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.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Alternative Mortgage Lending Tiptoeing Around a Broker-based Implosion – Again!

REUTERS/Chris Helgren

New Orleans   In the 2008 Great Recession, fingers pointed wildly in all directions and in some cases in little Taliban caves around the country they are still doing so, and trying to play the blame game at the expense of the victims. One of the more troubling terms to emerge from those terrible days for borrowers trying to stay in their homes was the notion of “liar’s loans,” as the subprime industry called some of these mortgages. The haters tried to claim the borrowers were the liars, though our work repeatedly found that the culprits – the big liars in the affair – were almost invariably mortgage brokers channeling huge volumes of paper to subprime lenders and blowing up the numbers on “stated” income mortgages.

ACORN understood the value of stated income mortgages because many of our lower income families worked in contingent employment that was impossible to verify because of cash transactions without social security statements. Tipped employees were just one of the examples. As we met with subprime company after subprime company (four in one wild day in Orange County, California, the subprime ground zero!), we raised our concerns about the supervision of brokerage networks accounting for much of the loan volume in the portfolios they were assembling and the incredibly high percentage of stated loans, often approaching or exceeding 50% of the lending they were making and packaging. They would then flannel-mouth something about a risk algorithm that was protecting them and assure us they were on top of it all, when in fact as it developed, they were doing the happy dance to bankruptcy and blindsiding our members, many of them whom had no idea what numbers brokers had claimed to be their income, often without so much as a wink-and-a-nod, and were shocked to find in some cases that their social security income had now been converted to six figures.

All of ACORN’s fights against predatory practices by subprimes came roaring back to mind when ACORN Canada shared an article with me about the cash-crunch and turmoil that ousted the top officials and plummeted the share price of Home Capital Group, a leading company in what the Financial Post called the “alternative mortgage lending” space, which is just another name for subprime loans. The problem was simply described:

Home Capital’s current crisis began on April 19, when the Ontario Securities Commission accused the company and some of its officials of misleading disclosure. The OSC alleges that the company misled shareholders because it knew there was fraud in its broker channels before July 2015, when it announced the findings of its internal investigations and disclosed it had cut ties with 45 brokers as a result.

The Post commentators were aghast that regulators were investigating Home Capital for what they viewed as dated and minor problems with the company’s brokerage channels and accused the OSC of what Republicans in the US would now call “regulatory overreach.”

How quickly people forget! The Ontario Securities Commission fortunately had some memory cells left from watching the real estate American meltdown a decade ago, and recognized what US regulators have still failed to grasp in the patchwork quilt that regulates and licenses brokers in this country on a state by state basis. Broker fraud is inevitable in the mortgage supply chain whenever brokers are substantially paid by commissions based on closings, rather than standards that include buyer affordability. We always demanded, and often won, though sometimes too late, agreements that US-subprimes not allow mortgage brokers in their networks to be paid that way. Given the hammering of stock prices for all the companies in the Canadian subprime industry, smarter investors must suspect that all of them are only loosely supervising brokerage networks, and that’s scary.

Low-and-moderate income families need a subprime market so that they can access mortgages for houses and apartments, but they also have to demand that the companies not be predatory and that they work as hard to keep their acts together as families do who are busting their butts to pay their bills and their house notes. Let’s hope Canadians are coming to grips with these companies and have learned the lessons that Americans are living in denial and still trying to forget.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Cities and Neighborhoods Catch a Break in Beating Banks

New Orleans   In a rare surprise over the dozen years that conservative US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has run the nation’s highest court, he joined the four more liberal justices on an issue, delivering a 5-3 vote. Even more shocking the decision was a slap in the face to big banks, in this case Bank of America and Wells Fargo, on a complaint brought by the City of Miami. The court ruled that Miami had standing to sue and to further pursue its claims concerning the discriminatory lending practices of these banks and their allegation that such practices led to decreased property values in neighborhoods, and therefore reduced property tax revenue to the city as well as increasing blight in the community.

