Property Tax Delinquency Auctions as Ghetto Creators and People Removers

Harbour Portfolio Advisers houses boarded and abandoned in suburban Atlanta

Atlanta  Two of the most heartbreaking and moving injustices we stumbled on when the ACORN Home Savers Campaign teams were doorknocking families in contract buying agreements in Detroit involved property tax delinquency auctions. It was a scam facilitated directly by the Wayne County Treasurer’s office and other government officials.

The easiest case for me to describe was on a door hit by the team I was on, though the other case was virtually identical. On our list we had the woman recorded as a contract buyer through one of the many subsidiaries of Detroit Property Exchange or DPX as locals call the company. When she answered the door she told us she was now the full owner of the property and rid of DPX. It seemed she had formerly held a conventional mortgage and was paying the mortgage servicer directly. Fairly typically, she was making a bundled payment to the bank’s mortgage servicer which included her insurance and property tax payments. She had gotten a call “out of the blue” from DPX some four years previously informing her that they now owned her home because they had bought it through a tax delinquency auction for $6000 in back taxes, because her servicer had gone bankrupt with no notice to her. They were calling to evict her, but they offered her a deal. She could pay the $6000 to DPX from the auction price, and the remainder of her mortgage obligation, some $15,000 to them, in monthly payments over a period of years, and she would own the house. Miraculously, she was able to do this by taking advantage of several “matching” offers DPX had made, mostly during tax refund time, where if you made accelerated payments of $1500 or more they would apply that payment and “match” it by deducting a similar amount from your obligation. She felt her story had a happy ending. We of course were horrified that she had been scammed by both DPX and that it had been enabled by the Wayne County Treasurer!

another home abandoned to tax auction

A brilliant op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Don’t Let Detroit’s Revival Rest on an Injustice” by professor and legal researcher, Bernadette Atuahene, argues that this kind of situation is not only typical of the crimes being preformed by the Wayne County treasurer and the assessment procedures, but the tip of a deeper and longstanding illegal ripoff of home purchasers that has been a huge factor in ghettoizing Detroit. Assessments for years have routinely disregarded the legal limits set by the Michigan constitution that no assessment can be listed at more than 50% of the homes evaluation. Additionally, there are limits for lower income households which are ignored with impunity with the treasurer and assessor saying plainly that they would keep stealing the homes from people, because it was up to the victims to appeal their assessments and that if they didn’t, then it was fair for Wayne County to grab the house and auction it.

The Home Savers Campaign has asked FNMA to bar various rent-to-own property companies like Detroit Property Exchange, Harbour Portfolio, and others from its auctions, and we are working with allied organizations like Detroit Eviction Defense and Detroit Action Commonwealth to demand that such companies be barred from Wayne County tax delinquency auctions as well. Reading Atuahene makes us wonder whether they are all in cahoots, making justice even harder to win, since state laws and the Constitution seem to have given them so little pause.

unique home a Vision Property Management contract buyer is making his own

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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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Assembling the Facts on the Ground about Land Contracts in Detroit

Oakland   The back of the envelope figures from three days on the doors, based on reports logged into the database by our teams in Detroit, indicate that of more than 125 doors hit, half of the properties are abandoned. That’s not good for neighborhoods, the City of Detroit, or the future prospects of building viable communities there. We increasingly began to question how good this level of abandonment of land contract and rent-to-own properties is even for the companies that specialize in this seamy side of the housing market in urban areas.

As a business model that fits snugly in the category of what a reporter for the New York Times termed the dominant modern “flagrant exploitation economy,” the companies operating within this most predatory segment of the housing and rental market face challenges. By process of elimination of usual factors, an economist speculating on principal cause of the 2008 real estate collapse is now arguing that there was an irrational psychology that almost spread virally that vast sums were to be had by “flipping” real estate, which like the tulip craze in Holland and so many other bubbles of the previous centuries, led to the unsustainable inflation of prices until the crash. Detroit Property Exchange is still pushing that myth in lower income communities with its signs that urge potential customers to call 888-FLIP to connect with the company.

