“Option to Buy,” another Twist on Predatory Purchase Schemes

Detroit   Preparing for the Home Savers Campaign teams to hit the doors in Detroit and visit with victims of the various installment land purchase and rent-to-buy schemes in the city, a crew of us sat down for a preliminary briefing with Joe McGuire, a staff attorney with Michigan Legal Services who has tussled with a number of these companies while representing their low-income clients. Joe was a fount of information and couldn’t have been more helpful, but much of what he told us was depressing in the extreme.

Perhaps what demonstrates this bleak credit desert for lower income and working families in the Motor City most vividly are the terms of one lease he shared with us promulgated by a company called Bean. It’s hard to make a rent-to-own agreement look good, but the Bean agreement was a “residential lease and option agreement,” which, when read closely, was really only a one-year option to buy the property with absolutely no guarantee that the agreement would be extended past the one year allowing the “lessor” to finally purchase the home, even if they had met all conditions of the agreement perfectly, unless of course they magically came up with the full purchase price within 30 days of the end of the lease. The mishmash of legalese really was simply a one-year ripoff and an option-to-steal by the lessor from the lessee. The terms started with a $4000 down payment for the “privilege” of purchasing the house for $30,000. An additional “option consideration of $130 per month” would be paid toward the “down payment/purchase” of the property as well as $645 per month throughout the one-year term which was the lease on this “as is” house. Any repairs, “major and minor” would be paid for by the “optionee,” and if any are paid by the “optioner,” they are added onto the purchase price. McGuire was as stunned by the agreement as all of us were.

Much of what he told us was equally bleak. The city requires an effective warrant of habitability before people move in, and all rental units, including those on rent-to-own contracts are required to be registered, but it became clear there was little to nonexistent enforcement. Even so, McGuire felt the protections for rent-to-own were better than those for land contracts, because they were even better shielded by state law with little thought that the legislature would improve them. In a sobering catch-22, McGuire actually made the case as we were leaving that he worried that tightening down on rent-to-own abuses might lead to more land contracts, which given their legal protections would be even worse for the victims. Forfeiture to the city and the Detroit land bank seemed equally fraught and neighborhood crippling.

The conversation was not without some rays of hope. Work by some of the anti-eviction groups was encouraging. Data being prepared in cooperation with local universities and professors might offer some opportunities. Focus on concentrated neighborhoods where this kind of activity might be curtailed, McGuire felt could show results.

The odds were long, but we were welcomed into the fight. Any push back would be a positive. Any effort to force more accountability by victims would be helpful. Detroit might be ground zero for this campaign, but there were mountains to climb with uncertain footholds on every route.

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