Alternative Mortgage Lending Tiptoeing Around a Broker-based Implosion – Again!

REUTERS/Chris Helgren

New Orleans   In the 2008 Great Recession, fingers pointed wildly in all directions and in some cases in little Taliban caves around the country they are still doing so, and trying to play the blame game at the expense of the victims. One of the more troubling terms to emerge from those terrible days for borrowers trying to stay in their homes was the notion of “liar’s loans,” as the subprime industry called some of these mortgages. The haters tried to claim the borrowers were the liars, though our work repeatedly found that the culprits – the big liars in the affair – were almost invariably mortgage brokers channeling huge volumes of paper to subprime lenders and blowing up the numbers on “stated” income mortgages.

ACORN understood the value of stated income mortgages because many of our lower income families worked in contingent employment that was impossible to verify because of cash transactions without social security statements. Tipped employees were just one of the examples. As we met with subprime company after subprime company (four in one wild day in Orange County, California, the subprime ground zero!), we raised our concerns about the supervision of brokerage networks accounting for much of the loan volume in the portfolios they were assembling and the incredibly high percentage of stated loans, often approaching or exceeding 50% of the lending they were making and packaging. They would then flannel-mouth something about a risk algorithm that was protecting them and assure us they were on top of it all, when in fact as it developed, they were doing the happy dance to bankruptcy and blindsiding our members, many of them whom had no idea what numbers brokers had claimed to be their income, often without so much as a wink-and-a-nod, and were shocked to find in some cases that their social security income had now been converted to six figures.

All of ACORN’s fights against predatory practices by subprimes came roaring back to mind when ACORN Canada shared an article with me about the cash-crunch and turmoil that ousted the top officials and plummeted the share price of Home Capital Group, a leading company in what the Financial Post called the “alternative mortgage lending” space, which is just another name for subprime loans. The problem was simply described:

Home Capital’s current crisis began on April 19, when the Ontario Securities Commission accused the company and some of its officials of misleading disclosure. The OSC alleges that the company misled shareholders because it knew there was fraud in its broker channels before July 2015, when it announced the findings of its internal investigations and disclosed it had cut ties with 45 brokers as a result.

The Post commentators were aghast that regulators were investigating Home Capital for what they viewed as dated and minor problems with the company’s brokerage channels and accused the OSC of what Republicans in the US would now call “regulatory overreach.”

How quickly people forget! The Ontario Securities Commission fortunately had some memory cells left from watching the real estate American meltdown a decade ago, and recognized what US regulators have still failed to grasp in the patchwork quilt that regulates and licenses brokers in this country on a state by state basis. Broker fraud is inevitable in the mortgage supply chain whenever brokers are substantially paid by commissions based on closings, rather than standards that include buyer affordability. We always demanded, and often won, though sometimes too late, agreements that US-subprimes not allow mortgage brokers in their networks to be paid that way. Given the hammering of stock prices for all the companies in the Canadian subprime industry, smarter investors must suspect that all of them are only loosely supervising brokerage networks, and that’s scary.

Low-and-moderate income families need a subprime market so that they can access mortgages for houses and apartments, but they also have to demand that the companies not be predatory and that they work as hard to keep their acts together as families do who are busting their butts to pay their bills and their house notes. Let’s hope Canadians are coming to grips with these companies and have learned the lessons that Americans are living in denial and still trying to forget.

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Predatory Lenders Making American Nightmares From American Dreams

Greenville   Here’s a guest blog run on the workingclassstudies.wordpress.com blog for Working-Class Perspectives shepherded by Professors Sherry Linkton of Georgetown University and John Russo, Visiting Scholar of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor at Georgetown, and formerly of Youngstown State University in Ohio.

Posted on May 1, 2017 by Working-Class Perspectives

Yes, Donald Trump is President, and he accomplished this upset in part by shattering the working-class firewall in long time Democratic, heartland strongholds of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio. We cannot respond only with resistance.  An effective defense, in the Rust Belt or anywhere else in the country, requires a deeply rooted offense focused on the traditional Democratic working-class base, and that requires organizations and organizers who will to listen and offer meaningful responses to real pain being felt by so many at the grassroots level.

Amid repeated promises from the White House and Republicans to cut from healthcare, Medicare, and other elements of the already tattered safety net, there are few issues so stark, or so predatory, as the credit desert that keeps working families from securing decent and affordable housing. This is a problem the Real Estate Developer-in-Chief should well understand.

