Land Contracts Are Back in the Census

New Orleans         All of the controversy on questions in the 2020 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, has been about whether a question would be allowed about citizenship.  The federal courts pretty much slammed the door on that question when one judge after another essentially caught the White House and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross separating their answers from their malevolent intentions.  Of course, even so NPR discovered last summer that they had included the question in test surveys sent to hundreds of thousands, called them on it, and they once again promised to remove the question following the standard Trump administration playbook of “catch us if you can.”

The Census hasn’t showed up where we live, but it did show up in the mailbox of my parents’ house.  Knowing how important the American Community Survey is to policies that impact all of us, I opened it with interest, so I could complete the form.

The citizenship question was not included.  On the other hand, if you didn’t speak English or own a computer, you would be stuck-like-Chuck.  There was one large card that was in English on one side and Spanish on the other.  The Spanish side, sent you to the internet to respond.  Good luck with that!  Another option was to mail the form in, but of course that would have meant getting it translated by someone, so that the questions could be answered.  Any problems, they suggested calling an 800-number.  We’ll have to look into this.

There was some good news though, especially for the ACORN Home Savers’ Campaign and everyone who has been trying to track predatory practices involving lower income families and tenants.  In the series of questions about your home, one tried to drill down on the question of ownership financing.  Choices included whether or not you owned the home outright, had a mortgage, or, most importantly to us, whether or not you had a “contract to purchase.”

When I looked up the Census Bureau survey questions on their website, the housing section seemed slightly different than the actual form I had filled out for my parents’ home.  One question on their form was more pointedly about flood insurance for example.  The question in the sample booklet included fire, flood, and other hazards.  Possibly, there are different questions in different parts of the country or maybe this was a test mailing.

I don’t want to get distracted though or take any of you off course.  Including a question once again on land installment contracts is important.  For whatever reason, it dropped off the 2010 Census even as land contracts exploded in many cities after the Great Recession of 2007-2008.  The omission of the question left us scrambling to prove how pervasive the surge of land contracts was across the country.  We could access some private real estate data, but that’s not as good as the gold standard Census work on the American Community Survey. Other public data establishing that more land contracts were being registered in Detroit than mortgages were hard to duplicate in many cities where records were less transparent and classifications were different.  Being thankful for small favors, especially when it comes to the current government, the inclusion of this question should in the next several years give us a better sense of the magnitude of this issue.

The information will still be imperfect because so many holders of such contracts have been misled into believing that they have a mortgage rather than a no-equity installment plan.  Nonetheless, asking about whether anyone in the home has a “contract to purchase” is a pretty comprehensive way to phrase the question to get at most of these situations.

None of this solves the problem, but at least including the questions, and more importantly, getting the answers, moves these predatory practices out of the real estate closet and into the open where we can force solutions for families caught in many of these predatory webs.


Surging Voter Registration in the United Kingdom

New Orleans      Here’s an interesting voter registration story, but it’s not in the United States, but the United Kingdom.  I had been hearing about this phenomenon for weeks whenever I spoke with our organizers in England.  ACORN was working on a specialized program before the coming snap election to register tenants.  Speaking over the last several weeks with Nick Ballard, head organizer of ACORN UK, he reported that one million registered in a week and then this week mentioned almost 250,000 in one day.  It could be a gamechanger.

The numbers are making news around the world, and they are significant.  As reported in The Independent,

“…according to the Electoral Reform Society. Before the final deadline at midnight on 26 November, there have been 3,191,193 applications to register in the period from the day the election was called on 29 October to midnight on Monday.  That’s an average of 114,000 per day.  The figure is 38 per cent higher than the 2,315,893 applications to register in a similar period in the 2017 election, which equated to an average of 68,000 registrations per day.

The sheer numbers alone are not the only reason that the registration surge could make a difference.  It is also “who” is registering that catches your eye.  The Independent notes that

“The Electoral Reform Society said that of the applications made since the election was called in October, so far 2,125,064 applications (67 per cent of the total) were made by people aged 34 or under.  And as the cut-off for registration grows closer, an even greater proportion of young people are registering. On Monday (November 25th), 366,443 people applied to register, with 72 per cent of applications from people aged 34 or under.

No one believes that this tsunami of youth registration is a good sign for the Conservatives or the Brexiteers.

The snap election was called as the Conservatives led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to force Brexit, the exit of Britain from the European Union, to a “hard” departure without an agreement with the Brussels.  Through various efforts both fair and foul, Johnson had tried to fast walk the mess through Parliament, even hornswoggling the Queen at different points, and was finally forced to an election to determine who represents the majority in the country, the Conservatives and their allies or the Labour and theirs.  Much is at stake not only within the EU, but whether Scotland and Northern Ireland remain in the United Kingdom as well.

In this context, young voters are critical, because their opposition to Brexit has been most intense there, while support has been strongest over 65.  In the United States our experience is that first time registrants are more likely to vote than others, so for the Conservatives this is worth worry.

The picture isn’t clear though.  The Election Commission says one-million registrants might be duplicates, because, if anything, the database in the UK is worse than the state by state patchwork quilt we have here.  Furthermore, the majority of cumulative votes could go with Labour, but like the US Electoral College, what matters is the vote in each constituency in Parliament, since that will determine whether Johnson and the Conservatives get their mandate to mayhem and rule or their walking papers.

Two more weeks will tell the story.  Registration is now history.  The vote will be worth watching.