Computerized House Flippers and Conflicting Interests

New Orleans       It was bad enough when Wall Street sharpies like Blackstone started buying tranches of foreclosed houses in the suburbs to paint, rent, and then cash out.  Now, algorithms are being deployed for house flippers.  What could go right or wrong with this picture?

A story in the Wall Street Journal claimed that metro Phoenix is ground zero for the future of home purchases.  More than 5% of the home sales in 2018 involving 5000 properties were made by companies launching computer driven, algorithm powered approaches to the market.  Opendoor, a San Francisco startup, Zillow, the listing and area pricing web giant, and Offerpad are breaking this ground.

The Journal walked the reader through the new world:

“At the edge of the city’s stucco sprawl, a beige, three-bedroom house with a gravel yard sold last month for $240,000.  The seller, Opendoor Labs, Inc. paid $215,000 for the house in January, replaced carpet and repainted, and put it back on the market.  A computer told the company what to offer and how much to ask.  There was no need to schedule a showing with a real-estate agent.  Prospective buyers of Opendoor homes can download an app to unlock the door.”

Wham, bam, thank you Alexa, Siri, or whatever they call their thing!

What is it about Phoenix?  The city can’t catch a break.  First, the sketchy boom and then the bust over a decade ago, and just as things begin to even out again, here come the techies.

Sadly, real estate agents and realtors are a bit like taxi drivers in the love-hate relationship they maintain with consumers.  There are over two-millions of them and 1.3 million are actually licensed realtors with access to multi-listings and supposedly a code of ethics.  Even if you like your person, you know she only gets her slice if you buy or sell, so her self-interest and yours are always in conflict, and her advice always comes with many grains of salt.

Many consumers would be delighted to bring the Airbnb model to home buying, although that’s sobering for more than just the loss of jobs.  Airbnb now slants its algorithm to favor listings at its demand price and destinations.   What is there to keep Zillow from favoring the houses it owns on its listings compared to the rest of the field?  Nothing!

Add to the mayhem this disruption will bring is the fact that algorithms will undoubtedly not be limited to purchase and sales prices, but also to rents, which is surely what Blackstone is doing for its 80,000 properties.  Tell me that won’t accelerate gentrification and community mayhem.  Is there a better argument for rent controls? I can’t think of anything else off hand that will stop predatory practices.

Looking at the Uber model, we would have to predict that it would just be a matter of time before the fixed agent price of 7% or whatever would fall like a house of cards.  The companies win and base their business model on volume, which almost always favors price cutting, and that’s the easiest piece to cut.

Hey, you might say, it can’t happen here.  Opendoor is now in 23 cities and is targeting another 27 by next year.  Zillow claims it will be buying 5000 houses per month. Think again!

We need to get ahead of the e-world coming to home and apartment purchase and rental or the consequences could be huge.

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Self-Dealing Revenge from OCC & Treasury Targets the CRA

Greenville   Sometimes you wonder why former Goldman Sachs and banking executives flock to political jobs like running the Treasury Department or the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, but then you realize the facts.  It’s about score-settling or figuring out how they and their buddies can make more money in banking now and in the future.  The backstory on the current push to rewrite the rules on the more than forty years of the Community Reinvestment Act or CRA that mandated fair banking and the end of redlining to force banks to invest in lower income and minority neighborhoods is full of just such conflicts of interest and self-dealing.

As the Treasury Department and the OCC propose to rewrite and dilute CRA rules the Wall Street Journal reports that the issue is messier. Steven Mnuchin was bottom fishing after he left Goldman Sachs as an investment banker and flirted with financing in Hollywood.  He had assembled a group to pay $1.5 billing to buy IndyMac from the FDIC after the highflying, lowballing mortgage chop shop suffered a run forcing the FDIC as the deposit insurer to take over.  Mnuchin hoped to paint lipstick on the pig, resell it or take it public for a killing with his buddies.  One of his buddies was Joseph Otting who he recruited to run OneWest, the name of the newly whitewashed bank.  This was all capitalism at the roulette wheel.  Mnuchin and Otting got an offer to sell to CIT Group for $3.4 billion that would allow the investors to turn a profit of over $3 billion in 2014 after only six years.

Cha-ching, here come the filthy rich, isn’t greed great.  Yes, until they realized there were rules and regulations in the new west of OneWest.  They still had a portfolio of the stinking mortgages that had given them the bank in a fire sale in the first place, meaning that they had CRA obligations.  Any time a sale of this kind happens over the 40-year period CRA as ACORN and any organization – or bank – worth its salt knows, that opens the window for Federal Reserve and other reviews of the banks lending practices.  More than just some bad mortgages were stinking up their California lending experience in their get-rich-quick scheme and several organizations including the California Reinvestment Coalition and the Greenlining group filed challenges to their lending record.  None of this is new.  Groups including ACORN and scores of others have followed the rules and negotiated agreements for bank lending that has now surpassed a trillion dollars in low income neighborhoods.

The new west robber baron wannabes, Mnuchin and Otting were offended that they were challenged.  They tried to buy the groups off, but the groups had clear demands.  Mnuchin and Otting were offended at the impunity of community groups thinking that they had the right to negotiate for loan equity in the community.  Eventually they pledged $5 billion in loans to the community, which was less than the demands, but miles more than they intended.

CRA has benefited millions of people who were able to buy homes.  Mnuchin and Otting had their feelings hurt and their entitlements challenged.  Now Mnuchin is Secretary of the Treasury and Otting is Comptroller of the Currency.  They vowed to get even, and their revenge will be diluting CRA and preventing millions from owning homes in the future because of the act’s guarantee of fair banking and procedures that assured it.

As President Trump would say, “sad!”

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