Since the 2008 Great Recession, the devastation of foreclosures, for individuals and communities, has become well-known.  Less appreciated has been the banks’ response. As the subprime market ended, many lenders now demand higher credit scores, larger down payments, and higher minimum loan levels for mortgages.  Marginal financial institutions, specializing in predatory products, moved in, reviving instruments that had largely disappeared from urban home ownership markets with the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, laws that also ended redlining in minority communities.  Contract-for-deed, installment land purchases, rent-to-own, lease purchase, and other deceptively-named transactions lured families into hoping for affordable housing and home ownership into agreements that exploited them instead.

Worse, much of the housing stock involved was had been acquired from Federal National Mortgage Authority (“Fannie Mae”) auctions of foreclosed properties by hedge funds, Wall Street, and vulture financiers pyramiding one injury on top of another.  Companies like Harbour Portfolio embraced contract “sales,” while others, such as Vision Property Management, repurposed thousands of homes using rent-to-own scams.  More well-known operators, like Goldman Sachs, bought more than 26,000 homes to satisfy securitization settlements with the government, while Apollo has specialized in similar flip-and-trick in Memphis and other cities.  The National Consumer Law Center estimates that there are more than six million contract buyers in the United States now.  More shockingly, more contract sales were recorded in Detroit last year than traditional mortgage transfers.

Organizers with ACORN  and the Home Savers Campaign  have spoken with lower income working families in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Akron, Detroit, and other cities as diverse as Memphis, Little Rock, and New Orleans. These conversations reveal huge issues that bring this emerging housing crisis into tragic relief and demand action and response.   The stories are heartbreaking.

A Harbour Portfolio buyer spoke to us from her couch, where she was recovering from a fall on a faulty stairway in Pittsburgh.  In Akron, another Harbour Portfolio purchaser told us about the ceiling in the shower falling on his sister, leaving her unable to work.   A Vision Property Management family in Pittsburgh told us of moving into a house after signing the papers only to find that it had no plumbing or electricity. They were forced to “camp” in their house for six months.  Vision’s callous indifference to the deplorable condition of the housing stock meant that one Youngstown family had been forced to move to a second Vision house because their first was ordered demolished by the city!  Many of the buyers were on Social Security or Veterans payments.  Meanwhile, one Harbour buyer was having problems getting the contract in his name — even though the payments were made from his pension.

Sadly, this story from Philadelphia is typical, as the organizing team’s notes reveal:

Maria Rodriguez and her husband “purchased” the house at 917 Sanger St., in the Frankfort section of Philadelphia for $65,500, almost 4 years ago.  They both worked:  he as a landscaper and she worked at a hotel doing housekeeping. . . .   They put down $2000, plus $465 as the monthly lease payment, $105 for real estate taxes, $30 for general liability insurance, or $2600 as an initial payment and $600 a month. The contract runs until August 2020.  $57.06, +2000 initial option, of the monthly payment is credited toward the purchase price.  Maria and her husband have put about $25,000 in the property because of huge issues like unpaid water bills, no heating or electrical system. They believed that at the end of the contract, in 2020, they would own the property and get the deed.  Instead, they will have paid $6,793 toward the $65000 house price.  On Aug 30, 2020, they have 3 options:  give Vision a check for $58,206, walk away, or convert to seller financing with a new contract for the remaining $58K.  Like all the Vision properties people we’ve talked to, this was a total surprise.

At the end of our visits with working families, we often left people enraged by anger salted with tears.

Laws to protect would-be buyers vary state-to-state, and many are weak. Are these “buyers” tenants, or are they owners without a deed?  Many they cannot connect utilities or get contractors to work on their houses because of the confusion.  Although contracts are required to be filed, they usually are not.   In Green Bay, Wisconsin Vision whistleblowers told television reporters that they were instructed not to pay sales taxes or transfer fees.  The city of Cincinnati sued Harbour for $335,000 of uncollected fines and penalties.

Some cities have taken action. Toledo passed an ordinance requiring contract sellers to obtain a certificate of occupancy and habitability before a contract was executed and a potential buyer allowed to move into a property. Lorain, Ohio, required the same, but only at the point of sale, which sadly may never happen.  In Pennsylvania, lawyers believe there is an “implied warrant of habitability” that should force sellers to make repairs before occupancy.  Other lawyers argue that none of these agreements can be valid contracts because their terms are “unconscionable” on their face.   The Uniform Code Commission is debating offering state legislators a model law to clarify some of the mayhem.

As the Home Savers Campaign and partner organizations get their arms around this issue, one thing is clear: these contracts are misrepresented and rarely understood by working families desperate to obtain affordable and decent housing with the opportunity of home ownership.  Millions of families are now caught in this dilemma. For them, the American Dream turns out to be an American Nightmare.

