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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Wall Street and Big Corporations Go Rental and It Means Trouble

ACORN Home Savers Campaign Crew in Atlanta gets organized to hit doors in metro Atlanta suburbs
l to r: Fred Brooks, Karimah Dillard, Marcus Brown, and Lou Sartor

Atlanta   Marcus Brown from North Carolina is new to the Atlanta area, and he has yet to fall in love with it. Marcus was my navigator as we teamed up to hit the doors on rent-to-own contract buyers in metro Atlanta as one of ACORN’s Home Buyers Campaign teams visiting throughout the area. I’ve hit a lot of doors in urban America and around the world. I’ve even hit a good number in rural areas on different campaigns and organizing drives. On union organizing drives I always knew we were in trouble when I drew names in the suburbs of this city or that, but I would never put my name on the top of any master list as a suburban organizer, but that may have to change. Marcus and I were in for a learning experience and some miles to drive it turned out as we plowed through our list. We were a half-hour outside of Atlanta working our way in through one small community after another, and we were in grassy yards, and cookie-cutter, aluminum siding suburbs, and never saw a white family all day. We also saw more “for rent” signs than we saw “for sale” signs, and, frankly, we didn’t see many of either in this red hot real estate market.

But, we started connecting the dots as we looked at the cases in point.

Freddie Mac announces a billion dollar fund to back up efforts to create rental housing last week. The article was scratching its head from sentence to sentence.

 

Even while we were walking up to the doors in Atlanta suburbs, I had an article I had pulled out of the Wall Street Journal in my pocket entitled “Wall Street is the New Suburban Landlord.” In the wake of the housing crisis a lot of Wall Street money and big time realty firms are specializing in renting single family homes in the suburbs. They are betting that in the wake of the Great Recession and housing implosion of 2008, the bloom is off the rose of housing ownership for many families. They estimate that more than 200,000 homes have been bought in a $40 billion spree of bottom fishing from the foreclosure crisis and flipping the homes into rental units. Where the foreclosure epidemic went viral in the South and Southwest, they fed at that trough.

In Atlanta, we were at ground zero it would seem. In a June 2017 estimate of the top markets for the largest single-family-home rental companies, Atlanta led with 24,075 homes on offer, Tampa-St. Pete had over 14,000, Phoenix, over 13,000, Miami almost 11,000, Charlotte right behind at 10, 570, Orlando over 9000, Dallas almost 9000, and Houston over 8000. You get the picture.

This also dovetails with a research report written by Elora Raymond at the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank that found that the eviction rate in greater Atlanta was over 20% for rental units, and, hear the drumbeat now that will surprise no one, corporate owned rental properties evicted tenants at a significantly higher rate than privately owned landlords. She also noted that eviction rates are increasing significantly in markets all over the country.

Connecting the dots leads to some frightening conclusions where vacancy rates are low in hot markets and affordable housing is a mirage for working and lower income families. The business model depends on quick evictions and the extra cash from late payment fees as tenants try to scrounge to catch up with their landlords, who are now using the courts to pad their payments.

Just the kind of business that Wall Street would love obviously. But, just as we found on the doors, don’t think this is just an urban problem, it’s in the suburbs as well, and as gentrification has increased and rents have soared, many suburban neighborhoods are now populated with our families as well.

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De Jure versus De Facto Racism

Torino As we move forward on the Home Savers Campaign we are finding victims of predatory practices among all communities black, white, and brown, but more often than not since these are lower income communities, there seems to be a significant tilt towards residential segregation. Lawsuits in some cities and research reports are starting to argue that this is blatant discrimination.

Reading an excellent, recently published, book, The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein, marshals the evidence that the impact on our communities was not accidental. He makes the case overwhelmingly that, contrary to recent Supreme Court decisions, this is not de facto racism, meaning just the fact that that people are prejudiced and don’t care to live near each other, but is de jure racism, a matter of longstanding public policy. Rothstein sums up the argument of his book early, writing,

The Color of Law demonstrates that racially explicit government policies to segregate our metropolitan areas are not vestiges, were neither subtle nor intangible, and were sufficiently controlling to construct the de jure segregation that is now with us in neighborhoods and hence in schools. The core argument of this book is that African Americans were unconstitutionally denied the means and the right to integration in middle-class neighborhoods, and because this denial was state-sponsored, the nation is obligated to remedy it.

