Wall Street and Big Corporations Go Rental and It Means Trouble

ACORN Home Savers Campaign Crew in Atlanta gets organized to hit doors in metro Atlanta suburbs
l to r: Fred Brooks, Karimah Dillard, Marcus Brown, and Lou Sartor

Atlanta   Marcus Brown from North Carolina is new to the Atlanta area, and he has yet to fall in love with it. Marcus was my navigator as we teamed up to hit the doors on rent-to-own contract buyers in metro Atlanta as one of ACORN’s Home Buyers Campaign teams visiting throughout the area. I’ve hit a lot of doors in urban America and around the world. I’ve even hit a good number in rural areas on different campaigns and organizing drives. On union organizing drives I always knew we were in trouble when I drew names in the suburbs of this city or that, but I would never put my name on the top of any master list as a suburban organizer, but that may have to change. Marcus and I were in for a learning experience and some miles to drive it turned out as we plowed through our list. We were a half-hour outside of Atlanta working our way in through one small community after another, and we were in grassy yards, and cookie-cutter, aluminum siding suburbs, and never saw a white family all day. We also saw more “for rent” signs than we saw “for sale” signs, and, frankly, we didn’t see many of either in this red hot real estate market.

But, we started connecting the dots as we looked at the cases in point.

Freddie Mac announces a billion dollar fund to back up efforts to create rental housing last week. The article was scratching its head from sentence to sentence.

 

Even while we were walking up to the doors in Atlanta suburbs, I had an article I had pulled out of the Wall Street Journal in my pocket entitled “Wall Street is the New Suburban Landlord.” In the wake of the housing crisis a lot of Wall Street money and big time realty firms are specializing in renting single family homes in the suburbs. They are betting that in the wake of the Great Recession and housing implosion of 2008, the bloom is off the rose of housing ownership for many families. They estimate that more than 200,000 homes have been bought in a $40 billion spree of bottom fishing from the foreclosure crisis and flipping the homes into rental units. Where the foreclosure epidemic went viral in the South and Southwest, they fed at that trough.

In Atlanta, we were at ground zero it would seem. In a June 2017 estimate of the top markets for the largest single-family-home rental companies, Atlanta led with 24,075 homes on offer, Tampa-St. Pete had over 14,000, Phoenix, over 13,000, Miami almost 11,000, Charlotte right behind at 10, 570, Orlando over 9000, Dallas almost 9000, and Houston over 8000. You get the picture.

This also dovetails with a research report written by Elora Raymond at the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank that found that the eviction rate in greater Atlanta was over 20% for rental units, and, hear the drumbeat now that will surprise no one, corporate owned rental properties evicted tenants at a significantly higher rate than privately owned landlords. She also noted that eviction rates are increasing significantly in markets all over the country.

Connecting the dots leads to some frightening conclusions where vacancy rates are low in hot markets and affordable housing is a mirage for working and lower income families. The business model depends on quick evictions and the extra cash from late payment fees as tenants try to scrounge to catch up with their landlords, who are now using the courts to pad their payments.

Just the kind of business that Wall Street would love obviously. But, just as we found on the doors, don’t think this is just an urban problem, it’s in the suburbs as well, and as gentrification has increased and rents have soared, many suburban neighborhoods are now populated with our families as well.

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Cutting Corners on Building Codes Kills

New Orleans  The fire that has thus far counted 79 tenants in the Grenfell Tower, a low income housing project in the wealthy West London Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has been described as the “Katrina moment” for British Prime Minister Theresa May for her early ham-fisted handling of the tragedy. Katrina involved a lot of back and forth finger pointing for months with some issues still contentious, but in London the enablers of this tragedy are being quickly identified.

The fire is attributed to an apartment refrigerator provided by a company acquired in 2014 by American brand, Whirpool, that had a plastic backing. In the US refrigerators are sold with a metallic backing to provide more fire resistance. Too many think of refrigerators and “cold” at the same time, but the motors running them are hot obviously where the business machinery of refrigeration is happening. The related culprits identified by fire officials point to poor insulation and aluminum cladding on the outside of the building. The cladding was made by Arconic, an American company that is an outgrowth of the better known Alcoa, the iconic aluminum company. Their stock is down 21% and they have indicated they will no long sell the paneling for use in high-rise structures. Buildings over a certain height in the US are required to have two concrete encased fire exists and fire doors, but not so in Britain. Other cities and countries around the world are reportedly hurriedly reexamining their codes.

