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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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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Basketball Needs to Hold the Line in North Carolina

New Orleans   North Carolina is arguably one of the most basketball crazy states in the country. I would hate to get in an argument about whether it is first or second, but right now as one of its premier teams, the University of North Carolina, is part of the NCAA’s Final Four, they are poised to dominate again. They aren’t alone of course. The NBA’s Hornets are in Charlotte. Duke is in Durham. Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky are all on the list, but North Carolina is basketball crazy for sure.

It also turns out that they are bathroom crazy. The hard right, Republican dominated state legislature last year became obsessed about bathrooms and transgender men and women and where they should go. Aided and abetted by a Republican governor willing and excited to put the state at the forefront of this new battleground in the national culture wars, they combined to create a law that required transgender individuals to go to the bathroom assigned to them by their birth certificate. You’ve heard of voter IDs that are so popular with conservatives, well this was an effort I guess to suppress urgent bodily needs, rather than lower income and minority voters, by requiring the equivalent of bathroom IDs.

We love our sports and our teams, goodness knows. But the price is often sitting and squirming in shame as they cheat, ignore the physical damage to the athletes, create billionaires and deride the fans, and too often allow and ignore the worst possible behavior imaginable with each other, with women, and whatever as part of their worshipful entitlements. Huge scandals about drug use in baseball and bicycling and now sexual abuse in gymnastics endure years of cover-ups damaging the sports for decades.

When it comes to political and social issues, usually these are seen as distractions and are forced out of the arenas and stadiums and suffocated in silence. The North Carolina conservative cabal must still be in a state of shock that somehow a cherry bomb must have been hidden in the toilet after they passed their bathroom bill and now it has blown up all over them, and it has been big time basketball, first the NBA, and then marching behind them the usually slow footed NCAA, that have done it by refusing to allow high prestige and high dollar sports events to be held in North Carolina. The NBA’s All Star game was suddenly moved to New Orleans recently. The NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference have refused to schedule playoffs or championship games in the state. Athletes have stood firm. Coaches have spoken out against the bathroom bill.

The Republican governor paid the price when Roy Cooper, the Democrat, won a heartbeat close election, campaigning on the lost revenue of $3 billion plus over the next dozen or so years and making the bathroom issue a central part of his campaign among other issues. The legislature has been unyielding and tried to punish the governor for winning in one hyper-partisan move after another.

Now they have announced that they have come up with a compromise to repeal House Bill #2 as the bathroom bill is known in Carolina. They are hoping it ends the boycott, but it shouldn’t. The governor agreed to a weak bill, because it was the best he could do, but basketball is stronger and needs to hold the line. The bill would not offer any protect against discrimination for transgender individuals even though supposedly opening bathrooms. The bill also blocks the ability of local municipalities, like Charlotte, from enacting better protections until after 2020.

The governor did his best, but doesn’t have the clout to do better, but better has to be done, and basketball has proven that it is strong enough to force change. The NBA and the NCAA need to hold the line here, and send a message to crazy Carolina that they will not allow profit and playoffs based on discrimination.

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Bannon and Conway: Part of a Movement, Just Not Ours!

New Orleans   I’ve come to a conclusion that has been obvious in many ways, but I was refusing to recognize it probably because I was still in denial at some level. Unbelievably, I, along with probably a gazillion others, have been waiting for the evil axis of Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway to explode and disappear, caught in the vortex of one mind thumping disaster after another, victims of their own self-delusion and President Trump’s mercurial impatience and narcissism. I’ve finally realized that’s not going to happen, because they are walled in behind the embrace and ideology of a movement which ensconces them totally, allowing them to perfectly rationalize every sting and arrow of outrageous fortune as simply “haters,” as Conway calls them and a broad “opposition party,” as Bannon has referred to the press.

I get it now. Part of the prerequisite for working within movements and organizations dedicated and determined to win change is a relentless conviction of the rightness of your cause, the expectation of constant attack, and the resilient ability to bounce back and continue on course no matter what obstacles and arguments are thrown in your path. I’ve been there and done that. In the middle of such operations you always have to work hard to keep some doors and windows open to the outside or you’re caught in a tactical and strategic jail cell of your own making. What finally slapped me awake to recognize my own mirror was reading a long piece by Molly Ball in a recent issue of The Atlantic which took Kellyanne Conway as it’s subject with extensive quotes from Stephen Bannon, working as her cheerleader.