Rothstein demonstrates how de jure segregation worked most effectively in general housing and housing finance policy, but also in the areas of school location by local communities and tax assessment policies that over assessed lower income areas and under-assessed largely while middle income areas. The situation around redlining and the failure of the Federal Housing Authority to guarantee mortgages in non-white areas until the mid-1970s is well known, but Rothstein moves the clock back as well, citing a 1910 Baltimore “ordinance prohibiting African-Americans from buying homes on blocks where whites were a majority and vice versa.” He notes that similar zoning restrictions were passed in Atlanta, Birmingham, Miami, Charleston, Dallas, Louisville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, and Richmond among other cities.

De jure segregation was not just a Southern and border state phenomena. Taking the segregation and siting of public housing projects as an example, he notes that a dozen states passed laws in the 1950s requiring a popular vote before approval of a location. That dirty dozen included California, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, hardly Southern strongholds. He tells the story of the committed segregationist city fathers of Boston, Massachusetts who built the Mission Hill housing project, where I hit the doors as a young organizer, and then built a Mission Hill Extension, so that the first was black, and the second was white. The fight to keep Detroit a haven for white homeowners propelled neighborhood segregationist into the mayor’s office there. Rothstein also effectively argues that suburbanization was a governmental supported and enabled segregation project.

And, of course he revives the argument that rent-to-own and installment land purchases in urban areas, forced by the inability to acquire home ownership by minorities in any other way, created ghettos and exploited African-Americans. As we know from hitting the doors in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Detroit, Akron, and so many other cities with ACORN’s Home Savers Campaign, that’s still the case.

Finishing the book or walking the streets of urban America, there’s never a doubt that governmental fiat blocked natural integration and mandated segregation. When will justice be served and a remedy be offered?

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Oh, No, Subprime Mortgage Brokers are Coming Back

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Orleans   Please, just move the soapbox over here a little closer, because I’m going to jump and shout yet again, and sadly, not for the last time about the little named co-conspirator and enabler of the Great Recession real estate meltdown: mortgage brokers. They are under regulated, lightly trained, totally unsupervised, largely sales people too often paid little more than commissions on mortgage closings achieved often by hook or crook. They beat the bushes to create the paper stream of deals that are then packaged and picked up by banks and, increasingly, nonbanks, who have even more of the mortgage action than they did a decade ago.

A thinly disguised job announcement in the “B” section of The Wall Street Journal headlined “Subprime Brokers Back in Demand” is a warning to the rest of us that big trouble is on the way, especially in lower income communities. The reporter wrote that Southern California was once again on the “cusp of efforts to bring back an army of salespeople who once powered the mortgage industry and, some say, contributed to the housing crisis.” Call me, “some,” because that’s exactly what I’m saying. Further she notes, that “some brokers faked loan applications and steered people into debt they couldn’t afford.” Oh, yes, many, many of them did, and subprime companies ate these loans like candy.

Here’s what’s really scary. The demand for brokers is coming largely from nonbank lenders and smaller lenders, both of which are lightly or hardly regulated, by states not the feds, and in the case of nonbank lenders, they are not even required to follow the Community Reinvestment Act or provide their data through the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act. The market includes families with lower credit scores, and, god knows, there is a huge market, especially now in the wake of the recession, and these families want and need loans, and many of them deserve mortgages, especially as the Home Savers Campaign has found, since too many are finding no alternative outside of land installment contracts and various rent-to-own schemes. Additionally, workers and families with difficult to verify income sources from cash payments in the gig economy or tipped employment, need so-called stated income loans, where their money is verified without company provided W-2s. We absolutely believe there needs to be a set of subprime products and stated income loans. Where we separate is over the issue of who and what is going to protect families from abuse. One of the reforms of the last decade has been an increasing reliance on affordability, meaning a family’s ability to pay the loan. Who and what is going to assure that that benchmark remains prominent?

Brokers are just in sales-and-promotion. They push the responsibility to financial institutions, and since they are the middle-men, they can venue shop until they find some place willing to take paper and issue the loan. They then get paid. Period. The consequences downstream mean nothing to them.

Meanwhile nonbank lenders have almost half of the total mortgage market now. In the increased scrutiny since the recession, only $6 billion nonprime loans have been issued in the first quarter of this year and only $22 billion in all of 2016, compared to $1 trillion in such loans in 2005 according to Inside Mortgage Finance, cited by the Journal.

If regulators don’t make the effort to separate the baby from the bathwater this time around, millions of families and thousands of neighborhoods will drown in it again.

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I’m Not Complaining, but What a Week

New Orleans  Returning exhausted from stops in Shreveport, Louisiana, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Greenville, Mississippi, somehow I can’t get these weird signposts of the times and odd ends out of my mind. Normally, I would let them go, but somehow this Chief Organizer Report is going to be a report on the chief organizer, so bear with me.

Bargaining four nursing home contracts in Shreveport, the company already wants to include language making the Affordable Care obligations moot, even while the whole operation continues forward in the stalemate of Congress and presidential politics.

