Could Creating Affordable Housing Become the Next Hot Thing?

New Orleans  In a meeting recently, I was asked who cares about providing affordable housing opportunities in rental and ownership markets for low-and-moderate income families, and after a nanosecond head scratch, I couldn’t help but reply, “just about nobody.”

Two pieces in the daily papers speak to the crisis, and, just maybe, the opportunity that interest is rising in reappraising this market, so desperately sought by our people.

The first in the Times looked at the surprising demand for homes in Houston, despite the flooding from Harvey, including in some neighborhoods still watching the water recede. One realtor claimed that of 50-odd pending sales, only 8 had backed out. Others noted that the number of calls from families expressing interest in buying even in flooded areas was soaring, surprising everyone. Sure, many are hoping for bargains, but that also goes to the heart of how desperate people are for housing. The story leaves with a question from one family mulling over paying $50,000 to buy a flooded property and another $50,000 to fix it up, and thinking that might still be a bargain, despite the history of flooding and the expectation that there will be more in the future. They noted that it might be worth it even with steep payments for flood insurance in the future. What can you say, but that this is crazy, and that it underlines how desperate families are.

Another piece in the Wall Street Journal talked about a company raising $233 million for an affordable housing fund from foundations, funds, and high-worth individuals because luxury housing has gone slack, while demand for affordable homes is skyrocketing. This is unlikely to be much of an opportunity for low-and-moderate income families, but still it’s moving in the right direction.

Median family income according to the Census Bureau is now knocking at the door at $60,000 per year. Families with $40000 to $60,000 in family income, fair credit, and steady jobs that are producing that income can afford to buy homes, if they are priced right, putting them in better shape buying, rather than renting. They might be better renting, if there were caps that hedged against gentrification and guaranteed affordability, and if the units were decent, but few developers are producing units for this market.

Yet, there are tens of thousands of abandoned homes in city after city creating the classic situation that spurred ACORN’s squatting campaigns in the 1980s to match “people that need houses with houses that need people.” This is affordable housing stock, if the will existed to rehabilitate it. Post-Katrina, it was amazing to have our partners from Cornell and other universities go door to door in flooded areas and find that more than 80% of the homes could be rebuilt rather than demolished.

We need a massive, national program that invests in putting these two problems together to come up with one solution. If we could do it, then, yes indeed, affordable housing could be the next “hot” thing in our cities.

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Major Lease Purchase Option Company Comes to Agreement in Campaign

HSC committee in front of the Vision building

New Orleans   Agreements are always hard to win and in the campaign to stop predatory practices in the contract for deed, land purchase, lease and rent-to-own markets in lower income and working communities any such understandings would have seemed unlikely as the campaign began in 2017. But, now after months of actions, demands, and back-and-forth between ACORN’s Home Savers Campaign and the largest lease purchase option company in the country, Vision Property Management, an agreement has been reached.

The process began with a protest from the campaign over harassment of campaign leaders in Philadelphia and Detroit, but surprisingly those first harsh and accusatory conversations led to more lengthy telephone conferences that explored the differences between the parties and their goals, which led to the discovery of some common ground and then the hard work to affirm good faith on both sides that finally produced two face-to-face meetings, one to establish ground rules, and another with full committees that hammered out a tentative memorandum of agreement, and then a final document and a path forward.

The press release that went out in the campaign cities recently summarizes the substance of the MOU by saying:

The agreement outlines the installation and testing of systems to report lease payments to credit agencies, to allow owner-occupants to access their own payment record and option status as well as “lease credit,” and to assist in verifying direct out-of-pocket expenditures that improve the property. The campaign and the company shared the goal of making the agreements clearer and more transparent for the owner-occupants and agreed to achieve this result with a revised agreement. Additionally, the agreement anticipates the creation of partnerships in various cities between ACORN and VPM to implement this new program, starting in metropolitan Detroit and central Arkansas, where the company has a significant footprint. In another unique feature, the agreement anticipates creating a joint program in cities with significant available unoccupied housing stock such as Detroit, New Orleans, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia where lower income families potentially interested in home ownership would be identified by ACORN and go through housing and loan counseling and then combining with Vision’s experience and expertise in vetting and acquiring suitable housing stock for rehabilitation and occupation, achieve their goals of home ownership.

The real foundation and accomplishment of the agreement was the discovery of the mutual interest of ACORN and Vision in rapid conversion of families under Vision’s agreements into standard, conventional mortgages creating full home ownership. Everything in the agreement moves to achieve those goals, critical to the families and creating stability in these cities and their neighborhoods.

The real test is obviously not the MOU itself, but all that happens next in the implementation. ACORN was encouraged by Vision’s willingness to listen, act, and resolve member issues we brought to them from the field. As importantly, Vision was willing to transparently allow campaign negotiators to look under the hood at their entire operation in order to get a fuller understanding of standard operating procedures as well as ongoing repairs being made to fix problems.

The “as is” assumption of the property by owner-occupants with any of these companies is at the heart of the problem and often exceeds the stark and predatory terms and conditions included in the contracts. Vision was able to convince the campaign that their new systems, check lists, verification programs, including pictures of problems and repairs, recorded conversations and inspections, have now been instituted for new agreements, assuring that the homes have met habitability standards before occupancy. This had been the source of most of the complaints from everyone involved in the campaign, and assurances that the homes are safe and decent under these provisions, allowed an agreement to be reached on the rest of the issues from contract transparency to ownership conversion.

For low-and-moderate income families caught in the housing crises of the last decade that have meant a credit desert that blocks home ownership for most and rising rents and soaring eviction rates for all, coupled with a reduced commitment by the government to support these families’ needs and aspirations, companies willing to change and face the dilemma in partnership with community organizations and campaigns that have struggled with these issues for decades is both a challenge and an opportunity. The agreement reached between the ACORN Home Savers Campaign and Vision Property Management is a significant step along this path. If it works as well as the parties hope, it will be historic.

Home Savers Campaign Committee with Vision

Please enjoy Neil Young’s Hitchhiker.

Thanks to KABF.

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