Vision Rent-to-Own Buyers in Ohio are Confused and Unhappy

Youngstown  Where we had four ACORN doorknocking teams in Pittsburgh, we only had two in Youngstown, Ohio, but that seemed right since with hardly 70,000 inhabitants now, Youngstown was less than one-fifth the size of Pittsburgh. Putting the lists together at the Youngstown Public Library and the second-chance Café Augustine, run by the Catholic Diocese in space there, our list of homes with various forms of contract land purchases kept growing like weeds. We had too many choices and too little time. Focusing our work just on Vision Property Management, which had been the source of so many complaints in Pittsburgh, we found ourselves with more listings in Youngstown that we had in all of Allegheny Count which dwarfed its size. We had a tiger by the tail it seemed.

Youngstown people are nice. We were met with curiosity and courtesy everywhere. Unfortunately in talking with Vision customers, hoping to be homebuyers, we were also met with confusion and uncertainty from everyone when it came to understanding their contracts with Vision. Many of the stories resembled each other, but none of them were the same. What we thought we understood from our many visits in Pittsburgh was often modified and amended in ways both subtle and significant in the almost twenty doors we visited in Youngstown. Mostly, people hoped they understood their contracts, but they could rarely put their fingers on them while we visited, so we were all like the blind men touching the elephant and trying to describe it to each other.

The most poignant visit was with a man who did have his contract, was convinced that he would have paid off Vision in seven years and would own his own home outright, and was in shock and disbelief as our team worked with him paragraph to paragraph to show him that after paying almost $20,000 in 7-years he would own nothing, but the right to make three choices that Vision offered at that juncture. Since the company was only counting a small part of his monthly payment towards the purchase price, he could make a balloon payment of $15,000 or so and get the deed, which he said was an impossibility for his income and credit. In a second choice, he could walk away from the house and lose his equity, down payment, and the money and labor he had already sunk into repairs. Or, in a final choice, he could keep paying on the same basis for another 15 or 20 years hoping to still own the house. This isn’t a lady or the tiger choice, but more like a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. The wannabe homeowner was near tears and our team had to try to put a smile on the horrible face of Vision Property Management, not as an act of organizing, but as a simple act of humanity.

As we debriefed at the end of our day on the doors, we found ourselves grabbing at straws. One woman told us she had muscled Vision into an agreement that she would own the house in six years. We hoped she was right, but didn’t see the contract. Another man was convinced he could mortgage the house after his seven years. We hoped with him that there would be an oasis springing up soon in this credit desert. One man told of having been given a couple of weeks to catch up on his payments when he forgot one to prevent eviction. Another man told us he was in this Vision rent-to-own property for the last year after his previous Vision contract had been demolished, and Vision had let him choose from where to try again from their website. A woman said she was given three months to catch up on her payments once.

We found ourselves looking for light at the end of this terrible Vision tunnel of heartbreak. As horrid and predatory as the Vision contracts seemed, the company also seemed hesitant to let someone spit their hooks. If people were able to organize, hear each other’s stories, and take action, they just might be able to force Vision to change their contracts and terms. If some people could force small concessions with their anger, if they came together to fight in the campaign, they might be able to force Vision to buy into their vision of themselves as homeowners, rather than as simple fodder for the company’s exploitation.

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Doorknocking Home Buyer Victims of Contract Buying Scams in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh   The more we researched the revival of contract for deed land purchases in places from Memphis to Chicago, Detroit to Philly, and the rapidly spreading, predatory scam involving rent-to-own agreements, the more it became obvious that we had to get on the doors and listen to what people were saying who were living in these houses and facing the daunting odds and brutal gauntlet to home ownership. ACORN assembled a team of veteran organizers from Philadelphia, Boston, Brooklyn, and New Orleans to rendezvous in Pittsburgh to partner with our affiliate, ANEW, and its great leaders and staff, to begin a doorknocking blitz in three cities in an organizer’s version of a listening tour and an exploration on whether or not there was potential heat and traction for a Contract Buyers Campaign or whether or not families signing these agreements were happy campers.

