Rising Rents are Squeezing Low-and-Moderate Income Families

New Orleans   The National Low Income Housing Coalition released its 2017 annual report, “Out of Reach,” looking closely at the impact of rising rent throughout the country and how it is pushing lower income and working families into untenable situations because the gap between rent and wages is widening. Millions of families are joining the great poet Langston Hughes by living his haiku: “I wish the rent were heaven sent.”

The gut punch of the report is plain and simple:

The 2017 national Housing Wage is $21.21 per hour for a two-bedroom rental home, or more than 2.9 times higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The 2017 Housing Wage for a one-bedroom rental home is $17.14, or 2.4 times higher than the federal minimum wage.

State by the state, county by county, the story of this growing crisis is stark. The gap is the largest in a bunch of overwhelmingly “blue” states, which may be one of the reasons Congressional representatives are not running up the aisles and going from desk to desk with a Paul Revere warning call to “Help, the Landlord is Coming!” Those states with the largest gap between wages and what it cost to rent the average two-bedroom house are led by Hawaii, then Maryland, California, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and then Washington, D.C. I don’t need to tell you that this is aggregate data because you were already scratching your head when you didn’t hear New York, so yes, thanks to lower average rents upstate that offset the New York City metro area, they didn’t make the ten.

Sure enough when you look at the data even states with relatively lower rent still find that urban metropolitan areas like New Orleans, Houston, Miami, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Seattle, San Antonio, Anchorage, Chicago and elsewhere would require a minimum wage worker to labor 80 hours a week to find a one-bedroom place where they could live. And, yes, the Coalition’s point is not that everyone is working 80 hours to do so, but that if they were able to swing a place that is what it would take. The cold, bitter truth on the ground is that they cannot, which leads to overcrowding, homelessness, and embracing rent-to-own predatory contracts or whatever is available until the eviction notice comes.

Even the states where the average wage required to rent a two-bedroom house is relatively low, it’s still astronomical in terms of a family budget. Want a two-bedroom in Arkansas, then you need to make $13.72 per hour, the lowest wage to rent ratio in the country. Neighboring states are a good comparison with Mississippi at $14.84, Louisiana at $16.16, and Texas at 18.38. The lowest wage required after Arkansas is Kentucky at $13.95. The problem is obvious though. Wages are pretty much stuck at $7.25 in those states and too many of the big whoops in these states are fighting to keep wages that way.

As the report makes clear, it’s not for lack of working or lack of looking. Other “key findings” include:

Six of the seven occupations projected to add the greatest number of jobs by 2024 provide a median wage that is not sufficient to afford a modest one-bedroom rental home.

An extremely low income (ELI) household whose income is less than the poverty level or 30% of their area’s median cannot afford the average cost of a modest one-bedroom rental home in any state.

In no state, metropolitan area, or county can a full-time minimum-wage worker afford a two-bedroom rental home. In only 12 counties can a full-time minimum-wage worker afford a modest one-bedroom rental home.

It’s easy to see where this is going: bad to worse to crisis. I’m seems like we’re already there.

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Government at all Levels Needs to Act on Contract Purchase Predators – Now!

New Orleans   Advocates and lawyers are firing more and more bullets at contract purchase predators and the Home Savers Campaign has raised the ante on its demands to Fannie Mae (FNMA) in yet more signs that the offensive against these real estate robber barons is gaining increased traction.

Another front has opened with the filing of a lawsuit by Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana at the end of May. They went after local operator Empire Holding Company and its subsidiary Rainbow Realty, that has acquired over 1000 dilapidated houses in the Indianapolis area and is marketing them as contract purchase rent-to-own properties. The owner admits that virtually all of them are uninhabitable. The Fair Housing Center argues that they are breaking a pile of laws, but also makes the claim that a huge percentage of these houses are in African-American areas and that the contract sales push is directed at these same populations in a discriminatory manner.

Sarah Mancini and Margot Saunders, both of the National Consumer Law Center, and experts in this area, make a similar case in looking at the metro Atlanta area in an article pointedly entitled, “Land Installment Contracts: The Newest Wave of Predatory Home Lending Threatening Communities of Color,” in a recent issue of Communities & Banking. They call attention to the work of the Atlanta Legal Aid, saying,

Atlanta Legal Aid attorneys conducted a search of property tax records in six metro Atlanta counties and found 94 properties currently held by Harbour Portfolio in the Atlanta area; most of these homes were likely being sold through land installment contracts as that is Harbour’s business model.9 Nearly all those properties (approximately 93 percent) were located in census blocks that are at least 60 percent nonwhite, and a significant majority were in census blocks that are at least 90 percent nonwhite.

