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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