Street Level Provides a Different View of Atlanta Gentrification

houses across the street in SW, one an abandoned Vision Property Management home, the other a newly gentrified home

Atlanta   Visiting families involved with contract for deed agreements with big companies like Harbour Portfolio Advisers, Vision Property Management, and SG Capital in Atlanta turns out to be a much, much different experience than similar doors I’ve hit in recent months in Pittsburgh, Akron, Youngstown, and Detroit. The song is still basically the same, but the verses are different.

Yes, the contracts are “as is” with the burden of repairs, taxes, insurance, and everything else in the usual package on the buyer without any of the guarantees or protections of conventional home buying, but in Atlanta at least the “as is” is more than we have found elsewhere. There were roofs to fix, some with trees still protruding through, and sewer lines to wrangle and HVAC problems common in the South, but fewer homes where families were “camping” in homes stripped bare of wiring, plumbing and the works. In the outer reaches of Fulton County, my team had visited with families with home prices in the $20s and low $30s, but in southwest Atlanta where I spent most of my time yesterday the numbers tended to be high $30s and up to $50 and $60,000. Other teams in DeKalb and Clayton County were spread out with a wide range of prices.

barb wire protecting a vision house

Southwest Atlanta was a surprise to me. I’d been on the doors in Atlanta before, but when I started adding up the dates as I navigated BatchGeo from home to home on my visit list, it had been in the twenty to twenty-five year range. I used to tease people in New Orleans who moved to the suburbs of Jefferson Parish that if they were going to do that, they might as well live in Atlanta. On the doors though I found myself in the city, not 8 miles from the Capitol, in hills green with trees and huge quarter-acre home lots, where I sometimes thought I was in the country. I also found blocks where five or six houses might be abandoned, boarded, and collapsing, and a couple of blocks over areas that were knocking on the door and opening it to gentrification. For the first time I was talking to contract buyers who were debating whether or not to try and figure out a way to sell their houses after the four or five years they had been in Vision or Harbour properties because appraisals had doubled and tripled the valuations, and in the words of one, he might be able to do better farther out in the country.

a Harbour house

In one area, I was within walking distance of a MARTA stop, the Belt Line, a huge urban renewal project on an old rail line, and a big park. One Vision house I hit was abandoned across the street from a home so recently redone that the squares of newly laid lawn were still visible from the planting. Dumpsters were dotted here and there.

I hit one Vision property on my list that looked abandoned on its hillside double lot. As I was parking a man was opening a padlock on the door, but he turned out not to be the owner. He was a burgeoning landlord who had just closed on the house. He had bought it from New Western Investment which had bought a package of homes from Vision. He was originally from Rwanda but in the country for many decades and had just gone into real estate full time over the last year with 20 properties now. His plan was fix and flip. He pointed down the hill to the neighborhood I had just left, as already having gone past the tipping point of his price range from gentrification pressure, but he was betting on this area to be next.

The census track says this area is 89% African-American and has stayed that way even as home evaluations have leaped forward by several factors in recent years. I was navigating streets named after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, the Atlanta-based SCLC civil rights icons.

No matter what the color, the gentrification class is the same. Families our teams were seeing in the far reaches of Fulton, DeKalb, and Clayton had roots on the blocks I was walking now, but the time even under a rent-to-own contract that they could imagine owning a house here was fading fast.

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Property Tax Delinquency Auctions as Ghetto Creators and People Removers

Harbour Portfolio Advisers houses boarded and abandoned in suburban Atlanta

Atlanta  Two of the most heartbreaking and moving injustices we stumbled on when the ACORN Home Savers Campaign teams were doorknocking families in contract buying agreements in Detroit involved property tax delinquency auctions. It was a scam facilitated directly by the Wayne County Treasurer’s office and other government officials.

The easiest case for me to describe was on a door hit by the team I was on, though the other case was virtually identical. On our list we had the woman recorded as a contract buyer through one of the many subsidiaries of Detroit Property Exchange or DPX as locals call the company. When she answered the door she told us she was now the full owner of the property and rid of DPX. It seemed she had formerly held a conventional mortgage and was paying the mortgage servicer directly. Fairly typically, she was making a bundled payment to the bank’s mortgage servicer which included her insurance and property tax payments. She had gotten a call “out of the blue” from DPX some four years previously informing her that they now owned her home because they had bought it through a tax delinquency auction for $6000 in back taxes, because her servicer had gone bankrupt with no notice to her. They were calling to evict her, but they offered her a deal. She could pay the $6000 to DPX from the auction price, and the remainder of her mortgage obligation, some $15,000 to them, in monthly payments over a period of years, and she would own the house. Miraculously, she was able to do this by taking advantage of several “matching” offers DPX had made, mostly during tax refund time, where if you made accelerated payments of $1500 or more they would apply that payment and “match” it by deducting a similar amount from your obligation. She felt her story had a happy ending. We of course were horrified that she had been scammed by both DPX and that it had been enabled by the Wayne County Treasurer!

another home abandoned to tax auction

A brilliant op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Don’t Let Detroit’s Revival Rest on an Injustice” by professor and legal researcher, Bernadette Atuahene, argues that this kind of situation is not only typical of the crimes being preformed by the Wayne County treasurer and the assessment procedures, but the tip of a deeper and longstanding illegal ripoff of home purchasers that has been a huge factor in ghettoizing Detroit. Assessments for years have routinely disregarded the legal limits set by the Michigan constitution that no assessment can be listed at more than 50% of the homes evaluation. Additionally, there are limits for lower income households which are ignored with impunity with the treasurer and assessor saying plainly that they would keep stealing the homes from people, because it was up to the victims to appeal their assessments and that if they didn’t, then it was fair for Wayne County to grab the house and auction it.

The Home Savers Campaign has asked FNMA to bar various rent-to-own property companies like Detroit Property Exchange, Harbour Portfolio, and others from its auctions, and we are working with allied organizations like Detroit Eviction Defense and Detroit Action Commonwealth to demand that such companies be barred from Wayne County tax delinquency auctions as well. Reading Atuahene makes us wonder whether they are all in cahoots, making justice even harder to win, since state laws and the Constitution seem to have given them so little pause.

unique home a Vision Property Management contract buyer is making his own

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