It’s hard to avoid underlining the obvious. First, the scale of this activity is huge, when you are talking about a local company in Indianapolis alone handling more than 1000 such houses. In an evil local market, they dominate any other national players. Secondly, these are not equal opportunity predators, but are de facto discriminators.

For these reasons and others, the Home Savers Campaign is also increasing the pressure by sending a letter to the head of Fannie Mae today, asking that the agency investigate and bar not only Vision Property Management, as they did recently, but also Harbour Portfolio. In addition the campaign named a number of companies using the same practices in the Detroit market and demanded that they also be barred, indicating as well they they wanted a meeting with FNMA in order to push for clearer standards to block access to government auctions in the future to any company that plans to sell them “as is” through land installment contracts. Home Savers Campaign also indicated that it intends to make similar demands city to city in other markets for FNMA bans, as they understand the FNMA criteria better.

It’s bad, and it’s on!

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Building a Fighting Force to Stop Evictions and Win Affordable Rents

ACORN Bristol

New Orleans    Tenancy is rising, and it’s expensive. People are being pressed up against the walls. The old rule of thumb that rent and housing costs should not be more than 30% of income, similar to the old Brooke Amendment named after the legendary African-American Senator from Connecticut, has long been in ruins.

This is a global issue.

ACORN affiliates in Scotland amassed to fight evictions in both Glasgow and Edinburgh in recent weeks. ACORN in Bristol is currently involved in a rent strike and has beaten back numerous evictions.

When we were recently in Detroit, we met with a very active and effective organization there called the Detroit Eviction Defense. The group meets weekly and was diversely populated with younger activists, retired union professionals, lawyers, former journalists, professors, and of course tenants. The actions and victories on their website is impressive.

Evictions are a growing issue.

Researchers, Joshua Akers and Eric Seymour in Detroit shared with us soon to be published data on evictions which were eyeopening to us. In a data set they had accumulated over the decade between 2005 and 2015, these University of Michigan whizzes had separated the nearly 7500 contract “purchases” from the total of 80,000 total acquisitions involving tax delinquency or foreclosure auctions. Although we had thought a primary part of the business model for contract pushers was evictions and indeed they generate more, but it was a matter of degree at 1 out 3 compared to 1 out of 4, between the two, with both at outrageous levels.

A paper by the researchers connected to the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta, led by Flora Raymond (and shared with us by our wolverine comrades) notes that Atlanta is out of the box compared with other cities and no small part of this issue is driven by the increased corporate ownership of rental units and businesses that make evictions and the collection of late fees a fundamental part of their business model, similar to the recent news reports of the Kushner operation’s methods in the Baltimore area. The paper notes that,

In Fulton County, an average of 107 eviction notices are filed each day, for a yearly total equal to 22 percent of all rental households. In Milwaukee … 16 percent of all rental families are evicted. A similar rate occurs in Fulton County, where 15 percent of all rental households are evicted. Eviction rates are highest among multifamily rentals, but they are also prevalent in single-family rentals. We find that large corporate owners in the single-family rental business are more likely than small landlords to evict tenants, even after controlling for parcel level and neighborhood-level factors.

Our Home Savers Campaign is finding that our members are frequently entering the predatory land installment contracts not because they are wide-eyed about becoming home owners, but even more frequently because they are desperate for affordable housing regardless of condition, if they think they can manage the lower monthly payments, regardless of the predatory scam.   Something is happening here, Mr. Jones!

It’s been widely reported and at the grassroots level, painfully realized, but Raymond and her co-authors state it plainly,

The number of renters with high housing cost burdens has reached record levels in the United States. Over 21 million households spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent; 11 million of those spend more than 50 percent, which is considered severely cost burdened. Much of the increase in households reporting housing insecurity can be attributed to soaring rents as demand for rental housing climbs (Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 2016).

Add it up and the numbers are staggering. About 27,000 evictions in Atlanta’s Fulton County every year, and eviction rates in Milwaukee at 16%, Chicago 7%, Cleveland 11%, and the beat goes on and the family and community tragedy it represents increases. Take 21 million paying more than 30% of income on rent and another 6 million contract buyers, and millions of renters facing the street over and under these figures who are facing eviction, multiply them by all members of their households, and we have a huge constituency that would seem to be ripe for both organization and action.

Like the old buffalo hunters, I’ve got my ear to the ground to see if I can hear a movement coming.

Please enjoy Blackleg Miner by Offa Rex (The Decemberists & Olivia Chaney).

Thanks to KABF.

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Vision Rent-to-Own “Buyers” Meet and Find Out Every Deal is Different

San Francisco  The first organizing meeting in Detroit of the Home Savers Campaign had spirited discussion when families discovered that they only had one thing in common in the contracts they had signed with Vision Property Management or its subsidiaries: the contract itself. When it came to the terms, to everyone’s shock and anger, everyone had a different deal!

