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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