Repetition in Land Contracts Confronts Simple Predatory Assumptions

New Orleans  One of the most interesting things the ACORN Home Savers Campaign has learned is to pay very close attention to what families are saying on the doors when we visit. Over and over we have had some of our operating assumptions challenged by what we learn when we are actually visiting with contract signers who are the owner-occupants in these deals.

None of this changes the basic paradigm at the heart of all potentially predatory transactions. On one side a company or individual or slumlord-wannabe is seeking to take advantage of a market dysfunction, usually financial, for consumers, usually low-and-moderate income. On the other side the consumer, often a family, is desperate for its tax refund or for affordable housing or for money to pay a health or funeral or education expense or access to credit for anything and everything. It’s the premise that allows banks and payday lenders to charge usurious interest rates, tax preparers to advance refunds a couple of days quicker than the IRS at incredible rates, and hundreds of other schemes.

In the real estate market it is why a Harbour Portfolio can charge 12% interest on a 30-year loan with a low downpayment on a contract-for-deed property when mortgage interest is running at 4%. It’s why thousands of slumlords in city after city can charge exorbitant rents, deposits, and fees for barely livable housing to families who are simply desperate for housing. It’s also what hovers around the rent-to-own, lease-to-own, lease-option markets that offer below market rents in “as is” condition, often with minimal assurances of habitability to families also desperate for housing but also sometimes hoping for ownership.

In the first months of doorknocking in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Akron, Youngstown, Detroit, and Atlanta listening taught us that the search for lower rent and bargaining power against rising eviction rates for tenants was making various land purchase schemes more of an attractive alternative for many lower income families than any hope of ownership. Often in the early doorknocking when we actually explained the contracts they had signed with various companies, families would ask us straightforwardly whether they should flee or fight, though most wanted to fight if they had a way to do so and had already put too much money and sweat into their places to want to walk away.

More recently in Detroit visits we are finding that families are often on their second or third contracts with various companies. In Detroit we also found in talking to people and warning them about the predatory nature of some of the contracts, almost as many people were asking us how they could get into a contract as were asking us how to protect themselves in a contract. In Detroit and Atlanta we were finding family after family where people were asking us how they could get into additional contracts. One young man in Detroit told us he was embarrassed that his mother, uncle, and sister were all “bettering themselves” in contracts, and he was still just renting a place. In Atlanta a Harbour contract holder told me her mother had also had a contract with another company, and she had tried to see if Harbour had other properties available.

So, yes, in some cases people are willing to sign a contract to have secure rent, regardless of the situation for a couple of years, but others, along with their families, are climbing up the contract ladder in the hopes of owning a home and doing so over and over again, even after slipping to the bottom, and they are bringing friends and relatives with them. Sometimes what you learn in organizing is not what you expect, but you have to adapt, and in this case it is clear that the Home Savers Campaign has to fight on one front to make sure the homes on various contracts are habitable for families and fairly understood, and on the other hand has to devise the ways and means to help families over the last rungs of the ladder to their dreams of home ownership.

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Street Level Provides a Different View of Atlanta Gentrification

houses across the street in SW, one an abandoned Vision Property Management home, the other a newly gentrified home

Atlanta   Visiting families involved with contract for deed agreements with big companies like Harbour Portfolio Advisers, Vision Property Management, and SG Capital in Atlanta turns out to be a much, much different experience than similar doors I’ve hit in recent months in Pittsburgh, Akron, Youngstown, and Detroit. The song is still basically the same, but the verses are different.

Yes, the contracts are “as is” with the burden of repairs, taxes, insurance, and everything else in the usual package on the buyer without any of the guarantees or protections of conventional home buying, but in Atlanta at least the “as is” is more than we have found elsewhere. There were roofs to fix, some with trees still protruding through, and sewer lines to wrangle and HVAC problems common in the South, but fewer homes where families were “camping” in homes stripped bare of wiring, plumbing and the works. In the outer reaches of Fulton County, my team had visited with families with home prices in the $20s and low $30s, but in southwest Atlanta where I spent most of my time yesterday the numbers tended to be high $30s and up to $50 and $60,000. Other teams in DeKalb and Clayton County were spread out with a wide range of prices.

barb wire protecting a vision house

Southwest Atlanta was a surprise to me. I’d been on the doors in Atlanta before, but when I started adding up the dates as I navigated BatchGeo from home to home on my visit list, it had been in the twenty to twenty-five year range. I used to tease people in New Orleans who moved to the suburbs of Jefferson Parish that if they were going to do that, they might as well live in Atlanta. On the doors though I found myself in the city, not 8 miles from the Capitol, in hills green with trees and huge quarter-acre home lots, where I sometimes thought I was in the country. I also found blocks where five or six houses might be abandoned, boarded, and collapsing, and a couple of blocks over areas that were knocking on the door and opening it to gentrification. For the first time I was talking to contract buyers who were debating whether or not to try and figure out a way to sell their houses after the four or five years they had been in Vision or Harbour properties because appraisals had doubled and tripled the valuations, and in the words of one, he might be able to do better farther out in the country.

a Harbour house

In one area, I was within walking distance of a MARTA stop, the Belt Line, a huge urban renewal project on an old rail line, and a big park. One Vision house I hit was abandoned across the street from a home so recently redone that the squares of newly laid lawn were still visible from the planting. Dumpsters were dotted here and there.

I hit one Vision property on my list that looked abandoned on its hillside double lot. As I was parking a man was opening a padlock on the door, but he turned out not to be the owner. He was a burgeoning landlord who had just closed on the house. He had bought it from New Western Investment which had bought a package of homes from Vision. He was originally from Rwanda but in the country for many decades and had just gone into real estate full time over the last year with 20 properties now. His plan was fix and flip. He pointed down the hill to the neighborhood I had just left, as already having gone past the tipping point of his price range from gentrification pressure, but he was betting on this area to be next.

The census track says this area is 89% African-American and has stayed that way even as home evaluations have leaped forward by several factors in recent years. I was navigating streets named after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, the Atlanta-based SCLC civil rights icons.

No matter what the color, the gentrification class is the same. Families our teams were seeing in the far reaches of Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton had roots on the blocks I was walking now, but the time even under a rent-to-own contract that they could imagine owning a house here was fading fast.

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