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.