Let me share the clues:

Stephen Bannon says, “Remember, Kellyanne was not a mainstream pollster. She had every marginal act out there, Social issues, security moms, immigration – she was a movement-conservative pollster.”

Bannon told me [Molly Ball] Sean Trende’s “missing whites” theory and Conway’s polling on immigration formed the “intellectual infrastructure” of 2016’s populist revolt. He added that Conway was part of a “cabal” he had started to build with Jeff Sessions and Sessions’s then aide Stephen Miller, who is now a senior White House police adviser. “This is her central thing,” he said, “the reason I got to know her.”

The idea that she was merely a spokeswoman rather than a true campaign manager misses the point, Bannon said: Communications was everything to Trump…”No offense, this wasn’t the Bush campaign.”

“She can stand in the breach and take incoming all day long,” Steve Bannon…told me [Molly Ball]. That’s something you can’t coach.” She’s figured out that she doesn’t need to win the argument. All she has to do is craft a semi-plausible (if not entirely coherent) counternarrative, so that those who don’t want to look past the façade of Trump’s Potemkin village don’t have to.

Anyway, she [Kellyanne Conway] contended, nobody cared about “alternative facts” except the elite, out-of-touch intelligentsia who spend all day winding one another up in the echo chamber of Twitter and cable news. “It was haters talking to each other and it was the media.”

Quoting Jason Miller, a Trump campaign and transition team member, “One thing people don’t quite get is that she is a living, breathing folk hero for millions of people around the country.”

Need I say more? You get it right? In their movement they have created their own closed circuit channel where they are only interested in talking to the base for their revolution and only – at least for now – really communicating to their people where both of them are heroes in their own parade. The problem for their movement, like every movement, is that you at least have to neutralize the opposition to win, not simply discount and ignore them, and to the degree their movement depends on one leader, Donald Trump, they face the same risk as any charismatic movement faces, especially if the patience and support of the public continues to wane.

Until that happens, in the rush and adrenaline of their moment, the rest is all just water off a duck’s back, and haters going hoarse who they don’t hear, who are just spitting in the wind.

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Please enjoy Ani DiFranco’s Play God.

Thanks to KABF.

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Museums for the People, Rather than the Elites

Street Art Museum in Amsterdam

New Orleans   Ok, maybe it’s not the very highest thing on everyone’s list, but that doesn’t mean it is not important. Recently, we talked about the efforts to rid books like Howard Zinn’s Peoples’ History of the United States from school libraries and classrooms. We all know that’s wrong, but how about the constant efforts to erase peoples’ history, by just not telling it at all? Or, not making it accessible? Or, the constant elite cultural and political bias reflected in most museums of any kind? Well, it’s not a tidal wave, but there is at least a slow dripping of resistance and activism that is trying to imagine and implement a different kind of museum.

A recent article in the New York Times reported on a unique museum in London called the Museum of Homelessness, which not surprisingly does not have a physical building or location, which given the subject matter seems appropriate. The organizers see their museum as being “about doing something special, about creating events where you’re taken on a journey.” Their venues are often open spaces, including on the streets themselves, or in theaters, shelters, or temporary showings from friendly cultural institutions.

The Street Art Museum in a neighborhood of Amsterdam is another experiment along these lines. This novelty consists of 90 commissioned works in a 1.5 mile square area which are linked through a walking tour conducted by the museum. Another effort is the Museum of Joy in San Francisco which does pop-up operas at mass transit stations and hides happy experiences in gold colored Easter eggs in a dozen branches of the city public library. There’s also the touring Empathy Museum in a shipping container that looks like a shoe box and displays shoes, urging people to imagine themselves walking in the path of those lives.

These efforts have a common theme of bringing museums to people rather than waiting for people to come to them. There are other efforts, some of which we have discussed before, like photographic museums of city life on web and Facebook sites, including the ACORN Museum. There may not be a thousand flowers blooming, but there are definitely some sprouting up around the world.

