Bottom Feeders, Home Dreamers, and Big Time Realty Schemers

foreclosureChicago     When neighborhoods are wracked by foreclosures and the abandonment that accompanied the 2008 Great Recession and financial chicanery that popped the real estate bubble, significant studies have documented the loss in value experienced not only by houses on the block, but also houses within a mile away that also lose value. Put enough abandonment together and there is a tipping point that can change the reputation and economic reality of an entire neighborhood. It’s what blockbusting, real estate speculation, federal financing restrictions, and legal segregation did to thousands of urban neighborhoods fifty years ago. It’s also what inadequate foreclosure relief and similar speculation, credit deprivation, and legal indifference has the capacity to do now in thousands of communities not only in urban areas, but also suburban and exurban developments where a lot of the foreclosure crisis was centered.

Working with former ACORN organizers in the Phoenix area in 2009 and 2010 on an anti-foreclosure strategy in close-in Phoenix neighborhoods that had been working and lower middle income, brick, one-story houses, some even with small swimming pools, the foreclosed houses at 35 miles per hour wouldn’t look much different from those that were occupied, but slowing down or walking by, we could identify one in three that were clearly somewhere in the foreclosure process or already vacant. Houses that could have been valued at $150 to $200,000 in 2006 could be had for as low as $25 to $50,000 if a family would have been able to get credit, which was increasingly difficult under the tighter lending standards that accompanied the subprime lending market. The new suburbs of $250 to $400,000 houses 20 miles and more from the city center in the farther edges of Maricopa County were even in worse shape. We had meetings on some blocks where half to two-thirds of the streets were in some process of foreclosure.

Looking at the 153,000 properties in Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio on the RealtyTrac foreclosure list more closely, there were a lot of conclusions that became clearer with more attention. The Fannie Mae dump of these houses wasn’t for pennies in 2012, 2013, and 2014. These were not $1000 giveaways. Yes, many of them were likely substantially devalued from their original purchase price, and that information wasn’t available to us, but we could see that these were not giveaways for the most part, but more market-corrections that could have been achieved if banks had modified by reducing principal to market, rather than forcing foreclosure. Now, in many cases as the houses moved the ones getting to eventual resale often were returning to higher assessed valuations.

The other thing that was increasingly clear is that we were wandering in the land of hopes and perhaps shady dreams more than we were dealing with big timers. Of the 153,000 plus homes, almost 115,000 were acquired from FNMA by individuals, maybe folks hoping for a home, and maybe small timers thinking they might make a buck on the come. Another 9000 or so bought between two and five from FNMA, and they were surely small time speculators, often concentrating on one suburb or city and hoping for the market to recover so they could make a buck. About 60 outfits including the big timer, Harbour Properties, picked up 50 homes or more. It’s worrisome to believe that targeting the big boys might not be enough to catch the small fry and to sort out where the devil might be swimming in the deep blue sea on predatory contract-for-deed purchases as well.

The impacts of all of these real estate plays are somewhat off the radar now, but their impacts in communities, more of which are suburban and exurban that was imaginable decades ago, is going to be huge.

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Looking Under the Hood at the Tragic FNMA Foreclosure Dump

screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-9-18-38-amChicago   Foreclosures are terrible experiences for families and neighborhoods. More than 5 million homes were lost to foreclosures in the 2007-2008 housing crisis. Even today as home prices have largely moved back up to 2006 prices nationally, there are still more than 1 million foreclosures annually. As we all know, despite the numbers touted by big banks and government, the number of mortgage modifications was minuscule compared to the desperation and need of families, despite billions of federal dollars, because the banks drove the process, stuttering and stalling all the way while leaving millions under water, where many are still swimming.

