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A Rent-To-Own Project Spurred Dreams Of Homeownership In Chambersburg. The Reality Leaves Tenants Feeling ‘Set Up To Fail’



Jonathan Pretlow dreams of having an asset that will help springboard his family forward for generations. As is the case for many Americans, that means owning a home.

In 2010, his then-fiance Marcia moved from Baltimore to join him in Chambersburg, a borough of around 20,000 in central Pennsylvania. Their blended family — two kids of hers, one of his — moved into a neighborhood of two-story townhomes billed by local officials as a “rent-to-own” project for low-income residents.

The Pretlows began paying rent for their Redwood Park home with the understanding that they would take on the mortgage after 15 years.

Such an opportunity “almost felt like a prayer being answered,” said Pretlow, who works at Letterkenny Army Depot, a Department of Defense facility just outside the borough.

Jonathan Pretlow

Dani Fresh

Jonathan Pretlow poses outside townhomes in the neighborhood.

In newspaper articles from that year, the building developers and community leaders hailed the project as transformational.

“Our intention is to turn these into a homeownership opportunity” with an aim to make the neighborhood “vibrant again,” said Charles Scalise, former CEO of the nonprofit developer, in one 2010 article.

“The community said, ‘This is what we want. We want affordable homes,’” said Jack Jones, a neighborhood development manager in Chambersburg, in the same piece.

Fewer than half of Chambersburg residents own their homes, compared to 71% in Franklin County as a whole, per the U.S. Census Bureau. About one-third of Chambersburg residents are Black or Latino in a county that is 92% white, and the poverty rate in the borough is also higher, according to federal data. Officials promoted the Redwood Park Townhomes project as a way to add more affordable housing, with the promise of turning some renters into owners.

Redwood Park Townhomes

Dani Fresh

Redwood Park Townhomes on Redwood Street in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

But as the last decade went by, Pretlow and other tenants in the 40-unit development became frustrated by the lack of clarity in the terms of the agreement. For the past three years, they have been asking questions about exactly how the transition to homeownership would happen, and what would be required of them, but said they haven’t gotten firm answers from the property management group.

“I think we’re being set up to fail,” said Marcia Pretlow. “[In] four or five years, you know, they’ll just say, ‘Oh, well, you guys don’t qualify to own this home.’”

A lack of information and communication drove these fears. Community residents said their questions received vague answers, and they did not know where to turn to for help.

Through public records requests and interviews with experts, Keystone Crossroads learned that the underlying terms of the residential community are more complex than a typical “rent-to-own” program. The development was completed with the help of a bailout during the Great Recession meant to increase affordable rental housing in the area. The lease-purchase part of the deal turns out to have been a secondary goal and the document laying out how that would happen is not legally binding.


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Marcia and Jonathan Pretlow outside of their home of 11 years at Redwood Park Townhomes in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

The project also differs from traditional rent-to-own agreements in a key way: The rent tenants pay builds no equity towards a down payment, a fact many residents said they did not know until a meeting with a property manager in November 2020.

“We had no idea,” said Pretlow.

For its part, Luminest, the property management company, said it did not have all the details either.

“We were only ever able to tell them that we were aware that after 15 years, the homes would be available for home ownership,” said Bonita Zehler, executive director of Luminest. She said tenants were expected to take advantage of low rents to save on their own.

After continued pressure from the tenants, Luminest pointed residents to the Erie-based Housing and Neighborhood Development Service (HANDS), one of two groups that own the development. When Luminest reached out to HANDS earlier this year with some tenants’ concerns, they received a letter in response.

The property managers shared the note with residents, who said it felt like a brush off.

Redwood Park Townhomes

Dani Fresh

A “Slow: Children at Play” sign is pictured outside Redwood Park Townhomes.

“Questions about the project conversion and option to purchase individual units at Redwood are premature,” said Matthew Good, CEO of HANDS, in a letter dated March 2, 2021. The note also contained a list of factors that would ultimately weigh on the prospect of homeownership, saying there would be creditors to please and legal hoops for the owners to jump through.

“Residents must understand that it’s not up to Luminest or solely HANDS, whether the option to purchase will be available” at the 15-year mark, Good continued.

This ongoing uncertainty floored not only some of the original tenants, but local elected officials who had championed the development as well.

