Heartbreaking Stories of Housing Ripoffs

New Orleans   Meeting with friends and lawyers in Austin, Texas, including my longtime, go-to-counselor for organizational and personal matters, we had stopped briefly on the way to their celebrated annual spring crayfish boil for a cup of coffee and to watch marchers with homemade signs hearing towards the Texas capitol in the name of science. Later in the back patio of the law firm’s offices in a downtown house, while we watched young people take their turns at stirring the four boiling pots filled with crayfish, potatoes, corn, mushrooms, and even sausage, we found ourselves talking about how in the world it could be legal for the contract for deed and rent to own real estate predators to be able to stay in business given their total lack of compliance with local laws or contractual ethics of any kind whatsoever.

We discussed the lawsuit filed in Cincinnati, Ohio by that city to try and collect $335,000 in fines and penalties from Harbour Portfolio, the Dallas-based private equity vulture financier of contract-for-deed sales, and whether or not the company would run from the business. We made plans to challenge any application that the principals might make to acquire banking assets in Arkansas with our organizational allies there.

Where there was no question was that these companies had to be stopped. On the way to the airport, I read a report from Craig Robbins of Action United in Philadelphia who had been part of our recent doorknocking teams in Pittsburgh, Akron, and Youngstown. On a recent call, we had asked him to jot down any stories that we could put on the Home Savers Campaign website from the visits he was making with Vision Property Management, the South Carolina based rent-to-own predator. I opened the email and here is what I read:

Maria Rodriguez and her husband “purchased” the house at 917 Sanger St., in the Frankfort section of Philadelphia for $65,500, almost 4 years ago. Their credit was not that good, so Vision seemed like a good way to pursue their dream of home ownership. They both worked: he as a landscaper and she worked at a hotel doing housekeeping. Contract was signed on 9/1/13 w/BAT Holdings 8, LLC. They put down $2000, plus $465 as the monthly lease payment, $105 for real estate taxes, $30 for general liability insurance, or $2600 as an initial payment and $600 a month. Contract runs until August 2020. $57.06, +2000 initial option, of the monthly payment is credited toward the purchase price. Maria and her husband have put about $25,000 in the property-huge issues when moving in like unpaid water bills, no heating or electrical system. They believed that at the end of the contract, in 2020, they would own the property and get the deed. Instead, they will have paid $6,793 toward the $65000 house price. On Aug 30, 2020 they have 3 options: give Vision a check for $58,206; walk away, or they can convert to seller financing with a new contract for the remaining $58K. Like all the Vision properties people we’ve talked to, this was a total surprise.

Change the names and the listing price and this is the story of Vision – and many companies like it – all over the country. They have to be stopped.

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Cities Trying to Fight Back Against Home Exploitation Scams

housing inspector in Toledo

New Orleans     Perhaps against their will, some Ohio communities have become ground zero in trying to throw roadblocks in the path of companies exploiting the desperate need of lower income and working families for affordable housing and, just maybe, the hopes of traversing the credit desert to home ownership.

The best local ordinance that seems to have emerged in this effort is in Toledo. Chapter 1765, entitled Conditions for Conveyance of Property by Land Installment Contract, passed in 2015, tries its best to grab this bull by the horns. Toledo does so by first making the issue of responsibility very, very clear. It’s not just the seller or owner of the property that has to follow the ordinance but “any agent” of the owner and any entity defined as the owner.

The critical issue that ACORN’s teams confronted repeatedly in recent visits to Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and Akron was the fact that families were finding themselves in land contracts which met no conceivable standards of habitability. Toledo’s ordinance goes out of its way to do two things that are essential in protecting families from abuse in these contracts. On one hand the city insists that all contracts have to be recorded with the city. Most of these companies are playing whack-a-mole in this regard. Vision Property Management for example listed only five properties in Pittsburgh, though we found more than twenty on a quick search of property ownership records, and suspect that the real number is many times more. Secondly, and even more importantly, Toledo requires a certificate of occupancy before a family can reside in a house under a land installment contract and only after the city has inspected the property and its major systems and found that they are satisfactory.

The language in the ordinance is mandatory and unambiguous:

(a) No vendor shall convey any interest in a residential property through land installment contract unless a Certificate of Property
Code Compliance or Temporary Certificate of Property Code Compliance has been issued, pursuant to this section.
(b) No vendor shall fail to deliver to the vendee a copy of the current Certificate of Property Code Compliance or Temporary
Certificate of Property Code Compliance prior to the execution of the land installment contract.
(c) No vendor shall fail to record, as provided in R.C. 5301.25, the land installment with the county recorder and deliver a copy to
the county auditor within twenty days of the execution of a land installment contract.
(d) In a conveyance of any interest of a residential property through land installment contract sale, no vendor shall knowingly
require a vendee, as a condition of the sale, to sign a “quit claim” deed, deeding the property in question to the vendor in the event of a
default by the vendee.

