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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Citizen Wealth in Home Ownership is Becoming Citizen Inequity

New Orleans   A couple of years ago I wrote a book called, Citizen Wealth: Winning the Campaign to Save Working Families. It was commonly known that for low-and-moderate income families the largest index of any wealth they possessed was based on whether or not they had managed somehow to become a homeowner. At ACORN we had fought that battle for years in order to get banks to fairly offer mortgages to lower income families so that they could acquire single-family homes or coops, and in those fights had won billions allowing millions to own their own homes. It was certainly not enough to achieve any semblance of equity, but it was a good step forward, particularly increasing the home ownership percentages of African-American and Latino families to record levels, although almost all of those gains were wiped out by the 2008 Great Recession.

In doing the research for the book, I was shocked that the largest so-called social program in the nation’s budget, dwarfing direct welfare, food stamps, and all other housing benefits, both singly and collectively, was the mortgage interest deduction, which now totals more than $70 billion annually. As disturbing was the degree to which the mortgage interest deduction was largely not a social program which benefited the citizen wealth of lower income families but was disproportionately benefiting middle class and wealthy families. After all, at the threshold where such an income tax deduction had real financial weight and meaning, a family had to be in an income bracket high enough to justify itemizing their deductions.

As the Home Savers Campaign this year has visited with families in a number of cities in the Midwest and South, it has also struck all of us that as blatantly predatory as many of these contract for deed and rent-to-own scams have been to the families victimized by them, many of these families have accepted the risks even accepting the dangers and the deceit, simply because they were desperate for housing they could afford, no matter its condition. For the same reason, the reaction of many victims when they realize they have been swindled has often been as much anger as it has been resignation, and a feeling they should walk away, rather than fighting for justice for their investment, all of which speaks to the crisis in affordability.

Reading “House Rules” by Matthew Desmond in the New York Times there were more facts and figures that underlined the affordable housing crisis which is driving income and racial inequality throughout the country. Some facts:

  • The average homeowner boasts a net worth ($195,400) that is 36 times that of the average renter at $5400.
  • With rising housing costs the housing standard where 30% or less of a family’s income equals affordability, half of all poor renting families spend more than 50% of their income on housing costs and 25% spent more than 70%.
  • In 2011, the median white household had a net worth of $111,146, compared with $7113 for the median black household and $8348 for the media Hispanic household. If black and Hispanic families owned homes at the same rate as whites, the racial wealth gap would be reduced by almost a third.

There was much more, but you get the point. Worse, the consensus is that there is no political constituency for reform of the mortgage interest deduction, nor in the absence of reform an equivalent program or benefit that would help renters or bring balance to this wealth and racial inequality.

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Cities Trying to Fight Back Against Home Exploitation Scams

housing inspector in Toledo

New Orleans     Perhaps against their will, some Ohio communities have become ground zero in trying to throw roadblocks in the path of companies exploiting the desperate need of lower income and working families for affordable housing and, just maybe, the hopes of traversing the credit desert to home ownership.

The best local ordinance that seems to have emerged in this effort is in Toledo. Chapter 1765, entitled Conditions for Conveyance of Property by Land Installment Contract, passed in 2015, tries its best to grab this bull by the horns. Toledo does so by first making the issue of responsibility very, very clear. It’s not just the seller or owner of the property that has to follow the ordinance but “any agent” of the owner and any entity defined as the owner.

The critical issue that ACORN’s teams confronted repeatedly in recent visits to Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and Akron was the fact that families were finding themselves in land contracts which met no conceivable standards of habitability. Toledo’s ordinance goes out of its way to do two things that are essential in protecting families from abuse in these contracts. On one hand the city insists that all contracts have to be recorded with the city. Most of these companies are playing whack-a-mole in this regard. Vision Property Management for example listed only five properties in Pittsburgh, though we found more than twenty on a quick search of property ownership records, and suspect that the real number is many times more. Secondly, and even more importantly, Toledo requires a certificate of occupancy before a family can reside in a house under a land installment contract and only after the city has inspected the property and its major systems and found that they are satisfactory.

The language in the ordinance is mandatory and unambiguous:

(a) No vendor shall convey any interest in a residential property through land installment contract unless a Certificate of Property
Code Compliance or Temporary Certificate of Property Code Compliance has been issued, pursuant to this section.
(b) No vendor shall fail to deliver to the vendee a copy of the current Certificate of Property Code Compliance or Temporary
Certificate of Property Code Compliance prior to the execution of the land installment contract.
(c) No vendor shall fail to record, as provided in R.C. 5301.25, the land installment with the county recorder and deliver a copy to
the county auditor within twenty days of the execution of a land installment contract.
(d) In a conveyance of any interest of a residential property through land installment contract sale, no vendor shall knowingly
require a vendee, as a condition of the sale, to sign a “quit claim” deed, deeding the property in question to the vendor in the event of a
default by the vendee.

