Wall Street’s New Toxic Transactions

Toxic Real Estate

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.

Unhampered and HAMPered Mortgage Modifications

The National Consumer Law Center has issued a thorough report, At a Crossroads:  Lessons from the Home Affordable Modification Program  (HAMP), which also provides some guidance for the way forward after we get past the foreclosure crisis.  The authors summarize their findings as follows:

The government’s Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) is our starting point. HAMP has reached more homeowners, and successfully modified more home loans, than any program in history. Created by the federal government in early 2009 as a temporary program in response to the foreclosure crisis, HAMP provided additional financial incentives to servicers and investors to modify mortgages at risk of ending in foreclosure. The result has been affordable, sustainable loan modifications that keep borrowers in their homes and maximize returns to investors. But HAMP fell short of its goals, which were inadequate to the scope of the crisis. HAMP has been justly criticized for its lack of transparency and its failure to provide for effective enforcement. (3)

Not pulling punches, the report squarely places responsibility for its failure on “one root cause: massive servicer noncompliance. Almost every official evaluation of HAMP has noted widespread servicer noncompliance and the concurrent failure of the U.S. Department of the Treasury (Treasury) to engage in meaningful enforcement.” (4)  Given that millions more foreclosures are on the horizon, this failure must be rooted out.

The report identifies five principles for effective loan modification standards:

  1. Loan modification evaluations should be standardized, universally applicable to all loans and servicers, and mandatory for all loans before the foreclosure process can go forward.
  2. Loan modification terms must be affordable, fair, and sustainable.
  3. Hardship must be defined to reflect the range of challenges homeowners face.
  4. Transparency and accountability throughout the loan modification process are essential.
  5. Homeowners must be protected from servicers’ noncompliance. Good rules on paper are not enough. (4)

I am intrigued by some of the particular proposals, although I am not sure how they actually work in practice.  For instance, the report states that “Provisions Must Be Made for Homeowners with Junior Liens and Others for Whom a Thirty-One Percent Monthly Mortgage Payment Is Not Affordable.” (58) At what point must we say that a particular situation is untenable?  The report also proposes that “A Servicer’s Violation of Servicing Standards Should Constitute a Defense to a Foreclosure.” (63) While this would no doubt be great for current homeowners, it would also be a radical role change for the foreclosure process.  If this idea gets any traction, it will be interesting to see the industry critique.