Certainly the lease and contract documents starting from “as is” and including the company’s rights to evict the “buyer” immediately for even a single missed payment at any point in the term of the agreement, lead one to believe that these companies are making their money by flipping the contracts from one “sucker” to another, as an on-line Detroit magazine called the Bridge, writing about our campaign described the buyers. We are not convinced that theory translates into facts on the ground from our doorknocking. Additionally, Professor Josh Akers shared with us an overview of research he and a colleague are soon publishing on land contracts in Detroit over the 10-year period from 2005 to 2015. The largest dozen contract sellers were involved in almost 7500 acquisitions, which was less than 10% of the over 80,000 properties in Detroit that had been acquired through tax auctions or REO’s from various governmental foreclosures. In that period contract sellers had gone through eviction procedures for about 1 out of every 3 properties, but evictions with specific properties acquired by all buyers involved eviction procedures at the ratio of 1 out of every 4 properties, which is not a world of difference. Over a 10-year period that doesn’t translate into a constant churn, likely because there is tepid demands that these practices have inevitably created in these neighborhoods.

Because there is not a robust market for these properties from stories the Home Savers Campaign is hearing on the doors, it seems that tenants wanting or willing to stay in these properties are able to negotiate a fair amount of forbearance even when missing payments because the sellers realize there isn’t a line waiting to open the door behind them. It also explains stories we have heard from several buyers where they are able to negotiate shorter terms when they are willing to take over the properties.

One reason may be the fact that many of these companies are not forwarding payments made by the buyers to resolve tax payments nor are they disclosing past liens on the properties. Lawsuits like those filed against Harbour Properties and Vision Property Management in Cincinnati to collect back taxes, fines, and penalties for their properties in that jurisdiction reveal a business model of nonpayment that seems to typify this part of the industry. That’s a ticking time bomb for the tenant-buyer for sure, especially given the rigid collection and delinquency procedures of Wayne County, and we have heard cases falling into this bad basket every day in Detroit, but it also seems to be leading to shorter term contracts and more negotiating opportunities if the campaign could engage the parties successfully.

We’re finding the handles, but we are not convinced yet that people want to grab them, given that many still see themselves as renters, rather than potential owners. That’s the puzzle we still need to find, even as we are understanding more and more about the market and these companies exploiting it.

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The Confounding Contradictions of Detroit’s Land Contract Houses

Detroit   It was a rough day on the doors in Detroit. One team recorded 14 abandoned houses out of the 17 on the walk list. Remember that these were all homes according to all available records that are owned by one of the big three land contract companies operating in the city: Harbour Portfolio, Vision Property Management, and Detroit Property Exchange, the only local outfit. Another team had eight on its list, and we had six on ours. The math is unsettling and profound, meaning that more than half of the houses these companies owned were abandoned and therefore open wounds bleeding on their blocks, neighborhoods, and community.

There were three dumpsters in the driveways of the abandoned houses our team visited and a trailer at another with a couple of bags of trash on it, but no signs of workers or work being done at these locations. At one location that we marked as “not home,” because the neighbor across the street told us that there were people going in and out of there and work being done, who knows what the story might have been, but the impression from the other locations on our list, left me wondering if these were dumpster “decorations,” rather than construction sites. We were roughly, and it was often rough, in central Detroit, if there’s such a thing, while one team was on the East Side and another was on the West Side. They reported no dumpsters and signs of construction on the abandoned houses on their lists. Don’t get me wrong, the land contract houses were absolutely not the only abandoned houses, and we saw abandoned houses on our route that were not not on our list but had signs offering them for sale, if one could call it that, or auction, with come-on’s hawking $400 a month down payments and lures advertising opportunities to flip the homes or rent-to-own more cheaply that buying. Once we were back at the offices of the historic and giant Ford Motor based UAW Local 600, which had opened their doors to the Home Savers Campaign for this project, we discovered, to no one’s surprise at this point, that both of the names on the signs we saw were simply other eye-candy LLC’s that were part of Detroit Property Exchange.