As our campaign against these predatory practices gains traction and the raw exploitation involved becomes even clearer, and as more working families demand justice, it will be harder for anyone or anybody to deny the exploitation at the root of these transactions.

Real estate is perhaps one thing that President Trump does understand.  The fight needs to move from these houses to the White House.

Wade Rathke

Wade Rathke is best known as Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN from 1970-2008, and continues to serve as Chief Organizer of ACORN International working in 13 countries.

Special thanks to Gary Davenport, former community organizer and currently with Mahoning County Land Bank for assistance in Youngstown work.  We’ll have more to say about Youngstown as we assemble the data later this summer!

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Cities and Neighborhoods Catch a Break in Beating Banks

New Orleans   In a rare surprise over the dozen years that conservative US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has run the nation’s highest court, he joined the four more liberal justices on an issue, delivering a 5-3 vote. Even more shocking the decision was a slap in the face to big banks, in this case Bank of America and Wells Fargo, on a complaint brought by the City of Miami. The court ruled that Miami had standing to sue and to further pursue its claims concerning the discriminatory lending practices of these banks and their allegation that such practices led to decreased property values in neighborhoods, and therefore reduced property tax revenue to the city as well as increasing blight in the community.

This is big, really big, because it powerfully opens the door to a broader interpretation of the Fair Housing Act and its prohibitions against racial discrimination in preventing different standards between one neighborhood and another in cases like redlining, but it also speaks to differing and discriminatory standards in mortgage lending because of income as well, which was at the heart of broker driven exploitation that fueled abuse and outright fraud in the subprime market. There can’t really be too much doubt that Bank of America and Wells Fargo didn’t pause to even take a breath in lower income neighborhoods as they altered their supervision and standards willy-nilly to drive volume on refinancing as well as new purchases much as often as new purchases. Wells Fargo has already become poster child for not supervising its sales staff, but neither does the record of Bank of America and Wells improve when examining the way that they mishandled mortgages underwater during the Great Recession, exacerbating foreclosures.

There’s settled evidence that property values decrease when homes are abandoned in communities, and foreclosures in Miami and other cities led to increased abandonment. The scandalous disregard that big banks showed in refusing to modify the mortgage terms to prevent foreclosures as well as paying little attention to managing and maintaining the properties where they were foreclosing directly lowered values in those properties and whole neighborhoods. Miami has the lead role in proving this now that the Supreme Court has sent the case back down to Atlanta and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and clearly the odds are still stacked against the city and favor the banks, but the door is open and common knowledge and a drive-by to any lower income community establishes the facts on the ground.

The banks are hoping they can prove that they were just one of many crooks, and not the ones pulling the trigger to rob the neighborhoods of their value. In criminal courts this might be a case where the banks might not get a sentence for murder, but they would definitely do time for manslaughter, because there is no doubt that they hurt these communities and the people who live there, whether they were driving the getaway car, acting as the lookout, or holding the gun.

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Heartbreaking Stories of Housing Ripoffs

New Orleans   Meeting with friends and lawyers in Austin, Texas, including my longtime, go-to-counselor for organizational and personal matters, we had stopped briefly on the way to their celebrated annual spring crayfish boil for a cup of coffee and to watch marchers with homemade signs hearing towards the Texas capitol in the name of science. Later in the back patio of the law firm’s offices in a downtown house, while we watched young people take their turns at stirring the four boiling pots filled with crayfish, potatoes, corn, mushrooms, and even sausage, we found ourselves talking about how in the world it could be legal for the contract for deed and rent to own real estate predators to be able to stay in business given their total lack of compliance with local laws or contractual ethics of any kind whatsoever.

We discussed the lawsuit filed in Cincinnati, Ohio by that city to try and collect $335,000 in fines and penalties from Harbour Portfolio, the Dallas-based private equity vulture financier of contract-for-deed sales, and whether or not the company would run from the business. We made plans to challenge any application that the principals might make to acquire banking assets in Arkansas with our organizational allies there.

