Land Contract Companies Settle Lawsuits in Cincinnati Without Celebrations

New Orleans     In the more than a year that the ACORN Home Savers Campaign has built committees of owner-occupants in cities in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Georgia, and Tennessee to try to force companies to convert land contracts to ownership for the occupants, to renegotiate the terms, and bring homes up to standards, others have argued that the best tactic in dealing with land contracts was through the courts.  Lead lawsuits filed in Cincinnati a year ago have now been settled and provide a template for understanding what relief is possible and what is not, so let’s see what an examination of the settlements provides for the future organizing.

The City of Cincinnati sued both Harbour Portfolio, based in Dallas, and Vision Property Management, based in Columbia, South Carolina.  The suits were based on the condition of certain properties owned by the prospective companies.  The settlements in both cases resolved various fines and assessments involving these properties.  Harbour will have to pay $125,000 to settle and Vision will be required to pay about $88,000.

Going forward the companies are required to record all properties in the future.  They are also barred from entering into any future land contracts until the city has inspected the property to determine that meet minimum code standards.  There was an attachment with a list of properties that Harbour needs to resolve.  In the Vision settlement there were four properties at issue, two of which the City agreed had already been brought up to code and were deemed approved and two that were in process.

Pretty much that’s the bottom line on the settlements.  Pay up, fix ‘em up, and go on about your business.

The one area in which the settlements are completely silent is on the issue of the land contracts themselves and their provisions.   Harbour has been a classic contract-for-deed company in most of its transactions.  After investigations and subpoenas from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau about their business practices since contracts-for-deed are under Dodd-Frank, the company seems to largely be exiting the market, even though the CFPB has been rendered toothless at this point.  Vision is a lease-purchase-option company where owner-occupants sign an agreement with a term of seven years normally and at the end of that term have credits set aside and the option to then buy the property and refinance.

In the settlement the City and Harbour agreed that a separate disclosure would be given to Harbour occupants explaining that they were in a land contract.  In the Vision settlement the company agreed, regardless of the nature of their contracts, to comply with any Cincinnati regulations that govern the conduct of landlords with tenants.

All of this is for the good, but leaves both companies whole and intact though chastened, and leaves the nature of their contracts affirmed as legal and appropriate business models under state law in Ohio, either because land contracts are covered in the case of Harbour or the law is silent in the Vision situation using lease-purchase-options.  Efforts to amend the Ohio law in the legislature proposed by some seem to not be making much progress and lack Republican support in the bodies they control.  The Cincinnati settlement will be the benchmark by default and gives relief where there are nuisance properties, but leaves the structure of land contracts in various forms untouched, leaving the ACORN Home Savers Campaign with plenty of work to do in our efforts to push companies towards mortgage conversions and different contract and business models.

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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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