rent-to-own signs from Detroit Property Exchange subsidiary

Visiting with people, the contradictions are confounding. Our first visit was a woman with had just completed a contract with DPX as locals call Detroit Property Exchange, though her house had been listed under their French Sirois subsidiary. She had been in the home for 12 years and dutifully paying off a mortgage, until two years ago. She was informed then that DPX had bought her home by purchasing a $6000 tax lien. She had being paying everything in the usual bundle to her mortgage servicer, who had gone bankrupt and not paid her taxes, so Wayne County had put her in play without any notice. DPX gave her a contract to buy back the house for $20,000 while paying $750 per month as part of a lease to live there. She was happy because she had managed to pay them off in 18-months, partially by taking advantage of two “matching” opportunities, one at income tax refund time, where they had matched her $2500, and another a month or so later when they matched her $1000. She was proud of herself for getting them off her back and saving her house, but the math still adds up to street-side robbery. She had paid DPX $16,500 on the contract plus another $13,500 in rent, or whatever you might want to call it, so they had $30,000 from her in a year-and-a-half by stealing her house from the taxman when her mortgage servicer went belly up. The day before another team had stumbled onto a similar case, so this woman’s story is, tragically, too common.

Vision Property Management lockbox on abandoned hous

All of these contracts are predatory, though and people were being ripped off right and left, but one home we visited we talked to the brother on the porch, who was apologetic that he had not gotten his act together to buy a house, while both of his sisters had just done so, though we knew this sister was on a rent-to-own contract with Vision Property Management and suspected that was the case with the other as well. Earlier in the morning, I had briefly addressed more than 50 people in the regular meeting of the Detroit Action Commonwealth at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. People there knew about land contracts, and they knew ACORN, so I was in good company. After a brief explanation of what the Home Savers Campaign was there were questions flying from the crowd. One caught me up short and has left me thinking more and more about these contradictions. A young man said he was on SSI payments of $750 per month. His question: how could he get one of these rent-to-own houses?

Detroit Action Commonwealth Meeting

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Predatory Land Contracts and Rent-to-Own Schemes May be More about Affordable Housing than Home Ownership

Detroit   We had hit the front door a couple of times without success. The house was a single-story white brick facade set back from the street. If we had not been anywhere other than the west side of Detroit, we might have been able to blink our eyes and believe we were in a working-class suburb. We would have had to clear our minds of the vision of driving only minutes before in street after street of neighborhoods where the grass was already knee-high across acres and acres speckled with the occasional occupied house along with some deteriorating ghost structures.

The local public radio reporter rolling with us on assignment from Reveal, the well-regarded national investigative pod-cast operation on the West Coast, offered a weak apology earlier, saying something about hoping this wasn’t all we would see of Detroit. I had replied that I had been here before, and Dine’ Butler, an organizer with me, reminded her that we were from New Orleans, where we had post-Katrina neighborhoods like this as well.

We knew someone was home because the back end of the small SUV was wide open. Dine’ went around the side to the fence, and we quickly met the master of this castle. We knew he was on a land contract purchase agreement with Harbour Portfolio. He had been in the house 2-years, and had looked at a lot of Harbour houses before seeing this one and believing he could make a “go” of it. He had paid about $1500 down payment on a $42,000 purchase price with a 30-year contract at between 12 and 13% interest with monthly payments between $400 and $500. His family had been there for 2 years. He had put in about $7000 cash having to install a new furnace, roof, and wiring, which was still a work in progress. I asked him how he “felt about it,” and he said, “it’s all right for now until something better comes up.” Could he have applied for a conventional mortgage, I asked, and he answered, “not at that time.” He would be glad to come to a meeting and share his experiences and talk to others in the same situation.