Developers and owners have been more successful in pushing back building codes in the UK than in the US, but don’t get the big head and start feeling all safe, because it’s just a matter of degree, and it’s still all about the money. Codes are routinely flaunted making them literally “dead letters” without sufficient enforcement. In dealing with “as is” contracts with the Home Savers Campaign we initially thought that the Toledo, Ohio ordinance that required a certificate of occupancy before a contract could be signed might protect families until we hit the doors in Detroit and found that the same ordinance prevailed there, but was simply not enforced. We met a woman in Pittsburgh who was injured in a Harbour Portfolio property when the stairs collapsed underneath her. A man in Akron in another Harbour property told about his sister, now disabled and unable to work, after a ceiling in the shower collapsed underneath her.

Even knowing the cause doesn’t remove all culpability, which is part of my point about the deadly collusion of the authorities, developers and owners, and lax regulators and enforcers. ACORN organizers have played a supportive role to tenants and tenant organizations in the wake of the Grenfell fire, and have noted similarities to ACORN’s work in New Orleans in post-Katrina. The dispersion and evacuation has made it difficult to reach Grenfell tenants now sheltered all over, just as was the case in Katrina, where ACORN was often the only point of contact for many as a membership organization. There will also be a long debate about unheeded concerns raised by tenants at Grenfell about fire safety before the tragedy just as residents of New Orleans 9th ward had voiced opposition to MR-GO, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, and expansion of the Industrial Canal to hurricane safety.

As organizers, we constantly have to ask whether we should have done more. Building codes are boring, but despite the low value policy makers and politicians put on the purchase of the lives of low and moderate income families, these families, more than anything else, have to be our priority, and the devil is truly in those details, bringing hell and death, when attention is not paid.

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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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Hammer and Tong Fights Over Rent Control – Look at Santa Rosa and Scotland

New Orleans   With rents soaring and evictions rising in cities all over the US and the world, the real estate interests are finally facing their worst boogeyman: rent control! Rather than responding to the affordable housing crisis worldwide with new and innovative plans to provide additional housing, they are mainly digging in their heels and going deep in their pockets to fight even the most moderate proposals for market regulation or modifications.

Cases in point pop up everywhere. In Scotland, ACORN affiliate Living Rent, took advantage of devolution to win some introductory steps toward controlling spiraling rents, as the number of private tenants soars in a landscape that used to be heavily invested in public housing schemes. As an introductory step, there are now a series of thresholds that trigger the creation of “rent pressure zones,” which could cap rent increases in areas of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen. An extremely modest proposal to mandate inclusionary zoning for new housing developments in the City of New Orleans narrowly avoided overturn with state legislators tried to pull the rug on it.

All of these high pressure affordable housing contests are knife fights, and right now the sharpest blades drawing the most blood are in Santa Rosa, the smallish 175,000 county seat of Sonoma County, legendary mainly for being the heart of California wine country and northern suburbs of San Francisco. There is an election scheduled for June 6th on whether to implement a rent control ordinance approved narrowly on a 4-3 vote by the city council earlier in the year. Real estate interests quickly mobilized petition signatures, many claim under dubious conditions, sufficient to force the issue to the ballot. Veteran political professionals all agree on only one thing – this is the most expensive election of any kind in Santa Rosa, totally almost $1 million on both sides.

On one side the Chicago-based National Board of Realtors recently dropped over $300,000 into the fight as part of the more than $800,000 raised by the ordinance opponents. On the “yes” side one of the key players is the Gamaliel network affiliated community organization, the North Bay Organizing Project, a well-regarded dynamic and effective coalition of 22 faith, labor, and immigrant organizations. I got to know Davin Cardenas, the lead organizer, on the Organizers’ Forum Dialogue in Bolivia, where his work and contribution created a fan club of me and our entire delegation.

The election is too close to call, but the irony again is how moderate the proposal really is, especially in the face of the apocalyptic arguments of the realtors. The city has an estimated 11,076 apartments that would be affected, or about 18 percent of the city’s 67,000 housing units. With an average household size of 2.6 residents, that’s about 26,400 people. The provision excludes single family houses, duplexes, triplexes that are owner occupied, and condominiums. The ordinance only takes rents back to January 1, 2016 which was at the tail end of a 5-year surge that pushed rents up 50% with a vacancy rate of 1% in the city. There are also a number of exceptions that allow rents to be increased, including a virtual communistic guarantee of profits for the landlords. This ordinance is decidedly not the revolution.

Perhaps the real stickler is that the ordinance is not solely about rent regulation, but also establishes in this growing wave of tenant evictions nationally, that separation can only be for “just cause.” And, if established that there was no just cause, there is a real penalty: landlords would have to pay for the tenant’s relocation! That actually sounds fair, but the numbers on average rents in Santa Rosa mean it could cost the landlord $6000 on the average. Winning the vote might not do everything needed to curb rents sufficiently, but the fact that it might seriously reduce the number of evictions may be the real battle cry being shouted around the country by the realtors once the doors are closed.

This is one local election worth following closely, because winning might be the ripple that could start a tidal wave.

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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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