After the pickup trucks, borrowed station wagons, and occasional moving vans pulled a family out of their home, sometimes with a sheriff pushing and real estate agent pulling them at the door, many of these homes ended up unsold and piled up in a heap at Fannie Mae, the Federal National Mortgage Association, the quasi-public-private guarantor of the mortgage. Finally, in the early evening, our team in Chicago, trying to get our arms around a campaign to stop the predatory practices of contract-for-deed sales, got a list of 153,000 names and addresses of foreclosed properties that FNMA had dumped onto the market when they couldn’t be sold. These were just the properties in three states with about 50,000 in Illinois, 60,000 in Michigan, and 43000 or so in Ohio.

Going through the list, name by name, was a little like walking through a graveyard and trying to read the tombstones. These are the properties FNMA couldn’t sell and ended up packaging in twos and threes to individuals, tens to real estate brokers and construction companies, and hundreds to investors, and thousands to equity hedge fund operators like Harbour out of Dallas. Looking at the list, Harbour had picked 2500 roughly of its reported 6700 in just these three states. The Detroit Land Trust ended up with a pile, as did the Wayne County Treasury Department, and a number of other city and county receptacles of last resort when even these tranche investors of foreclosed properties couldn’t off load them.

A column in the list was even more depressing in some ways because it indicated where the FNMA dump still stands smoldering like the trash fires of La Matanza outside of Buenos Aires. The columns noted whether or not the properties were owner occupied or not. Yes, meant, yes. Zero mean no. Any random grouping of 30 or so entries would find as few as 8 and as many as 10 or one-third occupied.

We are still trying to pull the information out of the data to determine where predation in the form of contract-for-deed purchases are being used to continue the pattern of destruction and exploitation. What is clear to me so far though, as my fingers walk through the columns in the foreclosures dumped by FNMA, is that this kind of FNMA garbage heap destroyed thousands of families and thousands of neighborhood, lowering values and leaving abandonment and vacant, now deteriorating homes.

No matter what campaign we outline by the end of these days of meetings, there is no escaping the human and community tragedy all around us.

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Predatory Contract-for-Deed Sales Cast a Long Shadow in Chicago

Picture featured in the December 1968 edition of the Jesuit Bulletin.

Picture featured in the December 1968 edition of the Jesuit Bulletin.

Chicago  Sometimes it felt like fifty years ago.

That’s only partially because sometimes the conversation would toggle back and forth to the work the Contract Buyers’ League did on Chicago’s West and South Sides decades ago from 1967 to 1972 or so, as strategies and tactics that would address the current, horrid, predatory comeback of contract-for-deed purchases were compared to the old campaign in a day long and continuing conversation between CBL veteran organizers and leaders, contemporary activists, and concerned community and clergy. It is also because we were literally sitting among the remaining survivors of the ghettoization and depopulation of North Lawndale and Austin as we met in beautifully paneled rooms in one rectory in Lawndale and slept in the former rooms of long reassigned priests in the empty floors of another rectory in Austin managed by one priest now, where eight had once lived.

Real estate manipulation, financial exploitation, and banking and institutional abandonment and racism built these 21st Century neighborhoods, even as we examined the great battles 50 years ago that were heroic without being a turning point and sat among the beautiful architectural and institutional ruins of that time. Contract-for-deed purchases are a way that a seller buys distressed property and then exploits a buyer, a family, almost invariably low-and-moderate income and too often minority, by flipping the property without making repairs while extracting predatory payments at huge premiums almost hoping for a default since there is no equity and a quick eviction process, since there was no actual property transfer, allowing the seller to sell again to another victim or another greedy seller, and keep the cycle going again.

The Contract Buyers League was a campaign, spearheaded by Jack Macnamara, a former Jesuit seminarian then, who sat with us today, and a steady stream of almost eighty college students who did stints in summers and school semesters off-and-on for years as volunteers to staff the research, hit the doors, and help the members put together the weekly Wednesday meetings and constant diet of pickets, actions, and events. Around the table were some of those former students, including by old friends and comrades-in-arms from ACORN, the SEIU, and AFL-CIO Mike Gallagher from Boston and Mark Splain from the Bay Area as well as Jim Devaney, a former volunteer from Cincinnati. A former Black Panther from those days and other community leaders now tried to puzzle out how, with the reemergence of contract-for-deed activity now in the wake of the foreclosure crisis and home lending desert for lower income and working families, we might be able to refashion a Contract Buyers campaign that could work and win now.