This is big, really big, because it powerfully opens the door to a broader interpretation of the Fair Housing Act and its prohibitions against racial discrimination in preventing different standards between one neighborhood and another in cases like redlining, but it also speaks to differing and discriminatory standards in mortgage lending because of income as well, which was at the heart of broker driven exploitation that fueled abuse and outright fraud in the subprime market. There can’t really be too much doubt that Bank of America and Wells Fargo didn’t pause to even take a breath in lower income neighborhoods as they altered their supervision and standards willy-nilly to drive volume on refinancing as well as new purchases much as often as new purchases. Wells Fargo has already become poster child for not supervising its sales staff, but neither does the record of Bank of America and Wells improve when examining the way that they mishandled mortgages underwater during the Great Recession, exacerbating foreclosures.

There’s settled evidence that property values decrease when homes are abandoned in communities, and foreclosures in Miami and other cities led to increased abandonment. The scandalous disregard that big banks showed in refusing to modify the mortgage terms to prevent foreclosures as well as paying little attention to managing and maintaining the properties where they were foreclosing directly lowered values in those properties and whole neighborhoods. Miami has the lead role in proving this now that the Supreme Court has sent the case back down to Atlanta and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and clearly the odds are still stacked against the city and favor the banks, but the door is open and common knowledge and a drive-by to any lower income community establishes the facts on the ground.

The banks are hoping they can prove that they were just one of many crooks, and not the ones pulling the trigger to rob the neighborhoods of their value. In criminal courts this might be a case where the banks might not get a sentence for murder, but they would definitely do time for manslaughter, because there is no doubt that they hurt these communities and the people who live there, whether they were driving the getaway car, acting as the lookout, or holding the gun.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Harbour Portfolio Contract Purchase “Buyers” Are Either Mad or Scared

Akron   They may spell Harbour with a “u” in a head fake to make you think this is a high-class operation from London or something, but when you are dealing with Harbour Portfolio, it’s just a Dallas-based private equity operation with Wall Street roots, that leaped down into vulture financing to buy thousands of FNMA foreclosed houses. What makes them different though is that they have flaunted the fact that they were going to try to make their bucks by off-loading the homes using contract for deed land purchase agreements, which most people in Ohio and Pennsylvania just call rent-to-own, though they are a bit of a different animal.

The ACORN teams on a doorknocking blitz this week starting in Pittsburgh, then Youngstown, Ohio, finished with two teams hitting forty doors in a cumulative ten-hour sprint in Akron. Over the three days, we may have put the flesh to the wood on close to 100 homes. We wanted to listen carefully to what people were saying to understand how their experience with these high-risk and often blatantly predatory home purchase schemes were working out for them. We learned a barrel full and met some great people, and the week was invaluable in allowing us to finally get our arms around this campaign after surrounding it with almost four months of researching property records, looking at agreements, and getting a sense of the field and its cast of characters.

With few exceptions, people wanted to talk to us because they were as confused and uncertain about the fine print on their contracts and agreements as we were. They knew they wanted to buy a house and for the most part thought this was the only way they had a chance, so dove in and hoped they would never hit bottom.

One of our teams though talked about part of their conversation as the “angel of death” piece of their rap where they felt like they were giving people the news that they very likely would never going to own the house. My team was more gingerly, and as my doorknocking partner said to one Harbour Portfolio contract buyer with four years into the deal that we would like to go over the contract with them to make sure they would own the home at the end of their agreement, she looked us in the eye, and said that she also was scared that the contract would really never end up with a deed.

On one of our visit Harbour Portfolio visits in Akron, we started after identifying ourselves and asking the confirmation question about whether the man had a contract with Harbour. He quickly came to the steps saying, “You mean Harbour Portfolio!” He was mad about every part of his experience with Harbour. A bathroom ceiling had fallen down on his sister causing $1400 in repairs, and, worse, hurting her so badly she wasn’t able to work. On our first Harbour visit in Pittsburgh, we had been ushered into the living room to talk to the owner who was confined to the couch, recovering from surgery on a fused disc in her neck. Later in the conversation it turned out faulty steps in the house had caused the fall. To say some of these homes are unsafe for their new contract buyers is not speculation, but a statement of fact.