Actually, camping did come up quickly in one of the first visits in the team I was with, but happy was never ever mentioned. When we got up the steps a gate blocked the porch that said “Do Not Enter,” but after I tapped on the window, a woman came out, and when I said we were talking to people who had experience with rent-to-own purchase agreements, she waved us all into the living room, sent the children scurrying so we could sit, and she had her partner start the conversation saying they had had nothing but trouble in buying the house, and then proceeded to detail years of trials and tribulations with Vision Properties, based in South Carolina and this scheme. From the day they signed the agreement and even before moving in, they discovered someone had kicked in the back door and stripped the electrical wiring and the plumbing. They called Vision, asking them to take responsibility, and Vision said they were on a triple net lease, and it was all on them, so in their words the first six months they “were camping in the house.”

That was four years ago so the situation has improved, but their relationship with Vision remains poisonous. They had paid $1000 down payment for a house Vision said they were selling on this basis for $20,000. The first five years though their monthly payments would be $300 per month with 30% supposedly going towards what they described as an additional down payment, which would add another $6000 to their down payment. They weren’t able to put their hands on the agreement to show us, but supposedly only then would they start really purchasing the house from their understanding. We didn’t bother them with the math, not wanting to be bad news bears, but the numbers were already shocking. In another year, they would have paid $7000 on something Vision was calling a down payment and another $12000 in rent to Vision, which clearly despite having an ostensible rent-to-own agreement was not adding up to any payments on the principal, even though at the end of their first lease term they would have paid $19,000 against the value of a $20,000 house. They had put another $5000 into the place, not counting their countless hours of labor, and felt fortunate that the borough inspector was working with them on a problem with the sewer line in the other half of their house which everyone involved knew was going to cost thousands to repair. Without any of us saying it, they knew and we knew, that Vision was likely going to be telling them after five years to keep paying this so-called rent with only a piece of it going towards a deed at the end of their rainbow. Oh, and don’t think for a second that Vision is smiling yet as they giggle while walking to the bank. While changing jobs as a housekeeper in a Pittsburgh motel this last December, they were late on one payment and Vision gave them a 7-day eviction notice which they only avoided with a phone shouting match and a double rent payment of $600.

When I asked if they were ready to come to a meeting in a couple of weeks, there was a quick yes from both of them. Were they prepared to bang on the table and shout their protests? Hell, yes, was the response. They had tried to post warnings to others on Facebook about these scams. They had been talking about running for the borough council to make them listen.

This was just one story from the doors.

It wasn’t exceptional though. It was typical. There was resignation and understanding from every family that they were caught in a scam, but in the common conflict of predatory transactions, all of them had been desperate for affordable housing and some way to make something their own, took the gamble with their eyes open, hoping for some good faith, and now were reaping the whirlwind with anger and frustration and looking for justice and ready to embrace and take action with an organization willing to allow them to fight.

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White House and Rightwing Creating a Red State Healthcare Kill Zone

Pittsburgh   When someone is elected president, they used to actually believe the words their speechwriters would scribble on the line that they were the president of all of the people in America. It is becoming clearer under the Trump Administration that even though he and the White House might parrot those words, they clearly no longer believe them at all. The problem probably starts with the fact that when you are elected by the states through the weirdness of the archaic pro-slavery roots of the Electoral College, rather than the majority of the actual voters, as was the case for Trump, then you may easily slide to the incorrect understanding that you mandate is in the states.

Looking at the wrongheaded, feeble, and gutless concessions that the White House is offering to the Freedom Caucus, the 30-odd member secret cabal in the House of Representatives, it is hard to escape this theme that the President no long believes we are one united government with a national vision and program, but a patchwork quilt of states doing their own thing. What is really confusing to me though is why he would be willing to make his red state base a killing zone of his supporters.

The lead balloon floated to the Freedom Caucus by Vice-President Pence and Trump’s chief of staff would give states the ability to waive the crucial life and death protections that were part of the fabric of a national healthcare plan. According to the New York Times,

According to the so-called Freedom Caucus the White House is pitching a healthcare evisceration that would involve the following: States would have the option to jettison two major parts of the Affordable Care Act’s insurance regulations. They could decide to opt out of provisions that require insurers to cover a standard, minimum package of benefits, known as the essential health benefits. And they could decide to do away with a rule that requires insurance companies to charge the same price to everyone who is the same age, a provision called community rating.