It goes without saying that today is different than 50 years ago. Rather than being concentrated in neighborhoods like Lawndale and Austin in Chicago and other cities with large minority populations then, today the victims are spread throughout the metropolitan area. We looked at a sample list of contract buyers acquired by two vulture hedge fund operators and there were few in Chicago itself compared to working class suburbs and developments like Homewood, Hoffman Estates, and Orland Hills. How would we get the density that put hundreds in a room on a weekly basis 50 years ago? Estimates are as high as 7 million families who are under contract-for-deed agreements now nationally, but putting them together wouldn’t be easy. We were all veteran door knockers, but we talked about how to use data files, voter lists, robo-dialers, social media, and other tools to flush out the victims and leverage the public policy and political space to create change.

There’s more work to be done in coming days, but two things kept returning us to the task of today. One was hearing our new friends from these communities where we were meeting talking about how their father’s and grandmothers had bought and raised their families in contract houses. Another woman speculated that the mystery of how her sister had lost her house might have been through a contract-for-deed rip-off, and she left at the end of the day to call her and finally ask. And, then there were the stories of the actions, lawsuits, and even some victories of 50 years ago to continue to remind us that we could only really lose, if we refused to fight this plague once again.

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Realtors and Redlining Destroyed Neighborhoods – Was Alinsky a No-Show?

redliningNew Orleans   Looking into the rising return of the family crushing and neighborhood killing predation involved in contract-for-deed property transactions being revived by Wall Street veterans and facilitated by weak regulations and federal off-loading of foreclosure inventory from the real estate bubble of 2008, I stumbled onto an interesting book, Family Properties:  Race, Real Estate and the Exploitation of Black Urban America by Beryl Satter.  Published in 2009, Satter is not only a historian and chairperson of that department at Rutgers University, but has skin-in-the-game, since she was driven to the subject to understand the conflicting family story of her own father who died when she was a child and whether he was a crusading civil rights lawyer and advocate in Chicago or a slumlord himself.  

            Being only half through the book so far, I can’t definitively answer her question, nor have I arrived in my reading to the sections on the Contract Buyers’ League, which was central to my motivation in uploading the book to my Kindle.  On the other hand, I’m knee deep in an excellent, well-written, and researched history that puts race and real estate speculation squarely at the heart of urban neighborhood deterioration from the post-war decades until our current times.  In Little Rock, where I first ran into contract-for-deed exploitation, it was always clear that if there was a power structure anywhere in the city it was centered in the real estate interests, and from our 1972 campaign to “Save the City” forward, including forcibly confronting blockbusting in the Oak Forest neighborhood, they were our main opponents.  In that sense, Family Properties was a deep affirmation and an extension of the argument and those experiences across the urban battlefield of America.

            Somewhat unexpectedly though, I’ve found nothing subtle in Satter’s critique, and condemnation of Saul Alinsky and his community organizing in Chicago during those years.  She bells him repeatedly, beginning with his antipathy for organizing the poor, who were most exploited by all of these practices, and for his inability to strategically and tactically embrace the reality of race in his organizing and the practices of the organizations they built in Chicago.  She doesn’t argue so much that the problem was direct racism, as more fundamentally a weakness in the Alinsky organizing model itself, saying that

“…ineffectiveness of the OSC [Organization of the Southwest] and TWO [The Woodlawn Organization] highlighted the two major flaws of Alinsky’s model of organizing:  his insistence that organizing efforts be fully funded before they could be launched, which left him vulnerable to pressure by the wealthy donors, and perhaps more serious, his belief that they should tackle only issues that were ‘winnable.’”