The penalties are perhaps weaker than they should be, beginning at $250 for the first offense and moving to $1000 for the third within a two-year period, and judging the offenses to be a misdemeanor if recurring, which may not be sufficient to intimidate these fly-by-night outfits. Furthermore, the devil is in the details, when it comes to how aggressive Toledo has been in forcing the hand of these predatory operators, which we have yet to determine.

The City of Lorain in Ohio passed an ordinance in 2014 also requiring certificates of inspection and occupancy clearly also trying to get their arms around this crisis in their community, but sadly a close reading of the requirements pulls them up short. Lorain’s measure tries to impose the burden “at the point of sale.” Part of the entire business model of these companies and the core of this predatory scam is keeping the family from ever getting to the point of sale and forcing them to live in often dangerous structures with limited resources holding on to little more than their hope of ownership.

Similarly, Youngstown, Ohio, path breaking ordinance creating a “foreclosure bond,” forces refundable payments after foreclosures, forcing responsible upkeep of the property by corporate and individual owners, and has worked spectacularly in managing the overall condition of communities from what we could see, but doesn’t cover evictions, at least not yet, or specifically rent-to-own or land purchase contracts, and of course is better at locking the barn door after the fact, rather than on the front end like Toledo.

Regardless, Ohio cities confronted with this grassroots crisis are responding, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist or looking the other way like most communities, oblivious to the way that low to moderate income families are being exploited by these schemes and forced to live in abominable conditions.

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Vision Property Management: Exploiting Lower Income Home Buyers as a Business Model

New Orleans   In writing about Vision Property Management, the predatory and unscrupulous rent-to-own real estate company, reporters for The New York Times obviously struggled for a way to describe where to place Vision and other bottom-fishing realty companies that exploit lower income and working families’ hopes of home ownership. They ended up just talking a walk and euphemistically referring to these operations as operating in “this corner of the housing market.” If it’s a corner, it’s a very dark and nasty place.

Vision, based in Columbia, South Carolina, owns more than 6000 houses, many of them purchased at rock bottom prices from the foreclosure inventory dumped on the market “as is” by the quasi-governmental housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Times described their modus operandi succinctly:

Vision markets its homes on a website, with most of the transactions taking place either over the phone or by email. Sometimes the photos of the properties are several years old and do not reflect what they actually look like.

You’re wondering how that would not run afoul of truth-in-advertising laws aren’t you? I thought the same thing, but to the degree that state and federal laws do not seem adequate to regulate operations like Vision, this dark corner of the real estate market, whether called contract-for-deed, rent-to-own, lease purchase, or whatever, is based on transactions where the “looks” of the place may be the least of the problem. No inspections, no appraisals, and agreements based on condition “as is,” make it easy to hide problems as severe as lead poisoning and roof leaks in Baltimore, lack of water, heat and good sewage in Arkansas, and unaddressed code violations and thousands of dollars in fines in Cincinnati, all of which reporters were able to document from disgruntled and exploited wannabe home buyers. Even a recent photo on the Vision website would not have revealed the horrors that awaited these families – and thousands of others.

As we’ve noted over recent months, contract for deed land purchases, like a bad weed, have grown in the credit desert since the Great Recession for lower income families still hoping to own their own homes. In the wake of these horrible stories of exploitation, some states are finally looking to tighten up regulations. A bill in Illinois is progressing that would give buyers some additional rights, especially once they have paid more than 10% of principal and interest. A bill proposed in Maryland had less luck, as the real estate industry muscled up to prevent reform even in the wake of lead paint poisoning in some of the homes, arguing that over worked and undermanned city inspection teams needed to do better. The Uniform Law Commission is evaluating whether to draft model legislation on contract for deed purchasers in the wake of all of this shame and scandal, but that will also take years.

Exploited home buyers shouldn’t have to crouch in this dark corner of the market waiting for relief. Signing light on the problems is valuable, but this is a situation that cries for action, since the words aren’t working.

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Cash Flow is Huge for Low-and-Moderate Income Families

Money coins fall out of the golden tapNew Orleans   In reckoning with the daily, survival and success struggles of low-and-moderate income families given the myriad of challenges they face, sometimes the experts stumble over the obvious in one of those, “Oh, yeah!” moments that we all have. Reading a recent copy of Shelterforce magazine, there was an article called “Is Financial Unsteadiness the New Normal” by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider which offered a case study of just such a moment. They examined the demands of financial security for lower income families closely and argue that in addition to looking at income, especially annual income, and assets, as paltry as they are, we need to look at cash flow to understand the full dimensions of citizen wealth for such families. Now, we can all say together, “of course!”

In dealing with the crises facing such families in our increasingly inequitable society, economists have long noted that assets have fallen to hardly above zero for many families, especially in the wake of the clawback of home ownership for minorities. The Pew survey folks have found that 41% of all households have less than $2000 in liquid savings. Other reports have noted that many families do not have the liquid resources to deal with a financial crisis of even $400 without help from family, friends, or lady luck.