Where there was no question was that these companies had to be stopped. On the way to the airport, I read a report from Craig Robbins of Action United in Philadelphia who had been part of our recent doorknocking teams in Pittsburgh, Akron, and Youngstown. On a recent call, we had asked him to jot down any stories that we could put on the Home Savers Campaign website from the visits he was making with Vision Property Management, the South Carolina based rent-to-own predator. I opened the email and here is what I read:

Maria Rodriguez and her husband “purchased” the house at 917 Sanger St., in the Frankfort section of Philadelphia for $65,500, almost 4 years ago. Their credit was not that good, so Vision seemed like a good way to pursue their dream of home ownership. They both worked: he as a landscaper and she worked at a hotel doing housekeeping. Contract was signed on 9/1/13 w/BAT Holdings 8, LLC. They put down $2000, plus $465 as the monthly lease payment, $105 for real estate taxes, $30 for general liability insurance, or $2600 as an initial payment and $600 a month. Contract runs until August 2020. $57.06, +2000 initial option, of the monthly payment is credited toward the purchase price. Maria and her husband have put about $25,000 in the property-huge issues when moving in like unpaid water bills, no heating or electrical system. They believed that at the end of the contract, in 2020, they would own the property and get the deed. Instead, they will have paid $6,793 toward the $65000 house price. On Aug 30, 2020 they have 3 options: give Vision a check for $58,206; walk away, or they can convert to seller financing with a new contract for the remaining $58K. Like all the Vision properties people we’ve talked to, this was a total surprise.

Change the names and the listing price and this is the story of Vision – and many companies like it – all over the country. They have to be stopped.

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Cities Trying to Fight Back Against Home Exploitation Scams

housing inspector in Toledo

New Orleans     Perhaps against their will, some Ohio communities have become ground zero in trying to throw roadblocks in the path of companies exploiting the desperate need of lower income and working families for affordable housing and, just maybe, the hopes of traversing the credit desert to home ownership.

The best local ordinance that seems to have emerged in this effort is in Toledo. Chapter 1765, entitled Conditions for Conveyance of Property by Land Installment Contract, passed in 2015, tries its best to grab this bull by the horns. Toledo does so by first making the issue of responsibility very, very clear. It’s not just the seller or owner of the property that has to follow the ordinance but “any agent” of the owner and any entity defined as the owner.

The critical issue that ACORN’s teams confronted repeatedly in recent visits to Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and Akron was the fact that families were finding themselves in land contracts which met no conceivable standards of habitability. Toledo’s ordinance goes out of its way to do two things that are essential in protecting families from abuse in these contracts. On one hand the city insists that all contracts have to be recorded with the city. Most of these companies are playing whack-a-mole in this regard. Vision Property Management for example listed only five properties in Pittsburgh, though we found more than twenty on a quick search of property ownership records, and suspect that the real number is many times more. Secondly, and even more importantly, Toledo requires a certificate of occupancy before a family can reside in a house under a land installment contract and only after the city has inspected the property and its major systems and found that they are satisfactory.

The language in the ordinance is mandatory and unambiguous:

(a) No vendor shall convey any interest in a residential property through land installment contract unless a Certificate of Property
Code Compliance or Temporary Certificate of Property Code Compliance has been issued, pursuant to this section.
(b) No vendor shall fail to deliver to the vendee a copy of the current Certificate of Property Code Compliance or Temporary
Certificate of Property Code Compliance prior to the execution of the land installment contract.
(c) No vendor shall fail to record, as provided in R.C. 5301.25, the land installment with the county recorder and deliver a copy to
the county auditor within twenty days of the execution of a land installment contract.
(d) In a conveyance of any interest of a residential property through land installment contract sale, no vendor shall knowingly
require a vendee, as a condition of the sale, to sign a “quit claim” deed, deeding the property in question to the vendor in the event of a
default by the vendee.

The penalties are perhaps weaker than they should be, beginning at $250 for the first offense and moving to $1000 for the third within a two-year period, and judging the offenses to be a misdemeanor if recurring, which may not be sufficient to intimidate these fly-by-night outfits. Furthermore, the devil is in the details, when it comes to how aggressive Toledo has been in forcing the hand of these predatory operators, which we have yet to determine.

The City of Lorain in Ohio passed an ordinance in 2014 also requiring certificates of inspection and occupancy clearly also trying to get their arms around this crisis in their community, but sadly a close reading of the requirements pulls them up short. Lorain’s measure tries to impose the burden “at the point of sale.” Part of the entire business model of these companies and the core of this predatory scam is keeping the family from ever getting to the point of sale and forcing them to live in often dangerous structures with limited resources holding on to little more than their hope of ownership.

Similarly, Youngstown, Ohio, path breaking ordinance creating a “foreclosure bond,” forces refundable payments after foreclosures, forcing responsible upkeep of the property by corporate and individual owners, and has worked spectacularly in managing the overall condition of communities from what we could see, but doesn’t cover evictions, at least not yet, or specifically rent-to-own or land purchase contracts, and of course is better at locking the barn door after the fact, rather than on the front end like Toledo.

