Land Contract Companies Settle Lawsuits in Cincinnati Without Celebrations

New Orleans     In the more than a year that the ACORN Home Savers Campaign has built committees of owner-occupants in cities in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Georgia, and Tennessee to try to force companies to convert land contracts to ownership for the occupants, to renegotiate the terms, and bring homes up to standards, others have argued that the best tactic in dealing with land contracts was through the courts.  Lead lawsuits filed in Cincinnati a year ago have now been settled and provide a template for understanding what relief is possible and what is not, so let’s see what an examination of the settlements provides for the future organizing.

The City of Cincinnati sued both Harbour Portfolio, based in Dallas, and Vision Property Management, based in Columbia, South Carolina.  The suits were based on the condition of certain properties owned by the prospective companies.  The settlements in both cases resolved various fines and assessments involving these properties.  Harbour will have to pay $125,000 to settle and Vision will be required to pay about $88,000.

Going forward the companies are required to record all properties in the future.  They are also barred from entering into any future land contracts until the city has inspected the property to determine that meet minimum code standards.  There was an attachment with a list of properties that Harbour needs to resolve.  In the Vision settlement there were four properties at issue, two of which the City agreed had already been brought up to code and were deemed approved and two that were in process.

Pretty much that’s the bottom line on the settlements.  Pay up, fix ‘em up, and go on about your business.

The one area in which the settlements are completely silent is on the issue of the land contracts themselves and their provisions.   Harbour has been a classic contract-for-deed company in most of its transactions.  After investigations and subpoenas from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau about their business practices since contracts-for-deed are under Dodd-Frank, the company seems to largely be exiting the market, even though the CFPB has been rendered toothless at this point.  Vision is a lease-purchase-option company where owner-occupants sign an agreement with a term of seven years normally and at the end of that term have credits set aside and the option to then buy the property and refinance.

In the settlement the City and Harbour agreed that a separate disclosure would be given to Harbour occupants explaining that they were in a land contract.  In the Vision settlement the company agreed, regardless of the nature of their contracts, to comply with any Cincinnati regulations that govern the conduct of landlords with tenants.

All of this is for the good, but leaves both companies whole and intact though chastened, and leaves the nature of their contracts affirmed as legal and appropriate business models under state law in Ohio, either because land contracts are covered in the case of Harbour or the law is silent in the Vision situation using lease-purchase-options.  Efforts to amend the Ohio law in the legislature proposed by some seem to not be making much progress and lack Republican support in the bodies they control.  The Cincinnati settlement will be the benchmark by default and gives relief where there are nuisance properties, but leaves the structure of land contracts in various forms untouched, leaving the ACORN Home Savers Campaign with plenty of work to do in our efforts to push companies towards mortgage conversions and different contract and business models.


Seems No End to Some Rent-to-Own Contracts

New Orleans   As the teams of ACORN Home Savers Campaign student volunteers came in from the field on Sunday afternoon with their reports on the families they visited who were under various housing contracts in Memphis, the stories were stirring and profound. Having been greenhorns on Saturday, now many of them spoke in the language of veterans about their experiences. The campaign had learned from their first day and made the maps tighter and pruned the list, while the teams had buckled down better on the reporting and their own efficiency. We were on a learning curve and making progress. As one canvasser told me, “I wish Sunday had been our long day, and Saturday had been the short one,” as she spoke about the qualitative difference of what she had been able to bring to the work. Skepticism and student sassiness had been replaced with seriousness in the pursuit, as the teams were able to talk to more families and feel both the promise and the pain of their situations.

One of the most harrowing stories was told me by a woman who had asked me the most challenging questions in the first day’s briefing. They had visited a young, 25-year old woman with some children, about their same age. She was in a contract with the local Memphis company, Affordable Property Management. She was paying $700 per month on the contract for a house priced in the range of $70,000 from what they heard. She was reasonably happy with the contract. The kick in the gut came when they heard the term of the contract for her to finally receive the deed. It was fifty-two (52) years. Yes, 52 years! Were she ever to complete the contract, and it’s hard to believe that she will, she would be 77 years old! We didn’t see the contract, but one can imagine for 52 years that the interest rate and other provisions must be incredible. We’ll be speaking to her again soon! The canvasser when leaving turned to me and said, “We may have started out wrong yesterday, but we’re best friends now, Wade.” That’s the story of organizing once boots are on the ground and fists hit the door.

The first thought many would have is that, hey, mortgages are for 30-years. Right, but this isn’t a mortgage. It’s a contract, and contracts can go for 99 years or be in perpetuity for that matter. Even mortgages are not time limited. During the financial crisis, many big league banks in the US tried to modify mortgages by extending the terms to 35, 38 or 40 years. Sweden just reduced the maximum term of its mortgages to 105 years from 145 years. Japan and the UK in their housing affordability crises have extended terms as well.

Many families wanted to convert to conventional mortgages. They were positive about coming to a meeting in early January to push their companies for better deals and a clear path to ownership.

My own visits produced the same range of experiences. One family with Christmas decorations all over the house had been under lease contract for 5 years and desperately wanted to convert. In another case the house seemed abandoned. Windows were boarded and the screen door was tied to the front door. When I knocked, I could hear children inside. There was no answer. They may have been told to never open the door. At one door, I didn’t meet the owner, but tenants who were renting rooms from the lease option holder who was also renting the driveway for commercial trucks. They were the only house on the street, almost within shouting distance of the huge warehouse complex in north Memphis that seemed endless until I drove by the street corner and saw the swoosh known worldwide as the Nike emblem.