Yes, you get it. The President’s offer to the cabal was that the full force and strength of the United States government would allow the far right and their allies and supporters in the states to eviscerate any semblance of health care coverage to allow insurance companies, soon to be their largest campaign contributors, to do whatever they want to whomever can’t pay the price. So, gone would be the bar against not insuring people with preexisting conditions, if they state said so be it. Gone would go the basic protections. Gone would be bars against pricing discrimination, and who knows what might be left. Once the White House says that they are going to greenlight any crazy waiver that comes their way, and leave that state’s people on bleeding and dying on the emergency room floor, then who knows what might go next.

Were this gutting of healthcare to proceed, it’s not really just about red states and blue states, but mainly about rich and poor. Besides this healthcare proposal being a huge giveaway to the rich on tax breaks, it would also further divide rich and poor based on their ability to pay the insurance piper whatever price they set as they establish the divide between their profit and loss as the same as the divide between life and death based on your wallet size.

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Bad Boy Banks Running Wild While Creating Credit Desert

New Orleans  Rather than learning something about proper corporate behavior in the banking meltdown they triggered with their housing securitization schemes and unwillingness to supervise mortgage brokers, the gazillion dollar bailout seems to have taught the banking establishment that they could act in all ways with impunity. As we move towards the ten year mark of this national and community disaster, there are too many examples that come readily to mind.

One of the most disturbing is the way banks are now flaunting the Community Reinvestment Act of 1975 by creating a credit desert in lower income and minority neighborhoods. We are now reading regularly about complaints being filed against banks for outright racial discrimination.

The giant Wells Fargo was finally called to account in a rare exercise by the Office of the Controller of the Currency of its authority in reviewing the annual CRA records of all regulated lending institutions. Wells Fargo was given a “needs to improve,” and given the watered down nature of the CRA now, a bank really has to mess up to get such a negative rating by the OCC. The CEO said he was disappointed, but to quote one banking newsletter:

10 government inquiries over the past decade prompted the OCC to lower its overall score of the company’s compliance with community banking laws to “needs to improve.” Enforcement cases cited by the OCC faulted the bank’s treatment of minority neighborhoods, military personnel and women who had recently given birth. “Bank management instituted policies, procedures and performance standards that contributed to the violations for which evidence has been identified,” the OCC wrote in a report. Abuses occurred in “multiple lines of business,” the regulator said.

This will hurt Wells Fargo because it is a critique of the pervasive and arrogant culture of the bank. Whether it will get them to modify their behavior is uncertain.

Another case in point with another giant based North Carolina this time rather than based in California, found a bankruptcy judge administering a beat down to the Bank of America for its thuggish handling of a foreclosure in California.

A bankruptcy judge in California fined Bank of America $45 million over the bank’s mistaken foreclosure on a family’s home and mishandling of the loan modification process on their mortgage calling it “brazen” and “heartless.”

In this case Bank of America’s standard trick of losing the loan mod paperwork was exposed for the duplicity that has been infamous in their handling of modifications and ruthless, and sometimes, incorrect foreclosures.

If this is the way the big letter, top of the list banks are handling loans to lower income and imperiled families across the country, is it any wonder that hedge funds and other financial vultures are swooping into our neighborhoods with one predatory lending instrument after another, feeling confident that they can rob and steal without any consequences, preferring to pay the fines, rather than do right?

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DeVos and Education Department Cannot Renege on Student Loans

New Orleans   Millions owe billions in student loans and in some cases it’s a just-past-the-cradle to the grave debt that just lingers on.

In a good move and through a bipartisan vote under the George W. Bush Administration in 2007, Congress approved a bill that under certain conditions would allow an individual forgiveness of student loan debt. The conditions were that they had to make payments for ten years and they had to work for a nonprofit organization or a unit of the government. Now we are coming up on ten years and more than a half-million former students and, arguably, committed public service individuals are hearing that the Department of Education may renege and claim, hey, gotcha, and still hold them to the debt and essentially have tricked them as hostages to their program for a decade. How can that be possible? How can they get away with that?

It’s a complicated process, which probably doesn’t surprise anyone to hear. Worse, it appears that nothing about the process is transparent, including the reasons why the Department of Education approves some groups as qualifying and rejects other groups arbitrarily, though they are also nonprofits and their work seems almost identical.