Regardless, Ohio cities confronted with this grassroots crisis are responding, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist or looking the other way like most communities, oblivious to the way that low to moderate income families are being exploited by these schemes and forced to live in abominable conditions.

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Wisconsin Worker Whistleblowers Expose Vision Rent-to-Own Scams

wearegreenbay.com

Pittsburgh   Vision Property Management, headquartered in South Carolina, seemed like a bad penny that kept turning up in every neighborhood we door knocked in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The ACORN teams spent a lot of time before and after these visits trying to understand as clearly as possible the business model for the company. It was hard to ever figure out how they lost money on any of these almost universally rundown and dilapidated properties, but their model wasn’t so much rip-and-run, as it was lie-steal-and-scam.

We were mystified how this predatory outfit could get away with this plain and simple fraud and grand larceny? One of our team found a video from Green Bay, Wisconsin of all places done by Channel 5 television and its reporter, Nate Stewart. The piece had the vibe of an ISIS hostage video with the speakers disguised so that Vision would not recognize them. Perhaps they were concerned that now that they were confessing their shameful acts, that Vision might do the unspeakable to them? Since Vision does virtually all of its dirty work via the internet and telephone with virtually no on-the-ground staff, they were probably right to realize that the company could follow the dots back to them.

We had heard plenty horror stories from victims, and reading the Green Bay report, these were confessions right from the horse’s mouths! Read, listen, and weep:

· “We knew we were putting people into situations that they couldn’t handle.”
· “My big problem with the culture there was that we knowingly manipulated people’s bad situations for our own gain.”

Ok, you may not have been with us on the doors, but if there was any doubt about their corrupt business model, here’s what another Vision worker has to say:

“When the customer ended up signing the contract and there were liens or the pipes were missing, we could say ‘well we had a recorded phone call with you, I instructed you to go find that out.’ But by nature, we weren’t dealing with the most sophisticated real-estate consumer. So I can say ‘go to the clerk of court, go look up public records’ all day long, but if you don’t know how to do that or if you don’t even know what I’m talking about and you just want to get off the phone with me so you can get into this house, just say yeah all day long.”

“If they’re already in a financial situation that puts them in a position to be working with a company like this, they probably can’t afford to throw down several hundred dollars to have an inspector come in and look at all this stuff. Often times when they do, the inspectors are appalled like, ‘no, no don’t buy this!'”

We met a number of people who were on SSI or Veterans payments, where Vision was taking between one-third and one-half of the wannabe buyer’s check for their scheme, and according to their workers in Green Bay, this was no coincidence, but their deliberate strategy. Here’s what one said to Channel 5:

“We sold a considerable amount of houses to people who were making a $721 month social security check – and with $228 monthly payments, they had no business living in the house. They obviously didn’t have the means to repair it themselves or pay somebody to repair it.”

The Vision crowd, according to its employees, were equal opportunity thieves. Their business model was exploiting lower income families desperate for housing, but they didn’t mind stiffing local governments and anyone else they owed a buck. Here’s what one woman told Channel 5:

“I would sometimes record two or three deeds at a time for one actual sale or one actual purchase, and no tax would be paid because Michigan, Pennsylvania and Maryland have higher taxes. They yelled at me and told me they refused to pay that tax and I would need to find a loophole. There were some that were legit, but the majority of them we just didn’t send them in. We were told that ‘we’ll just pay it if we get caught, but if we don’t, we’re not paying the government a dime,’ and so that’s what I did.” She added that many times she was told to get the deeds to the county overnight so Vision could get it processed in the tenants name before they found out – even if the house had many repairs needed or was up for demolition.

These are just stone cold crooks. You’re wondering why the FBI isn’t investigating for wire fraud, well so am I. You’re wondering why the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau isn’t all over these bad boys, well so am I.

In November, Channel 5 touted the fact that Vision’s operation in Green Bay was being investigated by the Attorney General in Wisconsin. Writing this, I found another Channel 5 piece in mid-February but there’s still no sign almost six months later that the AG in Wisconsin has done much to stop Vision. In fact the February piece was mainly about the fact that reporters from the New York Times, the City of Green Bay, and Channel 5 were all being stonewalled by Vision. No mention of any activity by the Wisconsin AG or any progress there.

Stealing from poor and working families isn’t big news, it’s just standard operating procedure for Vision and a pile of other operations. It seems pretty clear that Vision will operate with impunity until we organize enough of the victims to stop them.

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