The more visits we log, the more that it seems to me we aren’t hearing the responses we might expect from typical home buyers or home owners. Too often when we peel back the layers of these predatory contracts with people, there reaction isn’t surprise and in fact often seems more flight, than it is fight. People are often shocked by how bad their contracts are, but seem to have their eyes wide open to the fact that their housing is substandard. With the average rent in Detroit for a two-bedroom apartment reportedly $1300, many of them seem to almost be doing the math in their heads that even with a down payment and making repairs with sweat equity and cash on hand, they may be in better financial shape in these houses, even if they are at best “works in progress,” and at worse uninhabitable.

We haven’t hit enough doors and talked to enough people yet on the Home Savers Campaign, but listening to people and hearing what they are really saying, there’s no question that these land contract and rent-to-own or lease purchase schemes are predatory, but the crisis we are facing may be less about home ownership in the classic sense, and speaking a lot more to the crisis in available, decent affordable housing. With decreasing public housing units and section 8 vouchers and long waiting lists for both, with rising rents that are taking 50% or more of many household incomes on one hand, and an unforgiving post-2008 credit desert on the other with higher down payments, higher credit scores, and higher bank lending requirements, a lower income, working family may find themselves caught in the middle where a bigger place in rougher condition for lower monthly rent and pay-as-you-go repairs comes to look like a deal worth taking, everything being unequal. Heck, they may figure, there’s a slim chance, like playing the lottery, that they might even own the house some day…a carrot later, while being beaten by the sticks now.

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“Option to Buy,” another Twist on Predatory Purchase Schemes

Detroit   Preparing for the Home Savers Campaign teams to hit the doors in Detroit and visit with victims of the various installment land purchase and rent-to-buy schemes in the city, a crew of us sat down for a preliminary briefing with Joe McGuire, a staff attorney with Michigan Legal Services who has tussled with a number of these companies while representing their low-income clients. Joe was a fount of information and couldn’t have been more helpful, but much of what he told us was depressing in the extreme.

Perhaps what demonstrates this bleak credit desert for lower income and working families in the Motor City most vividly are the terms of one lease he shared with us promulgated by a company called Bean. It’s hard to make a rent-to-own agreement look good, but the Bean agreement was a “residential lease and option agreement,” which, when read closely, was really only a one-year option to buy the property with absolutely no guarantee that the agreement would be extended past the one year allowing the “lessor” to finally purchase the home, even if they had met all conditions of the agreement perfectly, unless of course they magically came up with the full purchase price within 30 days of the end of the lease. The mishmash of legalese really was simply a one-year ripoff and an option-to-steal by the lessor from the lessee. The terms started with a $4000 down payment for the “privilege” of purchasing the house for $30,000. An additional “option consideration of $130 per month” would be paid toward the “down payment/purchase” of the property as well as $645 per month throughout the one-year term which was the lease on this “as is” house. Any repairs, “major and minor” would be paid for by the “optionee,” and if any are paid by the “optioner,” they are added onto the purchase price. McGuire was as stunned by the agreement as all of us were.

Much of what he told us was equally bleak. The city requires an effective warrant of habitability before people move in, and all rental units, including those on rent-to-own contracts are required to be registered, but it became clear there was little to nonexistent enforcement. Even so, McGuire felt the protections for rent-to-own were better than those for land contracts, because they were even better shielded by state law with little thought that the legislature would improve them. In a sobering catch-22, McGuire actually made the case as we were leaving that he worried that tightening down on rent-to-own abuses might lead to more land contracts, which given their legal protections would be even worse for the victims. Forfeiture to the city and the Detroit land bank seemed equally fraught and neighborhood crippling.

The conversation was not without some rays of hope. Work by some of the anti-eviction groups was encouraging. Data being prepared in cooperation with local universities and professors might offer some opportunities. Focus on concentrated neighborhoods where this kind of activity might be curtailed, McGuire felt could show results.

The odds were long, but we were welcomed into the fight. Any push back would be a positive. Any effort to force more accountability by victims would be helpful. Detroit might be ground zero for this campaign, but there were mountains to climb with uncertain footholds on every route.

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