There was confusion about the contracts from start to finish. One owner noted that somehow they had allowed his sister to sign, rather than him, confusing the family and the potential ownership. Another was sure she had a mortgage despite the fact that she was paying National Assets, one of Harbour’s servicers, had only paid $1500 as a down payment on what she knew as a double-digit rate of interest and thought would cost her $100,000 before it was over on a home she knew Harbour had bought for $13,000. She finally agreed it was not a mortgage, when she recognized the term “contract for deed” was on her agreement after we mentioned that kind of instrument. Another had gone through three servicers already. None of the terms matched. One was paying insurance directly and having problems with Harbour telling her they were also paying for the insurance through them, and had been unable to stop the double payments.

None of this was “let the buyer beware,” so much as all of it was “make the buyer scared!” Every Harbour buyer we met was holding their breath that they would own these homes on a hope and a prayer without any real grip on their contracts and even a scintilla of belief that Harbour was dealing with them in good faith.

Several of our team were veterans of ACORN’s many anti-predatory lending campaigns so for some of them it seemed like déjà vu all over again. The only exception was that these contract purchase and rent-to-own schemes were so much worse. In those deals, most of the theft was on the level of the interest, points, and fees. Here it’s everyday pocket pinch on homes built on hopes and often crumbling around them.

Please enjoy Willie Nelson’s He Won’t Ever Be Gone.

Thanks to KABF.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Doorknocking Home Buyer Victims of Contract Buying Scams in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh   The more we researched the revival of contract for deed land purchases in places from Memphis to Chicago, Detroit to Philly, and the rapidly spreading, predatory scam involving rent-to-own agreements, the more it became obvious that we had to get on the doors and listen to what people were saying who were living in these houses and facing the daunting odds and brutal gauntlet to home ownership. ACORN assembled a team of veteran organizers from Philadelphia, Boston, Brooklyn, and New Orleans to rendezvous in Pittsburgh to partner with our affiliate, ANEW, and its great leaders and staff, to begin a doorknocking blitz in three cities in an organizer’s version of a listening tour and an exploration on whether or not there was potential heat and traction for a Contract Buyers Campaign or whether or not families signing these agreements were happy campers.

Actually, camping did come up quickly in one of the first visits in the team I was with, but happy was never ever mentioned. When we got up the steps a gate blocked the porch that said “Do Not Enter,” but after I tapped on the window, a woman came out, and when I said we were talking to people who had experience with rent-to-own purchase agreements, she waved us all into the living room, sent the children scurrying so we could sit, and she had her partner start the conversation saying they had had nothing but trouble in buying the house, and then proceeded to detail years of trials and tribulations with Vision Properties, based in South Carolina and this scheme. From the day they signed the agreement and even before moving in, they discovered someone had kicked in the back door and stripped the electrical wiring and the plumbing. They called Vision, asking them to take responsibility, and Vision said they were on a triple net lease, and it was all on them, so in their words the first six months they “were camping in the house.”

That was four years ago so the situation has improved, but their relationship with Vision remains poisonous. They had paid $1000 down payment for a house Vision said they were selling on this basis for $20,000. The first five years though their monthly payments would be $300 per month with 30% supposedly going towards what they described as an additional down payment, which would add another $6000 to their down payment. They weren’t able to put their hands on the agreement to show us, but supposedly only then would they start really purchasing the house from their understanding. We didn’t bother them with the math, not wanting to be bad news bears, but the numbers were already shocking. In another year, they would have paid $7000 on something Vision was calling a down payment and another $12000 in rent to Vision, which clearly despite having an ostensible rent-to-own agreement was not adding up to any payments on the principal, even though at the end of their first lease term they would have paid $19,000 against the value of a $20,000 house. They had put another $5000 into the place, not counting their countless hours of labor, and felt fortunate that the borough inspector was working with them on a problem with the sewer line in the other half of their house which everyone involved knew was going to cost thousands to repair. Without any of us saying it, they knew and we knew, that Vision was likely going to be telling them after five years to keep paying this so-called rent with only a piece of it going towards a deed at the end of their rainbow. Oh, and don’t think for a second that Vision is smiling yet as they giggle while walking to the bank. While changing jobs as a housekeeper in a Pittsburgh motel this last December, they were late on one payment and Vision gave them a 7-day eviction notice which they only avoided with a phone shouting match and a double rent payment of $600.

