FNMA Opens a Crack in the Predatory Land Contracts Wall

New Orleans   Fresh off our meeting and work in Detroit, the Home Savers Campaign got a break. In response to Baltimore Congressman Elijah Cummings complaints about Vision Property Management, the national rent-to-own operation’s lack of cooperation with him and his committee, symbolized by the lead poisoning of children living in one of their contracted properties, FNMA banned VPM from participating in further purchases of foreclosed properties in REO auctions. Vision of course cried foul, but there was finally a crack in the wall that Vision and hundreds of other companies have built through impunity and predatory practices.

What was less clear about FNMA’s response was whether they were just trying to get the Congressman off of their backs or whether this is a real change of heart. Although in their announcement they indicated to the New York Times that they had investigated the various claims, the nature of their investigations and the standards they used to bar VPM were not disclosed. It was also unclear that they were looking past VPM to the other companies that are bleeding lower income and working families in the same way. Furthermore, while Fannie Mae has stepped up, Freddie Mac is still cowering in silence even though they were also asked by the Congressman to ban Vision.

The Home Savers Campaign is drafting a letter to demand that FNMA bar any company from their auctions that relies on “as is” contracts for contract land sales or rent-to-own agreements. In Pittsburgh, Akron, Youngstown, Detroit, Memphis, Philadelphia, and other cities, we have found that this “as is” language is a license by not only Vision, but all of the companies in this sector to push properties into the hands of families desperate for affordable housing on any terms. Many times the companies are relying on the gray area of whether they are contracting with families who can claim to be tenants and access some rights available to them as tenants, depending on the city or state, or whether the families are now putative “owners-to-be” and allowing them to escape the strictures of local and state regulations.

The Toledo, Ohio ordinance makes it clear that such families in any manner of contract land purchases have to have a warrant of habitability before any contract can be validly signed and the family allowed to move in. The devil is in the details though when it comes to enforcement. Lawyers and tenant advocates told the campaign in Detroit that there is also a similar warrant of habitability required in that city, but there is no enforcement so it’s a dead letter.

The Home Savers Campaign intends to demand that any company operating with “as is” language in their agreements should be barred from accessing any property through auctions or sales foreclosed or delinquent homes in order to dam the flow of properties upstream to these predators. Enforcement or no, that will ensure in the future that companies have to ensure at least that minimum standards have been met in these homes, before desperate families are allowed to live in them. Additionally, any work done by the families before they receive the deeds should be reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses directly or be discounted in the sales price.

Families desperate for housing cannot be the ATM for predatory housing schemes and the companies, big or small, that are running these scams.

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Vision Rent-to-Own “Buyers” Meet and Find Out Every Deal is Different

San Francisco  The first organizing meeting in Detroit of the Home Savers Campaign had spirited discussion when families discovered that they only had one thing in common in the contracts they had signed with Vision Property Management or its subsidiaries: the contract itself. When it came to the terms, to everyone’s shock and anger, everyone had a different deal!

The differences were not simply where we might expect to find them in the price of the houses they were hoping to buy or the number of years to term. In fact the prices were all very close to each other. As the campaign has come to expect from visiting so many families in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Akron, Youngstown, and now Detroit, some families attending the meeting were still shocked to find out that in seven years they would not own the home as they expected, but simply face wrenching choices between balloon payments, long term agreements, or walking away from extensive investments in money and labor in repairs.

The differences in the contracts were huge. Excitedly talking about their contracts, they found for example that in some contracts as little as $14 of their monthly payment was going to principle on the purchase while in others as much as $150 was being applied. That was often the case when the payments were virtually identical. In several cases, they discovered they had not been clearly told how much of their payment was going to principle at all. Even when the purchase price of the houses were roughly equivalent, families were finding that the amount of their monthly payment being applied for insurance was often different.