This is all exciting stuff, but fragile, and perhaps unsustainable. Grants that might support such experiments are largely hogged by huge institutions and on the chopping block with the gutting of the Endowment for the Arts proposed in the current Administration budget. Giving large institutions their due, there are certainly curators who knock on the door of social change with some exhibits and programs, though that does eliminate the questions of access and audience along with cost, all of which are central in considering the collection and distribution of peoples’ history.

A lot of us aren’t throwing away any artifacts or remnants of the silent history of uncommon common people, but there’s still a long gap in knowing where to put them before they end up, like so many other things, in the dustbin of history.

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Trump’s Broken Promise, Cavalier Giveaway of Basic Healthcare to the Rightwing

New Orleans   Incredibly after all of the promises of a better healthcare program, all the President wants now is a sale, no matter how shoddy the merchandise. This is the short con. Meeting with the so-called Freedom Caucus, he agreed to get rid of the Affordable Care Act’s “essential health benefits” guaranteed to everyone as part of the basic health plan regardless of cost. This doesn’t include the caps on senior pay, the ability to cover children under parents policies until 26, or the waivers for pre-existing benefits all of which this bill is also giving away or the fact that his concession bargaining has now lowered the supposed savings by more than half.

Regardless, let’s just review the ten essential benefits that all Americans stand to lose as a reminder of why this entire package should be dead-on-arrival to the Senate, if it ever makes it there.

The Affordable Care Act’s Ten Essential health benefits include:

  • Ambulatory patient services (Outpatient care). Care you receive without being admitted to a hospital, such as at a doctor’s office, clinic or same-day (“outpatient”) surgery center. Also included in this category are home health services and hospice care.
  • Emergency Services (Trips to the emergency room). Care you receive for conditions that could lead to serious disability or death if not immediately treated, such as accidents or sudden illness. Typically, this is a trip to the emergency room and includes transport by ambulance. You cannot be penalized for going out-of-network or for not having prior authorization.
  • Hospitalization (Treatment in the hospital for inpatient care). Care you receive as a hospital patient, including care from doctors, nurses and other hospital staff, laboratory and other tests, medications you receive during your hospital stay, and room and board. Hospitalization coverage also includes surgeries, transplants and care received in a skilled nursing facility, such as a nursing home that specializes in the care of the elderly.
  • Maternity and newborn care. Care that women receive during pregnancy (prenatal care), throughout labor, delivery, and post-delivery, and care for newborn babies.
    Mental health services and addiction treatment. Inpatient and outpatient care provided to evaluate, diagnose and treat a mental health condition or substance abuse disorder. This includes behavioral health treatment, counseling, and psychotherapy.
  • Prescription drugs. Medications that are prescribed by a doctor to treat an illness or condition. At least one prescription drug must be covered for each category and classification of federally approved drugs.
  • Rehabilitative services and devices – Rehabilitative services (help recovering skills, like speech therapy after a stroke) and habilitative services (help developing skills, like speech therapy for children) and devices to help you gain or recover mental and physical skills lost to injury, disability or a chronic condition (this also includes devices needed for “habilitative reasons”). Plans have to provide 30 visits each year for either physical or occupational therapy, or visits to the chiropractor. Plans must also cover 30 visits for speech therapy as well as 30 visits for cardiac or pulmonary rehab.
    Laboratory services. Testing provided to help a doctor diagnose an injury, illness or condition, or to monitor the effectiveness of a particular treatment. Some preventive screenings, such as breast cancer screenings and prostrate exams, are provided free of charge.
  • Preventive services, wellness services, and chronic disease treatment. This includes counseling, preventive care, such as physicals, immunizations, and screenings, like cancer screenings, designed to prevent or detect certain medical conditions. Also, care for chronic conditions, such as asthma and diabetes.
  • Pediatric services. Care provided to infants and children, including well-child visits and recommended vaccines and immunizations. Dental and vision care must be offered to children younger than 19. This includes two routine dental exams, an eye exam and corrective lenses each year.

Read and weep. Listen and pick up the phone and call Washington. Now!

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Please enjoy Blondie’s Long Time.

Thanks to KABF.

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