The National Consumer Law Center released a report, Toxic Transactions: How Land Installment Contracts Once Again Threaten Communities of Color. It describes land installment contracts as follows:
Land contracts are marketed as an alternative path to homeownership in credit-starved communities. The homebuyers entering into these transactions are disproportionately . . . people of color and living on limited income. Many are from immigrant communities.
These land contracts are built to fail, as sellers make more money by finding a way to cancel the contract so as to churn many successive would-be homeowners through the property. Since sellers have an incentive to churn the properties, their interests are exactly opposite to those of the buyers. This is a significant difference from the mainstream home purchase market, where generally the buyer and the seller both have the incentive to see the transaction succeed.
Reliable data about the prevalence of land contract sales is not readily available. According to the U.S. Census, 3.5 million people were buying a home through a land contract in 2009, the last year for which such data is available. But this number likely understates the prevalence of land contracts, as many contract buyers do not understand the nature of their transaction sufficiently to report it.
Evidence suggests that land contracts are making a resurgence in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. An investigative report by the Star Tribune found that land contract sales in the Twin Cities had increased 50% from 2007 to 2013. Recent reports from The New York Times and Bloomberg reveal growing interest from private equity-backed investors in using land contracts to turn a profit on the glut of foreclosed homes in blighted cities around the country.
Few states have laws addressing the problems with land installment contracts, and the state laws on the books are generally insufficient to protect consumers. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has the mandate to regulate and prevent unfair and deceptive practices in the consumer mortgage marketplace, but has not yet used this authority to address the problems with land installment contracts. (1-2, footnotes omitted)
This report shines light on this disturbing development in the housing market and describes the history of predatory land contracts in communities of color since the 1930s. It also shows how their use was abetted by credit discrimination: communities of color were redlined by mainstream lenders who were following policies set by the Federal Housing Administration and other government agencies.
The report describes how these contracts give the illusion of home ownership:
- They are structured to fail so that the seller can resell the property to another unsuspecting buyer.
- They shift the burden of major repairs to the buyer, without exposing the seller to claims that the homes breach the warranty of habitability that a landlord could face from a tenant.
- They often have purchase prices that are far in excess of comparable properties on the regular home purchase market, a fact that is often masked by the way that land contract payments are structured.
- The properties often have title problems, like unsatisfied mortgages, that would not have passed muster in a traditional sale of a house.
- They often are structured to avoid consumer protection statutes that had been enacted in response to previous problems with land contracts.
The report identifies Wall Street firms, like Apollo Global Management, that are funding these businesses. It also proposes a variety of regulatory fixes, not least of which is to have the CFPB take an active role in this shadowy corner of the housing market.
This is all to the good, but I really have to wonder if we are stuck just treating the symptoms of income and wealth inequality. Just as it is hard to imagine how we could regulate ourselves out of the problems faced by tenants that were described in Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, it is hard to imagine that we can easily rid low-income communities of bottom feeders who prey on dreams of homeownership with one scheme or another. It is good, of course, that the National Consumer Law Center is working on this issue, but perhaps we all need to reach for bigger solutions at the same time that we try to stamp out this type of abusive behavior.