Sharpening her point she argues that, “Unfortunately, Alinsky’s insistence on fighting only for winnable ends guaranteed that his organizations would never truly confront the powerful forces devastating racially changing and black neighborhoods.”  Ouch!

            She piles on evidence to the extent that her arguments are almost irresistible, include his scolding of his lieutenant, Nicholas von Hoffman and others, for getting too involved in real estate issues when he was in Europe, that he thought were jeopardizing organizational funding, his opposition to fighting black displacement in Hyde Park, and his view that fighting “racial discrimination that lay at the root of community decay…was ‘too complicated.’”  Satter adds that,

“Alinsky often cast urban renewal as an ‘unwinnable’ issue to be avoided.  TWO’s attitude toward housing was similarly confused.  The group apparently felt that the redlining policies that forced black Woodlawners to buy on contract were too complex for effective community mobilization.”

Satter even cites Alinsky’s own biographer in the claim that killing the Square Deal campaign was done on a totally transactional basis,

“According to Alinsky’s biographer, the Square Deal campaign was ‘intentionally terminated by Alinsky and von Hoffman’ because TWO wanted the financial support of merchants when it turned to ‘larger issues such as urban renewal.” 

Twisting the knife, she adds,

“The net result was that, instead of blazing a new path for community activism, TWO became yet another demonstration of the perils of reformers’ financial dependence on the very people they needed to challenge.”

            Adding insult to injury she argues that the creation of the West Side Organization and its achievements were “an overt challenge to Alinsky, who had warned him against organizing the very poor – an action that Alinsky believed would divide the larger community.”   During the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King effort to take the civil rights movement north, she includes an assessment from one of the movement’s legendary organizers that was equally devastating, quoting…

“…James Bevell, a charismatic Mississippi-born African American who had participated in virtually all of the major Southern civil rights crusades.  In Bevel’s view, too, Alinsky ‘simply taught how to, within the context of power, grab and struggle to get your share.’”


            None of this is definitive, but it’s a critique that has weight and can’t be ignored.  Having organized and fought redlining, realtors, and neighborhood deterioration for decades, as organizers we may have to confront whether or not Saul Alinsky, as a primary architect of community organization, was not only a no-show when it mattered in Chicago, but abetted the problem by skirting the battlefields that counted, by not using issues to build power for the bigger fights, but instead running from the fights themselves.  If that’s the case, the legacy of that shadow could still be crippling the work that needs to be done in addition to the way the work is done.

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Predatory Home Buying through Contract-for-Deed is Increasing

780c1b060773287590e252e572a03ba3New Orleans   Every report indicates that predatory practices are spreading when lower income families are trying to acquire homes in the current real estate market where banks have cut back on small loans, the subprime lending market has virtually disappeared, and vulture investors are trying to exploit the situation. The terrible result has been an increase in contract-for-deed purchases, if you call them that, of houses throughout the country.

RealtyTrac estimates that since 2009, there are at least 20,000 homes being purchased annually through contract-for-deed understandings and the number is rising. The National Consumer Law Center in a report published in July of this year called “Toxic Transactions,” estimates the number of contract-for-deed purchases at 3.5 million homes, but carefully argued that the number was likely much higher. Other experts have placed the figure higher than 4.1 million. This level of exploitation is a national crisis.

Several reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post have documented the increase of these kinds of transactions, particularly noting the fact that several hedge funds have swooped in to make bulk purchases of thousands of foreclosed homes in order to flip them into contract-for-deed agreements to drastically increase their return. Harbour Portfolio Advisors from Dallas was most notorious for purchasing 6700 homes from Fannie Mae in this way for an average of less than $10,000 per property and working with its servicer, National Asset Advisors of Columbia, South Carolina has been in the process of flipping them. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau has reportedly stepped up its investigation of complaints on these home contracts, and not surprisingly both Harbour and National Asset have thus far refused to comply by providing documents. The NCLC report argues heavily for action by the CFPB to rein in the abuses common in contract purchases.