A studio chair and some folding chairs for WAMF, the new low power FM radio station that we just got on the air in New Orleans, was donated to us in Bossier City across the river (thanks Butlers and Clarks!). In a pleasant middle income suburb between a mall and an expressway, I parked my big truck, doors wide open in the driveway of the unoccupied house waiting for Local 100 organizer, Toney Orr from Arkansas, to help me load it all in. Neighbors drove by and up and down the driveway next door. No questions asked, even as we hauled the furniture out. Is that weird?

In Little Rock, despite six months of work on the Home Savers Campaign and running PSAs on KABF referring calls to Arkansas Community Organizations, the former Arkansas ACORN, that yielded little, we finally broke through and within 48 hours found a trove of both Vision Property Management and Harbour Portfolio rent-to-own and contract to purchase houses throughout central Arkansas. We had boomed out to visit victims in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania and here they were right under our noses! The lesson, even when the spirit is willing, we have to shore up the capacity to account for how often the flesh of our operations need more underwire. Capacity matters, even a little can make a huge difference, and that’s worth remembering. Oh, and, a Home Savers organizer, Dine’ Butler, was the big finish of the well-regarded Reveal podcast, home visiting a victim in Detroit.

Capacity, capacity, capacity, it comes up again and again, and amazingly we stumble around trying to find it even when it is kicking us in the knees and pushing us to the ground. One kingdom after another lost for lack of a horse. Our biggest underwriting partner at KABF was being stymied on promoting its great work, because we had never pressed hard enough for the spots for them to realize if they gave us copy we could produce them quickly or allow hosts to do “reads.” Ouch!

Visiting radio station WDSV in Greenville for the 7th month, it was the same story with a different verse. Frustrated and stalled in achieving their mission after 5 years on-the-air as the voice of the people in the Delta, they were being held hostage by technology too large and complicated for them to easily access to master the ladder to the heaven they sought. The magic and miracle is not that we can fix that, but that it takes so long for us to marry problems to solutions, so that we can move forward in our work.

Sometimes I’m racing so fast that I miss how easily it is to stumble on the simplest steps. I wish it were just me!

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Government at all Levels Needs to Act on Contract Purchase Predators – Now!

New Orleans   Advocates and lawyers are firing more and more bullets at contract purchase predators and the Home Savers Campaign has raised the ante on its demands to Fannie Mae (FNMA) in yet more signs that the offensive against these real estate robber barons is gaining increased traction.

Another front has opened with the filing of a lawsuit by Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana at the end of May. They went after local operator Empire Holding Company and its subsidiary Rainbow Realty, that has acquired over 1000 dilapidated houses in the Indianapolis area and is marketing them as contract purchase rent-to-own properties. The owner admits that virtually all of them are uninhabitable. The Fair Housing Center argues that they are breaking a pile of laws, but also makes the claim that a huge percentage of these houses are in African-American areas and that the contract sales push is directed at these same populations in a discriminatory manner.

Sarah Mancini and Margot Saunders, both of the National Consumer Law Center, and experts in this area, make a similar case in looking at the metro Atlanta area in an article pointedly entitled, “Land Installment Contracts: The Newest Wave of Predatory Home Lending Threatening Communities of Color,” in a recent issue of Communities & Banking. They call attention to the work of the Atlanta Legal Aid, saying,

Atlanta Legal Aid attorneys conducted a search of property tax records in six metro Atlanta counties and found 94 properties currently held by Harbour Portfolio in the Atlanta area; most of these homes were likely being sold through land installment contracts as that is Harbour’s business model.9 Nearly all those properties (approximately 93 percent) were located in census blocks that are at least 60 percent nonwhite, and a significant majority were in census blocks that are at least 90 percent nonwhite.

It’s hard to avoid underlining the obvious. First, the scale of this activity is huge, when you are talking about a local company in Indianapolis alone handling more than 1000 such houses. In an evil local market, they dominate any other national players. Secondly, these are not equal opportunity predators, but are de facto discriminators.

For these reasons and others, the Home Savers Campaign is also increasing the pressure by sending a letter to the head of Fannie Mae today, asking that the agency investigate and bar not only Vision Property Management, as they did recently, but also Harbour Portfolio. In addition the campaign named a number of companies using the same practices in the Detroit market and demanded that they also be barred, indicating as well they they wanted a meeting with FNMA in order to push for clearer standards to block access to government auctions in the future to any company that plans to sell them “as is” through land installment contracts. Home Savers Campaign also indicated that it intends to make similar demands city to city in other markets for FNMA bans, as they understand the FNMA criteria better.

It’s bad, and it’s on!

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