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Houston City Council Overwhelmingly Passes Payday Loan Ordinance

by Published on
Houston Mayor Annise Parker
Houston Mayor Annise Parker

It wasn’t even close. Today, the Houston City Council voted 15-2 to join every other major Texas city except one (hello, Fort Worth) in regulating payday loan companies.

Last month, Houston Mayor Annise Parker dropped a compromise plan, saying she wanted “a united front” with other Texas cities.

The lopsided vote surprised some Council observers, who had at least expected a procedural move to delay the vote. Instead, seesawing councilmembers said they felt city action was necessary in light of the Texas Legislature’s failure to do much of anything to rein in the payday loan industry.

The Houston Chronicle captured the attitude:

“Something must be done; something should be done,” Councilman Andrew Burks said. “Our Legislature, they had the ball and dropped it. I don’t like this, but I have to vote for it because … this is the only thing on the table, and it does do something.”

One of the ‘nay’ votes came from Councilmember Helena Brown, aka “Helena Handbasket,” who rails against funding for things like AIDS prevention. The other ‘nay’ was Councilmember Justin James Rodriguez, who evidently was unpersuaded by a withering column this morning (“This payday loan column is for you, Councilman Rodriguez”) by the Chronicle‘s Lisa Falkenberg in which she checks out Rodriguez’s claim that his constituents are unconcerned about the issue by, you know, talking to his constituents.

She stood in the icy rain in her white sweater, telling me how she’d fallen deeper and deeper into the payday quicksand while trying to put food on the table for her out-of-work son and his family.

“There was a lot of reasons, Lisa, for me going to these loan places,” she told me after inviting me to sit in the backseat of the Chevy Tahoe her daughter had loaned her to do errands. “It wasn’t because I wanted new tennis shoes, new scrubs, new perfumes. It was always a necessity. The sad part about it is they’re going to be nice enough to lend you the money but all they’re collecting is months and months of interest (and fees) so the principal’s just sitting there.”

Over the years, the woman – who pleaded with me not to use her name – says she’s had to take loans out with different lenders, sometimes to cover a payment at another place. She let me accompany her to her next stop down the road. I watched her make a $102 payment that didn’t touch the $493 principal.

Rodriguez, who is on his way out of office and is tied to a Cash America lobbyist, has been real cute about his post-council plans, laughingly telling Falkenberg that he’s “keeping all options open” when asked whether he plans to go into the payday loan business.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.