Contract for Deed as a Non-Profit Affordable Housing Tool

New Orleans   Thinking about how to open up a pool of potentially affordable housing to low-and-moderate income families, ACORN’s Home Savers Campaign has spent a lot of time visiting with people in various Midwestern cities trying to figure out a way to link abandoned housing stock in land banks with the potential for rehabilitation with families that need affordable housing.  There seems to be some appetite from certain companies and investors, and there are huge numbers of lower income families that want rent they can afford or even ownership, if they could swing the payments.  Experience with housing counseling has taught us that credit scores can be improved sufficiently to qualify for even conventional mortgages.  The problem is the gap.  The period between when the house is ready and the family is still working to get its finances and credit in shape.   The missing piece in the puzzle is the bridge.

Contract for deeds and other forms of land contracts have been the target of the ACORN Home Savers Campaign because they are little understood and often highly predatory.  Yet, we have found that nonprofit housing groups in Akron and Youngstown, Ohio, and Detroit all use various short-term land contracts to solve this problem in communities where banks are hesitant to take risks in lower income housing markets.  Theoretically, even long-time organizers in the fight against land contracts believe it is possible to devise such instruments in a constructive way, despite their existence in a grey area of few to nonexistent regulations.

Surveying the field, the answer we have found so far is that maybe such contracts might work.  In Youngstown, some housing organizers and advocates claimed that the nonprofit contracts were worse than some of the for-profit operators.  The Housing Authority says that it has lost money on its half-dozen land contracts.  In Akron, there are several nonprofits using land contracts in various forms on rehabbed houses.  In Detroit, United Community Housing Coalition uses a short-term contract for a couple of years successfully to establish a credit record for families trying to regain their foreclosed properties so that they can refinance.

A 2013 case study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis on the use of contracts for deed as a bridge for lower income families detailed favorably the experience of the Greater Metropolitan Housing Corporation (GMHC) in the Twin Cities.  Their SHOP program which stands for Sustainable Home Ownership Program started in 2008.  Bridge to Success was the contract for deed program.  A SHOP-approved buyer would find a home and then SHOP would take possession and hold the deed for no longer than ten years, while the buyer would be able to deduct interest and taxes after making a 2% down payment on houses that average $126,000 and could not be priced any higher than $225,000. Once buyers have their credit straight they are assisted in converting to a mortgage.

Sounds good doesn’t it?  In 2013, they had financed more than 60 homes and had a goal of building a loan pool through Bridge to Success of $50 million that would give them the capacity to purchase 400 houses.  Checking now in 2018 on their website, when I hit the section for “contract for deed” under financing, it took me to a page that said the program had been discontinued.

What happened?  The theory was good.  The early experience was solid.  Was it the land purchase or something else?

Meanwhile we continue to search for the right piece to solve this puzzle.

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Cleveland’s Dilemma: Rehab or Demo

Cleveland   Every month in Cleveland, the Vacant & Abandoned Property Action Council, convenes. All the seats around the giant meeting room of the Neighborhood Housing Services were filled with rows of chairs surrounding them, packed as well. Sandwiches and cookies were available, but this was not a group of people who were there for the lunch choices. This was a who’s who assemblage of people from the city, county, Federal Reserve, legal offices, community developers, neighborhood organizations, and nonprofits of all shapes and sizes who had an interest in what was happening to property in Cleveland from soup to nuts.

I was honored to be invited to talk about the ACORN Home Savers Campaign, because the group was discussing various proposals for action on land contracts at the local level in places like Youngstown as well as amendments for legislation proposed in Columbus to reform the existing laws. The “Bad Apples” Committee that was looking into rouge real estate operators had changed its name to the Investors Committee, and their work was exhaustive.

All of that was good stuff, but the most interesting pieces of the puzzle that were beginning to fall in place for me, as I listened to the back and forth in the meeting to the discussion, was the interchange between committee members and a member of the county council’s staff on the budget issues involving demolition funds for dilapidated housing. There was a $9 million dollar item, ostensibly for demolition on the 2019 budget line, but some the group wanted to know if that could be spent in 2018, and if so could they tap into another source lying in reserve if they exhausted that allocation. The spokesperson for the County, trying to navigate his way through the questions, assured them that the number was a placeholder and was a 2-year number for expenditure in both years, but was also clear that the council was increasingly looking at the issue, which meant feeling the pressure, to use a pile of the money for rehabilitation of houses as well.

Talking to organizers in the neighborhoods, this was an issue as well with them leaning increasingly towards rehab at this point. Reading the reports from the Thriving Communities Institute provided the background data became clearer for me. Of the existing vacant housing stock of more than 15,000 houses, recent reports by Frank Ford, their senior analyst, put the number that could be rehabbed at over 8000 with the other roughly 7000needing to be demolished. Other reports by the Institute made the case more dramatically that they believed that demolition was the first order of business in saving a neighborhood with rehab following behind, based on their analysis of what moved property values and tax revenues. Not to put too sharp a point on the debate, but their argument was protect the demo money for demo, and go raise other money for renovation. I should add, “if you can.”

Perhaps they are right on the numbers, but it’s easy to understand from the politicians perspective and the neighborhood-based organizations that are dealing with residents every day, asking them to wait to see progress on their own homes, where getting loans for rehab is almost impossible statistically, for some hope in the future by and by, while they watch – and wait – as more houses are reduced to rubble, creating more vacant lots, is not a winner unless some realistic balance is achieved ASAP.

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