Risky Rent-to-Own

photo by Steve Snodgrass

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review quoted me in Rent-to-Own Option for Home Shoppers Rife with Pitfalls, Experts Caution. It opens,

Finding the right rental house was more difficult than Phyllis Lombardi anticipated.

“It’s hard to find a big enough house that allows pets, for the number of people we have in South Fayette,” said Lombardi, 45. She and her husband have four children living at home.

The Lombardis are moving because the owners of the house they are renting want to sell. But the couple isn’t ready to buy. The husband’s income was cut by more than half when they relocated to the Pittsburgh area several years ago, and they are repairing their finances after a short sale on a home.

Finding no rentals in South Fayette that meet her criteria and price, Lombardi is going with an option suggested by her real estate broker: Pick a house for sale on the market and do a rent-to-own contract with an investor who would buy it.

Rent-to-own agreements require prospective buyers to pay rent with an option to purchase the house at a later date, usually within two to five years. It can broaden the options for people with checkered credit histories who think they might soon be in a position to buy.

But it is an industry with a lot of shady operators and which can prove costly to prospective buyers who are not careful, said David Reiss, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School.

“In some cases, these programs are based on the idea of hope springs eternal,” Reiss said. “But a large percentage of them are likely to fail.”

The terms of these contracts vary, but renters often pay a premium above market price, with a portion of that going toward the eventual cost to buy the home.

Many times, renters reach the end of the agreement and are still unable to buy, forfeiting everything they have paid — rent, fees and any premium toward the purchase price — to the owner and walk away with nothing, said Max Beier, a real estate attorney Downtown.

“Traditionally, what you’re going to have in these agreements is a default provision that’s pretty harsh,” he said. “Commonly, you’re going to lose 100 percent of the equity you’ve paid.”

And many don’t come with the same renter protections. For example, maintenance and upkeep costs are often the tenant’s responsibility — just as if they owned the home.

Also, the penalty for late rent payments tends to be more severe than the standard 5 percent for a late mortgage payment, and even cause someone to be kicked out of the home, Reiss said.

“The rights you have as a tenant in a rent-to-own situation are not as clear and not as good as if you were a homeowner,” Reiss said.

Reiss at TechSalon on Tenant Rights

I will be the lead discussant at a Technology Salon Brooklyn event on Thursday morning: How Are ICTs and Social Media Supporting Tenant Rights? The invitation reads,

Gentrification is top of mind of many Brooklynites, as they are pushed out of their communities by large-scale economic development and wealthier groups moving in. One effect of the gentrification process is often the shuttering of local businesses and skyrocketing rents for residents as landlords make way for those who can pay more.

The New York City Office of the Comptroller reported in April 2014 that median rents in the city had risen by 75% since 2001, compared to 44% in the rest of the US, while at the same time, real incomes declined overall for New Yorkers. At the same time, the numbers of rent-regulated properties has decreased. The harshest consequences of rising rents and lowering incomes are felt by the poor and working classes (those earning less than $40,000 a year).

This situation is contributing to an increase in homelessness, with the city’s shelters receiving an all time high number of people seeking support and services. The negative impacts of gentrification also tend to differentially impact on communities of color. Tenants do have rights — however, enforcing those rights can take years when landlords have deep pockets. In 2003, a tenant advocacy group found that in cases initiated by tenants, only 2% resulted in fines for landlords.

Residents of gentrifying areas have not been silent about the impact of gentrification. Numerous community groups have formed and are fighting to keep communities intact, cohesive and affordable for residents. Social media and better data and data visualization can help to track and create evidence bases that can support residents, or to connect them to support services and legal aid.

Please RSVP now to join us at the Brooklyn Community Foundation for a lively roundtable conversation on tenant rights and ICTs. We’ll hear from community organizations, technology developers, legal advocates and others with an interest in technology and social activism around tenant rights, including such questions as:

  • How are community organizations successfully using ICTs and social media to support tenant rights?
  • What is working well, and what are some of the lessons learned about using ICTs and social media for outreach?
  • What are some new ways that organizations could use ICTs to support their work?
  • What support do community organizations need to do this work?

Please RSVP now to join Technology Salon Brooklyn for a lively discussion! Be sure to arrive early to get a good seat, hot coffee, and morning snacks before we start.

ICTs, Social Media and Tenant Rights
Thursday, April 16, 2015, 9-11am
Brooklyn Community Foundation
1000 Dean Street, Suite 307
Brooklyn, NY 11238
RSVP is Required to Attend

The Foundation is a short walk from the A, C, S 2, 3, 4 or 5 trains (Franklin Av stop) (map).