The authors point out that looking at their US Financial Diaires Study Households of about 235 families in California, Mississippi, Ohio-Kentucky, and New York City they found some discomforting information,

“…we found…evidence of a lot of volatility within the year. On average, families in the study had more than five months a year when income was 25 percent above or below their monthly average. For example, a household making $36,000 a year isn’t necessarily making $3000 a month. Based on our data, for more than five months a year, that family will earn less than $2250 or more $3750.”

All of which makes it hard to save and hard to spend and contributes to the problem. The irregularity of a families’ income stream means the issue for many is more “illiquidity than insolvency.”

The issue is so severe that the author’s cite a report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Pew people that 85% of the 2000 households surveyed would prefer financial stability over “moving up the income ladder.” In essence, people are voting give me stability rather than stress even if it means less cash and a lower lifestyle: a good bird in hand, rather than who knows what in the bush.

The authors found that this illiquidity creates a snowball effect on other issues as well. These are not problems solved by the bankers favorite stopgap of “financial literacy” programs either. People are very well informed that they have irregular income, and given the rise of the contingent employment and informal employment economy, they know there are going to be ups and downs. When I was organizing hotel housekeepers and other hospitality employees, all of them knew they were going to be hurting for money in the New Orleans summer as well as over Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays when the room count was down, but that didn’t mean they could grow other dollars on different trees, though many tried, more fail.

The authors correctly point out that this makes budgeting horrific, and exacerbates the affordable housing dilemma for low-and-moderate income families. You can forget about home ownership if your income never gets to the point where you can create a down payment. Of course the home ownership model for citizen wealth for lower income families is already severely challenged, if not destroyed, but recognizing the role of cash flow puts another nail in the coffin of that dream rather than in the beams of a new house.

Representing school workers in Texas who have an option of choosing to receive their money year round rather than just during the school year, our union can see that some employers have long understood the simple facts of cash flow, but clearly as Morduch and Schneider point out, that’s not enough to start seeing a solution to the problem even if underscores the continuing crisis. This is a “new normal” or a clearer picture of the old normal hardly matters, it’s a huge barrier for millions of families and getting bigger, not smaller.

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Bank Redlining Increasing and Wealth Plummeting in Minority Communities

Seattle 1964

Seattle 1964

New Orleans        The Federal Reserve report on the continued decrease in lending to African-American and Hispanic families is unambiguous.  In 2013, 4.8% of total home loans were to African-Americans, 7.3% were to Hispanics.  In 2012, the numbers were only marginally better at 5.1% and 7.2% respectively.  As recently as 2006, before the real estate meltdown the numbers were almost 50% higher when combined, exceeding 20% of the total loans.

The other thing that is clear in the total failure of the Obama Administration to provide any real relief to so many homeowners is that citizen wealth for these same families has plummeted, putting more families underwater, owing more than the value of the loans in black and brown communities. While home values have declined about 10% in white communities, values have dropped by 20% in predominantly African-American neighborhoods and 26% in Hispanic-majority communities. It is virtually impossible not to conclude that banks are neither loaning, nor are they providing relief in such communities. If that’s not redlining, then let’s come up with a new name for it, because whether you say tomATo and I say toMAto, it’s all the same thing.

Reading the Wall Street Journal on this issue the only other thing that is crystal clear is that everyone responsible wants to point the finger somewhere else, usually at the government, rather than their own behavior, and muddy the water as much as possible, rather than moving to fix the problem with more rational policies and programs. The banks want to claim that they are raising credit scores higher than required because they don’t want to pay billions of penalties for their criminal behavior in robbing and fleecing both rich and poor. Does that sound like taking responsibility for your crimes and endeavoring to do better? Hardly!

And, how can blaming the lack of lending or relief to minority neighborhoods on these homeowners when every indication is that the roots of the securitization scandals were deeply set in speculation and largely white, middle-income and suburban communities? Count on the head of the Mortgage Bankers’ Association to voice the racism inherent in these new, whitewashed policies. David Stevens, their CEO, says the hammering of minority communities is “just simple math…tightening the credit has an unusually high impact on minority borrowers.” Stevens and the MBA are the lobbyists for bankers and banking in Washington, DC, so this is scary. They seem not to have gotten the memo that underlies the Federal Reserve report required by the Community Reinvestment Act and Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, which is the fact that they are supposed to be proving that they are doing better and doing everything possible to increase lending in minority areas, not just show up, and sign the attendance list.

Home ownership for lack of any better plan in place is still the largest source of wealth for lower income and minority communities so this level of inaction, blame shifting, and rationalizing puts the heavy fist of bankers on the scale to further increase the shift of inequality between the rich and poor, towards the rich. The underlying racism insures that lower income, minority communities by damn stay that way.

It’s not simple math. It’s simple racism, and that’s what the Federal Reserve is supposed to be stopping, not enabling, and it’s what these reports are supposed to be exposing for action, not simply noting in passing.

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