The penalties are perhaps weaker than they should be, beginning at $250 for the first offense and moving to $1000 for the third within a two-year period, and judging the offenses to be a misdemeanor if recurring, which may not be sufficient to intimidate these fly-by-night outfits. Furthermore, the devil is in the details, when it comes to how aggressive Toledo has been in forcing the hand of these predatory operators, which we have yet to determine.

The City of Lorain in Ohio passed an ordinance in 2014 also requiring certificates of inspection and occupancy clearly also trying to get their arms around this crisis in their community, but sadly a close reading of the requirements pulls them up short. Lorain’s measure tries to impose the burden “at the point of sale.” Part of the entire business model of these companies and the core of this predatory scam is keeping the family from ever getting to the point of sale and forcing them to live in often dangerous structures with limited resources holding on to little more than their hope of ownership.

Similarly, Youngstown, Ohio, path breaking ordinance creating a “foreclosure bond,” forces refundable payments after foreclosures, forcing responsible upkeep of the property by corporate and individual owners, and has worked spectacularly in managing the overall condition of communities from what we could see, but doesn’t cover evictions, at least not yet, or specifically rent-to-own or land purchase contracts, and of course is better at locking the barn door after the fact, rather than on the front end like Toledo.

Regardless, Ohio cities confronted with this grassroots crisis are responding, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist or looking the other way like most communities, oblivious to the way that low to moderate income families are being exploited by these schemes and forced to live in abominable conditions.

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Wisconsin Worker Whistleblowers Expose Vision Rent-to-Own Scams

wearegreenbay.com

Pittsburgh   Vision Property Management, headquartered in South Carolina, seemed like a bad penny that kept turning up in every neighborhood we door knocked in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The ACORN teams spent a lot of time before and after these visits trying to understand as clearly as possible the business model for the company. It was hard to ever figure out how they lost money on any of these almost universally rundown and dilapidated properties, but their model wasn’t so much rip-and-run, as it was lie-steal-and-scam.

We were mystified how this predatory outfit could get away with this plain and simple fraud and grand larceny? One of our team found a video from Green Bay, Wisconsin of all places done by Channel 5 television and its reporter, Nate Stewart. The piece had the vibe of an ISIS hostage video with the speakers disguised so that Vision would not recognize them. Perhaps they were concerned that now that they were confessing their shameful acts, that Vision might do the unspeakable to them? Since Vision does virtually all of its dirty work via the internet and telephone with virtually no on-the-ground staff, they were probably right to realize that the company could follow the dots back to them.

We had heard plenty horror stories from victims, and reading the Green Bay report, these were confessions right from the horse’s mouths! Read, listen, and weep:

· “We knew we were putting people into situations that they couldn’t handle.”
· “My big problem with the culture there was that we knowingly manipulated people’s bad situations for our own gain.”

Ok, you may not have been with us on the doors, but if there was any doubt about their corrupt business model, here’s what another Vision worker has to say:

“When the customer ended up signing the contract and there were liens or the pipes were missing, we could say ‘well we had a recorded phone call with you, I instructed you to go find that out.’ But by nature, we weren’t dealing with the most sophisticated real-estate consumer. So I can say ‘go to the clerk of court, go look up public records’ all day long, but if you don’t know how to do that or if you don’t even know what I’m talking about and you just want to get off the phone with me so you can get into this house, just say yeah all day long.”

“If they’re already in a financial situation that puts them in a position to be working with a company like this, they probably can’t afford to throw down several hundred dollars to have an inspector come in and look at all this stuff. Often times when they do, the inspectors are appalled like, ‘no, no don’t buy this!'”

We met a number of people who were on SSI or Veterans payments, where Vision was taking between one-third and one-half of the wannabe buyer’s check for their scheme, and according to their workers in Green Bay, this was no coincidence, but their deliberate strategy. Here’s what one said to Channel 5:

“We sold a considerable amount of houses to people who were making a $721 month social security check – and with $228 monthly payments, they had no business living in the house. They obviously didn’t have the means to repair it themselves or pay somebody to repair it.”