Contract-for-deed purchases have a sorry history that dates back to the racist government approved redlining of minority and low income neighborhoods before the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act in 1978. Little has changed though since many of these land installment purchases are opaque and outside of the reach of most federal protections currently and often totally unregulated in states as well.

The NCLC report is clear about why the odds are against the lower income buyer in every situation:

 

These land contracts are built to fail, as sellers make more money by finding a way to cancel the contract so as to churn many successive would-be homeowners through the property. Since sellers have an incentive to churn the properties, their interests are exactly opposite to those of the buyers. This is a significant difference from the mainstream home purchase market, where generally the buyer and the seller both have the incentive to see the transaction succeed.

I can remember meeting African-American families on the doors with ACORN in the early 1970s in Little Rock who had been paying on contracts for decades, even starting over in some cases and losing homes they had tried to buy this way. We keep thinking that we have cut the head off of these snakes, but somehow they reappear and victimize more millions.

Real estate, hedge funds, Wall Street, a property-mogul president, racial and income discrimination across the country in the wake of the real estate crisis to me all adds up to a campaign dying for action, and something that we could absolutely win, if we acted together and did so now.

***

Please enjoy Timothy B. Schmit’s Red Dirt Road. Thanks to KABF.

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Crisis in Home Ownership for Working Families and Minorities

San Jose much for sale but few are being sold (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Much for Sale in San Jose   (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

New Orleans   Something big is happening in housing. Maybe big and bad. Maybe big and unknown, but scary in its uncertainty for the future.

Here are the facts that frighten.

Home ownership dropped again in the last quarter of 2016 and when it did so, it fell below 63% to the lowest level in 50 years.

Mortgage loans to African-American families fell in the review period between 2004 and 2014 from 7% of total mortgages for blacks to only 5% of mortgages issued. Hispanic families budged up slightly from 7 to 8%, Asian families stayed at 5%, and mortgages to white families zoomed up from 58% to 69%.

This analysis of Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data was done by the National Association of Real Estate Brokers. They argue in their report that this drop has to do with a tightening of credit standards after the 2007 housing meltdown. Couple that information with another recent statistic that prices in the housing market now are only 2% lower than their historic highs achieved in 2006 before the bubble burst. For the real estate brokers, it is in their interest to have their cake and eat it, too. A return of high prices means happy days for them. Claiming the decrease in much of minority-based lending is based on a change of standards, rather than a clearer manifestation of discrimination is also squarely in their interest.

The Wall Street Journal reported that one of the reasons that minorities are getting a smaller share of loans is the return of the jumbo mortgages to “more affluent borrowers with loans exceeding $417,000.” Mumbo-jumbo. Report after report also indicates with this surge in pricing what used to be “jumbo,” is now just standard operating procedure. Average housing prices have now hit $1 million San Jose for example. Meanwhile other reports speak to housing and income growth in center cities around the country, including in areas like Detroit and Philadelphia and deterioration of income and housing prices and values in working class areas of cities, along with the paradox of millennials wanting to live downtown which is pushing the prices up now, while Pew Research surveys are also saying they are only committed to living downtown for five or ten years. What then?

Anyway we shake-and-bake these figures, it is hard to maintain a belief that that part of the American Dream that included home ownership is still alive. We can’t have both stagnant incomes and rising home prices with narrower lending parameters and believe that home ownership can increase among low-and-moderate income families. The conservative blame-game that tried to saddle the housing collapse not on Wall Street recklessness but on lax lending standards has mutated into a form of de facto national housing policy.

Does that mean there will be more affordability in the rental market? There’s no indication of any new trend there, and in fact market-rate construction for the millennials is still the driver. Meanwhile neither political candidate has a program around housing, much less affordable housing, and if values are falling in low-and-moderate income communities that are not on the gentrification list, that also means that citizen wealth will continue to drop like a rock.

Housing is now on the trajectory from problem to issue to crisis, and the silence around solutions is depressing and deafening.

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Please enjoy East Coast Girl by Butch Walker. Thanks to KABF.

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