Equally disturbing is that this could be a deeper setback than just the question of a student’s debt. There has long been a policy discussion about the value of national service. Since the days of the dreaded draft and the Russian roulette of the draft lottery during the Vietnam War, compulsory military service has been replaced by the all-volunteer Army. In our age of inequity that means the military in peacetime has become a lower rung on the working class job and training ladder, and during wartime which seems semi-permanent since 9/11 has become a high risk option for anyone other than the patriotic or the desperate.

Nonetheless, presidents from Clinton to Obama have argued that there was real merit to increased national service, which was part and parcel to this provision of debt forgiveness for younger Americans that were willing to pass up bigger money and softer cushions to work for the government and in public service, including as firefighters, police, teachers and other critical positions in both cities and rural communities. Nonprofits fit into this same dynamic, which is why they are nonprofit and why many are tax exempt because of their value to the community in service, healthcare, and other endeavors.

The President and the Secretary of Education need to do right on this and honor the country’s word to individuals who relied on the country’s promise that in exchange for ten years of payments and ten years of service, they would have the rest of their loans forgiven. This was a good, fair deal. It should not be changed, and if it is changed, it should be on this Congress, this President, and this Secretary of Education going forward, not clawing back.

***

Please enjoy the Grateful Dead’s Dancing in the Dark.

Thanks to KABF.

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Supporting Grassroots Struggles over Immigration

New Orleans   In the wake of the Trump-Ryan debacle of play-pretend healthcare reform, the Republican gunfighters of the circular firing squad are now talking tax reform, debt ceilings, and other intricate problems that will confuse the living bejesus out of the American people. Oh, and of course in the current mess it is easy to forget the other mess that is still front-and-center since the inauguration, but is now framed in “bans,” “extreme vetting,” dropping foreign student applications, canceled school trips to the US from Canada and other countries for fear of border problems, reduction and stalled business investment in Mexico, and all manner of very personal trauma and uncertainty in communities all around the country, and of course the president’s “big, beautiful wall.” Yes, we’re talking about immigration. For all of us keeping score, let’s remember that the healthcare disaster is the second major domestic policy disaster of this new administration, because immigration is at heart a local, not a foreign policy issue.

Talking to Mireya Reith, the founder and executive director of the Arkansas United Community Coalition, recently on Wade’s World, was a constant reminder, if anyone needed one, that the fight for immigration reform and the life decisions that teeter on every twitch and tweet from the White House are daily dilemmas at the grassroots level of millions and millions in the United States now. Reith is based in Walmart and Tyson country in northwestern Arkansas, but with seven support and information centers around Arkansas in places like McGeehee, DeQueen, and Fort Smith, not to mention Little Rock, it’s hard to get more grassroots than her operation.

Reith worked heroically in the interview to keep her remarks positive, but it was a medal winning effort, because the stories were rending. For every school district she mentioned that was stepping up to support children afraid to go to school, the list was obscuring the silence from many more as well as from the state, not to mention her story of some teachers telling children in their classrooms right after the election that they needed to leave the country and do so now. Whole families are retreating into the shadows now all over the country, and Reith and the United Community Coalition know their names in their communities.

That part of her job is hard, but perhaps not as thankless as her reports of having recently been in Washington talking to her local and state Congressional delegation about the continued need for immigration reform and the human faces of these issues in the community. Once again Reith was relentlessly positive about the reception she received, including from Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who has been touted as something of a Trump “whisperer” in the early days of the administration. Cotton, whose raw ambition and extreme conservativism has him on many short lists on the right as a comer nationally, is also the architect of one of the most anti-immigrant pieces of legislation introduced in the Senate. Not satisfied with drumbeating about undocumented immigration, his proposal is to reduce even legal immigration more than half and more than even the Administration is proposing.

Only eight years ago the fight was to get real immigration reform on President Obama’s agenda in the first hundred days, which we lost. Now the fight is almost to keep so-called immigration reform off of the agenda for the first two hundred days of this Congress, when most believe is the only time the legislative window is open before mid-term elections make most anything impossible to pass. We have to hope that Reith’s work and that of the Arkansas United Community Coalition and other grassroots pro-immigrant groups around the country are successful in saving America’s reputation and principles as an open and welcoming country to all, and we have to support their work as much as possible in these chaotic and dark times.

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