The Census and Contracts-for-Deed

Little Rock       One somewhat nagging problem the ACORN Home Savers Campaign has confronted over the last several years, especially when we looked at the frequency of “contracts-for-deed” was the lack of definitive data.  Sure, we knew in Detroit that more contracts-for-deed were being registered under real estate transfers in recent years than were any form of traditional mortgages, but such information was local, not uniform, and decidedly not national.  For some inexplicable reason during the aftermath of the Great Recession in 2008, the Census Bureau under President Obama dropped the question from the 2010 census creating a black hole on a gnawing problem.  We can guess why, but we don’t know definitively.

My comrade and friend, the filmmaker Charles Koppelman, joined ACORN’s “volunteer army” when we were hitting the doors in Pittsburgh in the spring of 2017 trying to get to the heart of these issues with the Home Savers Campaign.  He had his camera rolling when a local Pittsburgh ANEW member and I were visiting with a woman, as she lay on her couch recovering from back surgery, in her home.  At first, she said she didn’t have a contract-for-deed, but the more we talked the clearer in became that she had a 30-year contract with a subsidiary of Harbour Portfolio, that was absolutely a contract-for-deed.  The interest rate was 12%.  The terms were onerous.  The contract was precarious.  If she missed a payment, they could take back the house, and she would lose everything.  Harbour, a Dallas-based hedge fund, had flaunted the fact that it was using such contracts to flip thousands of properties it had acquired at foreclosed property auctions conducted by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  She was ready to organize with the campaign once she got back on her feet.  Charles learned more in talking to us about the situation so knew the information gap created by the Census that was preventing a full understanding of how widespread the return of such contracts might be.

Charles lives in the Bay Area of California.  He sent me a screen shot of something very interesting yesterday.  He had received a Census form to fill out in the mail, and darned if it didn’t have a question – once again – asking whether the household was under a contract-for-deed.  Voila!   Some bureaucrat deep in the bowels of the Census Bureau must have seen the smoke signals about the fact that this often-predatory product is back, and slipped the question back into the queue.

It will help, but it’s no panacea of course.  The visit in Pittsburgh 18 months ago provides that answer.  Too often given the desperation that pushes many families into these kinds of agreements as they search for affordable housing in almost any condition also leaves them uncertain of the details, including what to call the agreements they have signed.  The brokers are often very loose lipped in the way they encourage people to see such agreements as mortgages.  Others agreements that are only different in degree, like Lease-Purchase-Options, Rent-to-Own, Lease-to-Own, etc, etc, aren’t contracts-for-deed that are now actually monitored by Dodd-Frank but should earn a “check” in that Census box as well.

The data won’t be perfect by a long shot, but magically we are somehow back to where we were in 2000 when the numbers were last counted, so on the 2020 Census the inclusion of the contracts-for-deed question is at least something to put in the good news column.

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The Cracks in the Eviction Lab Wall are Undercounting the Crisis

Anti-Eviction Mapping Project

New Orleans   When Princeton’s Eviction Lab came out with their national report on many jurisdictions court records of evictions, we had positive things to say about the project, but we were skeptical.  The report seemed to undercount the experience in the community of ACORN Home Savers Campaign.  A critical flaw seemed to be the very fact that only actual adjudicated procedures were part of the dataset, ignoring the vast number of informal evictions and pressured departures that are more common than court filings.

I was scratching my head, as I noted then, because Matthew Desmond, the prize-winning author of Evicted and founder of the Eviction Lab knew better.  In his book he had used a small informal survey of forced and informal evictions that was many times higher than what he was now reporting.  The actual stories from Milwaukee that were the backbone of the book’s attraction also highlighted the ways that high rent and bad conditions kept lower income tenants constantly moving between tenancy and homelessness in order to keep one step ahead of the landlord.

An article in Shelterforce by eight veterans of tenant and housing activism along with extensive experience in data collection called “Eviction Lab Misses the Mark” details that there was a bonfire beneath the smoke I was smelling.  Their point-by-point critique is so devastating that it calls into question whether the data from Eviction Lab is a tool for landlords and policy apologists, rather than a step forward in looking at the impact of soaring evictions on impoverished communities.

Among the points the authors make are these:

  • The Lab resisted collaboration with established data centers from housing activist groups by not sharing policy goals, protocols to protect tenants and confidentiality of data, and offering fair attribution for assistance, much less being willing to pay for the time and trouble of acquisition of the data sets to other nonprofits.
  • The Lab instead in known cases contracted with private business groups involved in “tenant screening” for landlords paying one such group in California over $100,000 to assemble data for the Lab.
  • Where data had been rigorously collected in the community in places like San Francisco, Eviction Lab’s figures undercounted the reality by 50%!
  • Where the Eviction Lab performs a service by trying to establish a national baseline, they fall short in falling to integrate local regulations that impact and potentially distort their numbers, retarding policy changes for the poor, rather than advancing them.

The authors tell one horrific story where tenant groups and others paid $20,000 for Desmond to come to Portland, Oregon to speak on evictions.  The groups were trying to advance a campaign they were waging to replace no-cause evictions in favor a just-cause eviction policy.  They had already won some relief in extending notice up to 90 days even under existing policy.  Because Oregon allows no-cause evictions without court filings, the Eviction Lab figures were drastically undercounting the reality on the ground.  Desmond refused to listen to explanations of flaws in the Lab’s numbers when he was there, and in defending the erroneous numbers from the lab, actually complicated the authorities saying that the fabricated numbers proved they “were doing something right” and naysaying whether no-cause evictions were even a problem.

Hey, anyone can flub up and miss the nuances of local situations when they are parachuted into town, but not even asking or listening, and then weighing in as an expert on something as serious as local policy prescriptions and housing conditions for lower-and-moderate income tenants facing fierce forces of gentrification, that’s a level of hubris that discolors not just the inadequate data and summary of the Eviction Lab, but the entire project.

Desmond and the Eviction Lab need to either get this right or get as far away from this field as possible.

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