The Vision crowd, according to its employees, were equal opportunity thieves. Their business model was exploiting lower income families desperate for housing, but they didn’t mind stiffing local governments and anyone else they owed a buck. Here’s what one woman told Channel 5:

“I would sometimes record two or three deeds at a time for one actual sale or one actual purchase, and no tax would be paid because Michigan, Pennsylvania and Maryland have higher taxes. They yelled at me and told me they refused to pay that tax and I would need to find a loophole. There were some that were legit, but the majority of them we just didn’t send them in. We were told that ‘we’ll just pay it if we get caught, but if we don’t, we’re not paying the government a dime,’ and so that’s what I did.” She added that many times she was told to get the deeds to the county overnight so Vision could get it processed in the tenants name before they found out – even if the house had many repairs needed or was up for demolition.

These are just stone cold crooks. You’re wondering why the FBI isn’t investigating for wire fraud, well so am I. You’re wondering why the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau isn’t all over these bad boys, well so am I.

In November, Channel 5 touted the fact that Vision’s operation in Green Bay was being investigated by the Attorney General in Wisconsin. Writing this, I found another Channel 5 piece in mid-February but there’s still no sign almost six months later that the AG in Wisconsin has done much to stop Vision. In fact the February piece was mainly about the fact that reporters from the New York Times, the City of Green Bay, and Channel 5 were all being stonewalled by Vision. No mention of any activity by the Wisconsin AG or any progress there.

Stealing from poor and working families isn’t big news, it’s just standard operating procedure for Vision and a pile of other operations. It seems pretty clear that Vision will operate with impunity until we organize enough of the victims to stop them.

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Vision Rent-to-Own Buyers in Ohio are Confused and Unhappy

Youngstown  Where we had four ACORN doorknocking teams in Pittsburgh, we only had two in Youngstown, Ohio, but that seemed right since with hardly 70,000 inhabitants now, Youngstown was less than one-fifth the size of Pittsburgh. Putting the lists together at the Youngstown Public Library and the second-chance Café Augustine, run by the Catholic Diocese in space there, our list of homes with various forms of contract land purchases kept growing like weeds. We had too many choices and too little time. Focusing our work just on Vision Property Management, which had been the source of so many complaints in Pittsburgh, we found ourselves with more listings in Youngstown that we had in all of Allegheny Count which dwarfed its size. We had a tiger by the tail it seemed.

Youngstown people are nice. We were met with curiosity and courtesy everywhere. Unfortunately in talking with Vision customers, hoping to be homebuyers, we were also met with confusion and uncertainty from everyone when it came to understanding their contracts with Vision. Many of the stories resembled each other, but none of them were the same. What we thought we understood from our many visits in Pittsburgh was often modified and amended in ways both subtle and significant in the almost twenty doors we visited in Youngstown. Mostly, people hoped they understood their contracts, but they could rarely put their fingers on them while we visited, so we were all like the blind men touching the elephant and trying to describe it to each other.

The most poignant visit was with a man who did have his contract, was convinced that he would have paid off Vision in seven years and would own his own home outright, and was in shock and disbelief as our team worked with him paragraph to paragraph to show him that after paying almost $20,000 in 7-years he would own nothing, but the right to make three choices that Vision offered at that juncture. Since the company was only counting a small part of his monthly payment towards the purchase price, he could make a balloon payment of $15,000 or so and get the deed, which he said was an impossibility for his income and credit. In a second choice, he could walk away from the house and lose his equity, down payment, and the money and labor he had already sunk into repairs. Or, in a final choice, he could keep paying on the same basis for another 15 or 20 years hoping to still own the house. This isn’t a lady or the tiger choice, but more like a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. The wannabe homeowner was near tears and our team had to try to put a smile on the horrible face of Vision Property Management, not as an act of organizing, but as a simple act of humanity.

As we debriefed at the end of our day on the doors, we found ourselves grabbing at straws. One woman told us she had muscled Vision into an agreement that she would own the house in six years. We hoped she was right, but didn’t see the contract. Another man was convinced he could mortgage the house after his seven years. We hoped with him that there would be an oasis springing up soon in this credit desert. One man told of having been given a couple of weeks to catch up on his payments when he forgot one to prevent eviction. Another man told us he was in this Vision rent-to-own property for the last year after his previous Vision contract had been demolished, and Vision had let him choose from where to try again from their website. A woman said she was given three months to catch up on her payments once.

We found ourselves looking for light at the end of this terrible Vision tunnel of heartbreak. As horrid and predatory as the Vision contracts seemed, the company also seemed hesitant to let someone spit their hooks. If people were able to organize, hear each other’s stories, and take action, they just might be able to force Vision to change their contracts and terms. If some people could force small concessions with their anger, if they came together to fight in the campaign, they might be able to force Vision to buy into their vision of themselves as homeowners, rather than as simple fodder for the company’s exploitation.

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