Looking at the question of tax payment which is especially freighted with concern, since nonpayment of taxes to the county could lead to loss of the property on tax delinquency sales. Only one family could determine from their payment the amount that was supposedly being paid to taxes, while the other families at this first organizing meeting became worried that since there was no indication, Vision might not be paying their taxes at all. Even in the one case where the tax level was stated at $150 per month or $1800 per year, there was skepticism that the house valued so modestly really was sustaining such a relatively high cost compared to true value.

Many of the people at the meeting were also on their second contract with Vision. The first had given them up to 45 days to make good on their payments, while the more recent gave Vision the right to void their option to purchase if they were late on the payments at all, making the contracts essentially no more than rental agreements, despite the fact that this was a triple-net lease with the “buyer” paying everything including thousands and thousands in repairs. One family was livid having invested over $50,000 in repairs, yet still debating whether or not they should walk away. Everyone at the meeting shared stories of about the “fishing” Vision’s representatives did with them over the phone to try and suss out the amount families had invested themselves in repairs, presumably for the company to guess whether the property might have been fixed off enough for them to seize the first opportunity to evict and flip.

People were happy to meet, but that was the only happiness in the room once the members and organizers cleared the fog away that hung over the legalese of the agreements. There was anger and plans for quick action. On the question of fight or flight, people were ready to fight. Powered by people, the campaign now begins in earnest.

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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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The Confounding Contradictions of Detroit’s Land Contract Houses

Detroit   It was a rough day on the doors in Detroit. One team recorded 14 abandoned houses out of the 17 on the walk list. Remember that these were all homes according to all available records that are owned by one of the big three land contract companies operating in the city: Harbour Portfolio, Vision Property Management, and Detroit Property Exchange, the only local outfit. Another team had eight on its list, and we had six on ours. The math is unsettling and profound, meaning that more than half of the houses these companies owned were abandoned and therefore open wounds bleeding on their blocks, neighborhoods, and community.

There were three dumpsters in the driveways of the abandoned houses our team visited and a trailer at another with a couple of bags of trash on it, but no signs of workers or work being done at these locations. At one location that we marked as “not home,” because the neighbor across the street told us that there were people going in and out of there and work being done, who knows what the story might have been, but the impression from the other locations on our list, left me wondering if these were dumpster “decorations,” rather than construction sites. We were roughly, and it was often rough, in central Detroit, if there’s such a thing, while one team was on the East Side and another was on the West Side. They reported no dumpsters and signs of construction on the abandoned houses on their lists. Don’t get me wrong, the land contract houses were absolutely not the only abandoned houses, and we saw abandoned houses on our route that were not not on our list but had signs offering them for sale, if one could call it that, or auction, with come-on’s hawking $400 a month down payments and lures advertising opportunities to flip the homes or rent-to-own more cheaply that buying. Once we were back at the offices of the historic and giant Ford Motor based UAW Local 600, which had opened their doors to the Home Savers Campaign for this project, we discovered, to no one’s surprise at this point, that both of the names on the signs we saw were simply other eye-candy LLC’s that were part of Detroit Property Exchange.

rent-to-own signs from Detroit Property Exchange subsidiary

Visiting with people, the contradictions are confounding. Our first visit was a woman with had just completed a contract with DPX as locals call Detroit Property Exchange, though her house had been listed under their French Sirois subsidiary. She had been in the home for 12 years and dutifully paying off a mortgage, until two years ago. She was informed then that DPX had bought her home by purchasing a $6000 tax lien. She had being paying everything in the usual bundle to her mortgage servicer, who had gone bankrupt and not paid her taxes, so Wayne County had put her in play without any notice. DPX gave her a contract to buy back the house for $20,000 while paying $750 per month as part of a lease to live there. She was happy because she had managed to pay them off in 18-months, partially by taking advantage of two “matching” opportunities, one at income tax refund time, where they had matched her $2500, and another a month or so later when they matched her $1000. She was proud of herself for getting them off her back and saving her house, but the math still adds up to street-side robbery. She had paid DPX $16,500 on the contract plus another $13,500 in rent, or whatever you might want to call it, so they had $30,000 from her in a year-and-a-half by stealing her house from the taxman when her mortgage servicer went belly up. The day before another team had stumbled onto a similar case, so this woman’s story is, tragically, too common.