The differences were not simply where we might expect to find them in the price of the houses they were hoping to buy or the number of years to term. In fact the prices were all very close to each other. As the campaign has come to expect from visiting so many families in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Akron, Youngstown, and now Detroit, some families attending the meeting were still shocked to find out that in seven years they would not own the home as they expected, but simply face wrenching choices between balloon payments, long term agreements, or walking away from extensive investments in money and labor in repairs.

The differences in the contracts were huge. Excitedly talking about their contracts, they found for example that in some contracts as little as $14 of their monthly payment was going to principle on the purchase while in others as much as $150 was being applied. That was often the case when the payments were virtually identical. In several cases, they discovered they had not been clearly told how much of their payment was going to principle at all. Even when the purchase price of the houses were roughly equivalent, families were finding that the amount of their monthly payment being applied for insurance was often different.

Looking at the question of tax payment which is especially freighted with concern, since nonpayment of taxes to the county could lead to loss of the property on tax delinquency sales. Only one family could determine from their payment the amount that was supposedly being paid to taxes, while the other families at this first organizing meeting became worried that since there was no indication, Vision might not be paying their taxes at all. Even in the one case where the tax level was stated at $150 per month or $1800 per year, there was skepticism that the house valued so modestly really was sustaining such a relatively high cost compared to true value.

Many of the people at the meeting were also on their second contract with Vision. The first had given them up to 45 days to make good on their payments, while the more recent gave Vision the right to void their option to purchase if they were late on the payments at all, making the contracts essentially no more than rental agreements, despite the fact that this was a triple-net lease with the “buyer” paying everything including thousands and thousands in repairs. One family was livid having invested over $50,000 in repairs, yet still debating whether or not they should walk away. Everyone at the meeting shared stories of about the “fishing” Vision’s representatives did with them over the phone to try and suss out the amount families had invested themselves in repairs, presumably for the company to guess whether the property might have been fixed off enough for them to seize the first opportunity to evict and flip.

People were happy to meet, but that was the only happiness in the room once the members and organizers cleared the fog away that hung over the legalese of the agreements. There was anger and plans for quick action. On the question of fight or flight, people were ready to fight. Powered by people, the campaign now begins in earnest.

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Assembling the Facts on the Ground about Land Contracts in Detroit

Oakland   The back of the envelope figures from three days on the doors, based on reports logged into the database by our teams in Detroit, indicate that of more than 125 doors hit, half of the properties are abandoned. That’s not good for neighborhoods, the City of Detroit, or the future prospects of building viable communities there. We increasingly began to question how good this level of abandonment of land contract and rent-to-own properties is even for the companies that specialize in this seamy side of the housing market in urban areas.

As a business model that fits snugly in the category of what a reporter for the New York Times termed the dominant modern “flagrant exploitation economy,” the companies operating within this most predatory segment of the housing and rental market face challenges. By process of elimination of usual factors, an economist speculating on principal cause of the 2008 real estate collapse is now arguing that there was an irrational psychology that almost spread virally that vast sums were to be had by “flipping” real estate, which like the tulip craze in Holland and so many other bubbles of the previous centuries, led to the unsustainable inflation of prices until the crash. Detroit Property Exchange is still pushing that myth in lower income communities with its signs that urge potential customers to call 888-FLIP to connect with the company.

Certainly the lease and contract documents starting from “as is” and including the company’s rights to evict the “buyer” immediately for even a single missed payment at any point in the term of the agreement, lead one to believe that these companies are making their money by flipping the contracts from one “sucker” to another, as an on-line Detroit magazine called the Bridge, writing about our campaign described the buyers. We are not convinced that theory translates into facts on the ground from our doorknocking. Additionally, Professor Josh Akers shared with us an overview of research he and a colleague are soon publishing on land contracts in Detroit over the 10-year period from 2005 to 2015. The largest dozen contract sellers were involved in almost 7500 acquisitions, which was less than 10% of the over 80,000 properties in Detroit that had been acquired through tax auctions or REO’s from various governmental foreclosures. In that period contract sellers had gone through eviction procedures for about 1 out of every 3 properties, but evictions with specific properties acquired by all buyers involved eviction procedures at the ratio of 1 out of every 4 properties, which is not a world of difference. Over a 10-year period that doesn’t translate into a constant churn, likely because there is tepid demands that these practices have inevitably created in these neighborhoods.

Because there is not a robust market for these properties from stories the Home Savers Campaign is hearing on the doors, it seems that tenants wanting or willing to stay in these properties are able to negotiate a fair amount of forbearance even when missing payments because the sellers realize there isn’t a line waiting to open the door behind them. It also explains stories we have heard from several buyers where they are able to negotiate shorter terms when they are willing to take over the properties.

