for housing advocacy.
COHHIO's next goal was regulation of lenders who took advantage of poor and middle-income Ohioans through predatory mortgage loans. These were loans to consumers unlikely to be able to repay them, putting the borrowers at risk of foreclosure. "Whether people could actually afford to stay in their homes was not even considered," he says. His concerns were borne out, of course. According to a 2007 report by Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit research group, there was one foreclosure filing for every 60 housing units in Ohio, a ratio that had quintupled since 1995.
Five years ago, however, the connection between sub-prime lending and foreclosures was not yet widely recognized, and powerful interests opposed regulation. "We were up against the entire banking lobby and the mortgage industry lobby, people they flew in from all over creation," Faith says. "Looking back on it now it's kind of funny. There were lobbyists for AIG, lobbyists for Goldman Sachs. There would be three of us, and the rest of the room was suits."
A prominent Dispatch series of articles about predatory lending helped legislators understand that the problem was not confined to inner cities, but also affected rural and suburban areas as well. After that, Faith and his staff took that argument to editorial boards around the state. "They wrote great rant editorials saying the only bad thing about the legislation was that it hadn't been passed years ago," he says.
"We saw this coming," says Faith, who began working on the issue in 2002, "but it took a long time to piece it together." The comprehensive mortgage lending bill finally passed in 2006.
The payday lending battle came next. COHHIO was a key architect of the bill that passed the Ohio legislature, with support from most leading Democrats and Republicans. But by the time the governor signed the bill, it was clear there would be a challenge at the polls.
The payday lending lobby blanketed the airwaves with commercials claiming that the law would cost the state thousands of jobs. The campaign cost $20 million, dwarfing the measly $500,000 raised by COHHIO and its political fundraising arm, the Ohio Coalition for Responsible Lending. Accordingly, Faith's team took a more grassroots approach. They lined up churches, homeless shelters and other small groups across the state to get the word out to their members. They talked to reporters and editorial boards. They got a divinity student to dress up in a shark costume and go to political rallies carrying a sign that equated payday lending with loan sharking.
"We knew that everything was stacked against us," says Sandy Theis, a public affairs consultant who dropped many of her clients to work full-time on the campaign. "But I think Bill was our secret weapon."
It was a battle that sometimes got personal. Faith became a target for industry bloggers who attacked him online, calling him an extremist, a zealot and a liar, claiming his organization's funding is cloaked in secrecy and blasting him for a six-figure salary (COHHIO's tax filings are available on the web, and Faith's salary is $94,000 a year).
"They called my cellphone," he says. "They called the house and talked to my son. They said, 'Did you know that your dad is trying to put us out of business? That he wants to take away our jobs?' "
Was that kind of engagement bruising? "I guess," says Faith. "But it's also flattering. I'm proud to be their enemy."
Faith's side won the referendum, 64 percent to 36 percent.
He already has geared up for a new legislative battle over payday lenders, some of which he says have reorganized as small lenders under a different set of rules but with similarly high fees. This fall, COHHIO is pushing legislators to "close the loophole" that allows this to happen.
The payday lending industry isn't backing down. "Hundreds of store locations were closed and many people lost their jobs" as a result of the 2008 referendum, says communications consultant Jennifer Mooney, who was hired last May by a consortium of short-term lenders, such as CheckSmart and Advance America, to help them communicate their goals and fend off further restrictions on their operations.
Mooney says the payday lenders still in business are obeying the law by charging no more than 28 percent interest, and that people may choose not to pay high check-cashing fees by taking their checks elsewhere. "Our observation of Bill Faith and the others is that they need to do their homework and check their facts," says Mooney. "The economy is such that many people today really need to have a way to get small, short-term loans to meet the needs of their families. These companies are finding a way for them to do that."
One blogger recently called Faith an "ideological stormtrooper." It's the kind of charge that often has been leveled at advocates for social programs in the past. But can it work against a lobbyist who already has earned the trust of both conservatives and liberals?
"I think anybody who underestimates Bill Faith," says Batchelder, "will find that they've made a big mistake."
Suzanne Goldsmith-Hirsch is a freelance writer.
This story appeared in the ctober 2009 issue of Columbus Monthly.