Vision Property Management lockbox on abandoned hous

All of these contracts are predatory, though and people were being ripped off right and left, but one home we visited we talked to the brother on the porch, who was apologetic that he had not gotten his act together to buy a house, while both of his sisters had just done so, though we knew this sister was on a rent-to-own contract with Vision Property Management and suspected that was the case with the other as well. Earlier in the morning, I had briefly addressed more than 50 people in the regular meeting of the Detroit Action Commonwealth at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. People there knew about land contracts, and they knew ACORN, so I was in good company. After a brief explanation of what the Home Savers Campaign was there were questions flying from the crowd. One caught me up short and has left me thinking more and more about these contradictions. A young man said he was on SSI payments of $750 per month. His question: how could he get one of these rent-to-own houses?

Detroit Action Commonwealth Meeting

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Predatory Land Contracts and Rent-to-Own Schemes May be More about Affordable Housing than Home Ownership

Detroit   We had hit the front door a couple of times without success. The house was a single-story white brick facade set back from the street. If we had not been anywhere other than the west side of Detroit, we might have been able to blink our eyes and believe we were in a working-class suburb. We would have had to clear our minds of the vision of driving only minutes before in street after street of neighborhoods where the grass was already knee-high across acres and acres speckled with the occasional occupied house along with some deteriorating ghost structures.

The local public radio reporter rolling with us on assignment from Reveal, the well-regarded national investigative pod-cast operation on the West Coast, offered a weak apology earlier, saying something about hoping this wasn’t all we would see of Detroit. I had replied that I had been here before, and Dine’ Butler, an organizer with me, reminded her that we were from New Orleans, where we had post-Katrina neighborhoods like this as well.

We knew someone was home because the back end of the small SUV was wide open. Dine’ went around the side to the fence, and we quickly met the master of this castle. We knew he was on a land contract purchase agreement with Harbour Portfolio. He had been in the house 2-years, and had looked at a lot of Harbour houses before seeing this one and believing he could make a “go” of it. He had paid about $1500 down payment on a $42,000 purchase price with a 30-year contract at between 12 and 13% interest with monthly payments between $400 and $500. His family had been there for 2 years. He had put in about $7000 cash having to install a new furnace, roof, and wiring, which was still a work in progress. I asked him how he “felt about it,” and he said, “it’s all right for now until something better comes up.” Could he have applied for a conventional mortgage, I asked, and he answered, “not at that time.” He would be glad to come to a meeting and share his experiences and talk to others in the same situation.

The more visits we log, the more that it seems to me we aren’t hearing the responses we might expect from typical home buyers or home owners. Too often when we peel back the layers of these predatory contracts with people, there reaction isn’t surprise and in fact often seems more flight, than it is fight. People are often shocked by how bad their contracts are, but seem to have their eyes wide open to the fact that their housing is substandard. With the average rent in Detroit for a two-bedroom apartment reportedly $1300, many of them seem to almost be doing the math in their heads that even with a down payment and making repairs with sweat equity and cash on hand, they may be in better financial shape in these houses, even if they are at best “works in progress,” and at worse uninhabitable.

We haven’t hit enough doors and talked to enough people yet on the Home Savers Campaign, but listening to people and hearing what they are really saying, there’s no question that these land contract and rent-to-own or lease purchase schemes are predatory, but the crisis we are facing may be less about home ownership in the classic sense, and speaking a lot more to the crisis in available, decent affordable housing. With decreasing public housing units and section 8 vouchers and long waiting lists for both, with rising rents that are taking 50% or more of many household incomes on one hand, and an unforgiving post-2008 credit desert on the other with higher down payments, higher credit scores, and higher bank lending requirements, a lower income, working family may find themselves caught in the middle where a bigger place in rougher condition for lower monthly rent and pay-as-you-go repairs comes to look like a deal worth taking, everything being unequal. Heck, they may figure, there’s a slim chance, like playing the lottery, that they might even own the house some day…a carrot later, while being beaten by the sticks now.

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