When I asked if they were ready to come to a meeting in a couple of weeks, there was a quick yes from both of them. Were they prepared to bang on the table and shout their protests? Hell, yes, was the response. They had tried to post warnings to others on Facebook about these scams. They had been talking about running for the borough council to make them listen.

This was just one story from the doors.

It wasn’t exceptional though. It was typical. There was resignation and understanding from every family that they were caught in a scam, but in the common conflict of predatory transactions, all of them had been desperate for affordable housing and some way to make something their own, took the gamble with their eyes open, hoping for some good faith, and now were reaping the whirlwind with anger and frustration and looking for justice and ready to embrace and take action with an organization willing to allow them to fight.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

A Worrying Cycle of Housing Exploitation

New Orleans   I can’t exactly prove this yet, but the pattern is pretty gross already, and if I were a bettor, I would lay odds on the outcome. This is about housing and how things slide downhill when no one is watching and no one really cares. This sad story starts with the foreclosure crisis triggered by sloppy, scandalous, and speculative banking practices and may end in even more exploitation when some of these same houses end up almost a decade later deteriorating neighborhoods and in even more exploitative contract for deed “sales” in the credit desert for lower income communities still lingering in the wake of the Great Recession.

Ok, everyone knows that millions of homes ended up in foreclosure when the residential real estate market crashed in 2007-2008. Banks were over-leveraged in securitized loans heavily populated with mortgages that unsupervised brokers had patched together, often in a mixture of fact, fantasy, and falsehood. The government bailed out banks to the tune hundreds of billions, including taking over quasi-public FNMA and other government insurers of these mortgages. The homeowner, trying to hang on, got precious little help because the government allowed banks to administer the modification and forbearance programs, giving financial institutions little incentive to write down the mortgages to post-recession market prices which would have allowed some buyers to hang on, but would have weakened the balance sheets of the banks.

Although there is still outrage that none of the top dog bankers were really held accountable, the Justice Department and other agencies and some states have won multi-billion dollar settlements from the banks for their irresponsibility. Most of the settlements required them to pay fines to the government, but also required them to modify mortgages more extensively. Critics of the settlement terms always raised the fact that allowing the banks to use some of their penalty money to write down mortgages, essentially was giving them permission to move money from one pocket of their pants to another, which counts as a reward, rather than a punishment.

It is now clearer in reporting done by both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal that another big loophole, especially for big Wall Street financial titans like Goldman Sachs, allows them to satisfy the terms of the settlements by purchasing foreclosed properties from FNMA and flipping them for a profit. Goldman successfully scooped up two-thirds of a recent FNMA auction which translated into 8000 homes with unpaid balances of $1.4 billion costing Goldman $5.7 billion. The settlement requires they provide $1.8 billion in relief so by their reckoning this transaction could get them close.

Overall the Journal reports that Goldman has acquired 26,000 homes from Fannie and more from Freddie, private sellers and others. Rather than modify or repair, many end up in another foreclosure and are sold off in bulk as well through a subsidiary, MTGLQ Investors LP. I would bet a bunch of this inventory is also being off loaded to other bottom fishers, hedge funds, and shady operators to then be recycled through predatory contract for deed and rent-to-own arrangements at high interest and no equity to continue the vicious cycle of exploitation and neighborhood destruction. The surest bet is that none of these financial institutions are offering standard mortgage loans in these low-and-moderate income communities given the higher credit scores and other lower loan levels required.

I’d like to be proven wrong, but this is where the trail is leading, and none of the paths are pretty.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail