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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Vision Property Management: Exploiting Lower Income Home Buyers as a Business Model

New Orleans   In writing about Vision Property Management, the predatory and unscrupulous rent-to-own real estate company, reporters for The New York Times obviously struggled for a way to describe where to place Vision and other bottom-fishing realty companies that exploit lower income and working families’ hopes of home ownership. They ended up just talking a walk and euphemistically referring to these operations as operating in “this corner of the housing market.” If it’s a corner, it’s a very dark and nasty place.

Vision, based in Columbia, South Carolina, owns more than 6000 houses, many of them purchased at rock bottom prices from the foreclosure inventory dumped on the market “as is” by the quasi-governmental housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Times described their modus operandi succinctly:

Vision markets its homes on a website, with most of the transactions taking place either over the phone or by email. Sometimes the photos of the properties are several years old and do not reflect what they actually look like.

You’re wondering how that would not run afoul of truth-in-advertising laws aren’t you? I thought the same thing, but to the degree that state and federal laws do not seem adequate to regulate operations like Vision, this dark corner of the real estate market, whether called contract-for-deed, rent-to-own, lease purchase, or whatever, is based on transactions where the “looks” of the place may be the least of the problem. No inspections, no appraisals, and agreements based on condition “as is,” make it easy to hide problems as severe as lead poisoning and roof leaks in Baltimore, lack of water, heat and good sewage in Arkansas, and unaddressed code violations and thousands of dollars in fines in Cincinnati, all of which reporters were able to document from disgruntled and exploited wannabe home buyers. Even a recent photo on the Vision website would not have revealed the horrors that awaited these families – and thousands of others.

As we’ve noted over recent months, contract for deed land purchases, like a bad weed, have grown in the credit desert since the Great Recession for lower income families still hoping to own their own homes. In the wake of these horrible stories of exploitation, some states are finally looking to tighten up regulations. A bill in Illinois is progressing that would give buyers some additional rights, especially once they have paid more than 10% of principal and interest. A bill proposed in Maryland had less luck, as the real estate industry muscled up to prevent reform even in the wake of lead paint poisoning in some of the homes, arguing that over worked and undermanned city inspection teams needed to do better. The Uniform Law Commission is evaluating whether to draft model legislation on contract for deed purchasers in the wake of all of this shame and scandal, but that will also take years.

Exploited home buyers shouldn’t have to crouch in this dark corner of the market waiting for relief. Signing light on the problems is valuable, but this is a situation that cries for action, since the words aren’t working.

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