One reason may be the fact that many of these companies are not forwarding payments made by the buyers to resolve tax payments nor are they disclosing past liens on the properties. Lawsuits like those filed against Harbour Properties and Vision Property Management in Cincinnati to collect back taxes, fines, and penalties for their properties in that jurisdiction reveal a business model of nonpayment that seems to typify this part of the industry. That’s a ticking time bomb for the tenant-buyer for sure, especially given the rigid collection and delinquency procedures of Wayne County, and we have heard cases falling into this bad basket every day in Detroit, but it also seems to be leading to shorter term contracts and more negotiating opportunities if the campaign could engage the parties successfully.

We’re finding the handles, but we are not convinced yet that people want to grab them, given that many still see themselves as renters, rather than potential owners. That’s the puzzle we still need to find, even as we are understanding more and more about the market and these companies exploiting it.

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The Confounding Contradictions of Detroit’s Land Contract Houses

Detroit   It was a rough day on the doors in Detroit. One team recorded 14 abandoned houses out of the 17 on the walk list. Remember that these were all homes according to all available records that are owned by one of the big three land contract companies operating in the city: Harbour Portfolio, Vision Property Management, and Detroit Property Exchange, the only local outfit. Another team had eight on its list, and we had six on ours. The math is unsettling and profound, meaning that more than half of the houses these companies owned were abandoned and therefore open wounds bleeding on their blocks, neighborhoods, and community.

There were three dumpsters in the driveways of the abandoned houses our team visited and a trailer at another with a couple of bags of trash on it, but no signs of workers or work being done at these locations. At one location that we marked as “not home,” because the neighbor across the street told us that there were people going in and out of there and work being done, who knows what the story might have been, but the impression from the other locations on our list, left me wondering if these were dumpster “decorations,” rather than construction sites. We were roughly, and it was often rough, in central Detroit, if there’s such a thing, while one team was on the East Side and another was on the West Side. They reported no dumpsters and signs of construction on the abandoned houses on their lists. Don’t get me wrong, the land contract houses were absolutely not the only abandoned houses, and we saw abandoned houses on our route that were not not on our list but had signs offering them for sale, if one could call it that, or auction, with come-on’s hawking $400 a month down payments and lures advertising opportunities to flip the homes or rent-to-own more cheaply that buying. Once we were back at the offices of the historic and giant Ford Motor based UAW Local 600, which had opened their doors to the Home Savers Campaign for this project, we discovered, to no one’s surprise at this point, that both of the names on the signs we saw were simply other eye-candy LLC’s that were part of Detroit Property Exchange.

rent-to-own signs from Detroit Property Exchange subsidiary

Visiting with people, the contradictions are confounding. Our first visit was a woman with had just completed a contract with DPX as locals call Detroit Property Exchange, though her house had been listed under their French Sirois subsidiary. She had been in the home for 12 years and dutifully paying off a mortgage, until two years ago. She was informed then that DPX had bought her home by purchasing a $6000 tax lien. She had being paying everything in the usual bundle to her mortgage servicer, who had gone bankrupt and not paid her taxes, so Wayne County had put her in play without any notice. DPX gave her a contract to buy back the house for $20,000 while paying $750 per month as part of a lease to live there. She was happy because she had managed to pay them off in 18-months, partially by taking advantage of two “matching” opportunities, one at income tax refund time, where they had matched her $2500, and another a month or so later when they matched her $1000. She was proud of herself for getting them off her back and saving her house, but the math still adds up to street-side robbery. She had paid DPX $16,500 on the contract plus another $13,500 in rent, or whatever you might want to call it, so they had $30,000 from her in a year-and-a-half by stealing her house from the taxman when her mortgage servicer went belly up. The day before another team had stumbled onto a similar case, so this woman’s story is, tragically, too common.

Vision Property Management lockbox on abandoned hous

All of these contracts are predatory, though and people were being ripped off right and left, but one home we visited we talked to the brother on the porch, who was apologetic that he had not gotten his act together to buy a house, while both of his sisters had just done so, though we knew this sister was on a rent-to-own contract with Vision Property Management and suspected that was the case with the other as well. Earlier in the morning, I had briefly addressed more than 50 people in the regular meeting of the Detroit Action Commonwealth at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. People there knew about land contracts, and they knew ACORN, so I was in good company. After a brief explanation of what the Home Savers Campaign was there were questions flying from the crowd. One caught me up short and has left me thinking more and more about these contradictions. A young man said he was on SSI payments of $750 per month. His question: how could he get one of these rent-to-own houses?

Detroit Action Commonwealth Meeting

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