“The borough at the time was proud of this development, and was proud of the concept that it was rent-to-own,” said former Chambersburg Mayor Peter Lagiovane. “I was shocked when I heard there seems to be an issue coming up now.”

“I just want a straight answer,” said Alexander Houser, 33, another long-time tenant at Redwood Park. When he moved in a decade ago, he was thrilled to be able to live on his own and afford a new home on his $9/hour salary. At the time, he said his rent was about $600 a month.

Since then, he started a family and found higher-paying work. Houser said he is ready to become a homeowner, and understanding whether to keep renting the same place is a crucial decision.

“We’re just trying to figure out what to do with our lives right now,” said Houser.

The red tape

These practical concerns run smack dab into the reality of Reagan-era public policy that’s not actually intended to increase homeownership.

The Redwood Park Townhomes received federal support in the form of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, or LIHTC.

Created in 1986, these tax credits are now the single biggest engine behind building affordable housing in the United States. Since its inception, the program has funded the construction or rehabilitation of more than 3.2 million housing units across the country, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Here’s how they work: The federal government doles out the credits to states, which then require developers to compete for them. In Pennsylvania, only about a quarter of projects that apply for LIHTC funding get approved, according to the state’s Housing Finance Agency.

Laila & Asia Douglas

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Daughters Laila and Asia outside a townhome.

Developers who win still don’t get money — yet. They get tax credits, which they then sell to large private investors, who use them to reduce the taxes they have to pay on other investments. The money from that sale ultimately finances construction.

The Redwood Park Townhomes got this far when the Great Recession hit. Instead of being able to sell the tax credits, the developers sought a bailout through a special stimulus program created by the American Recovery and Restoration Act of 2009.

All of the same red tape as LIHTC still applied. Once the homes or apartment buildings are completed, federal law requires that rents be kept low for years, or decades, to fulfill the promise of providing affordable housing. Proponents say the program combines the best of the public and private sector, while critics argue that having so many middlemen involved is inefficient.

Most of the time, the process ends there. Adding on another transaction and converting tenants into homeowners “is highly, highly unusual,” said Carol Galante, faculty director of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley.

Asia Douglas

Dani Fresh

Asia Douglas inside her Redwood Park Townhome.

“You generally can’t use the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit on anything but a rental property. And so these folks are renters for a much longer period of time,” at least 15 years, in order to satisfy the terms of the tax credits, continued Galante. She said that’s much longer than a more typical rent-to-own arrangement.

Still, the promise of getting two benefits — affordable rental housing and increasing homeownership — out of one stream of government funding has enticed nonprofit developers to try it. There are 19 such developments around Pennsylvania, according to PHFA, but in each case, the option to sell a property to low-income tenants after 15 years is just an option, not a requirement. HANDS is involved in several other lease-purchase developments around the state, according to its CEO.

Experts point to CHN Housing Partners in Cleveland, Ohio, as the industry leader of this type of program.

Since 1987, that organization has helped 1,350 people become homeowners in the Midwest through lease agreements, according to CHN’s website. Around 99% were still living there after five years.

CHN declined to talk on the record for this story, but sources familiar with the organization’s model spelled out some of its principles. At the 15-year mark, the home sale prices are kept very low, often around $20,000. Before that time, tenants are called “residents” in order to emphasize their path to homeownership. Instead of needing good credit, CHN requires three years of on-time rental payments to assess ownership readiness. The group also provides financing in-house. Transparency with residents is key.

This level of support is needed to overcome the barriers to homeownership that low-income Americans face.

Only low-income tenants can rent in Redwood Park, and most have incomes somewhere between 20-60% of the area median, according to Zehler.

Bad credit, lack of savings for a down payment and closing costs, and unfamiliarity with the process can all be barriers to homeownership.

Only around half of households making less than the median income own homes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. At the end of 2020, the rate of homeownership among the Black and Latino communities in the country was 44.1% and 49.1% respectively, well below the national average of 65.8%.

“For folks who may not qualify for a mortgage, they may view these rent-to-own agreements as their only possible path to homeownership,” said Michael Froehlich, a housing attorney with Philadelphia-based Community Legal Services. “Sometimes they are successful, but people should be well aware of their rights and the risks that are involved.”

The answers

About six weeks after HANDS sent the letter saying discussions of conversion were “premature,” the group provided a plan for transferring ownership to tenants, in response to repeated questioning by Keystone Crossroads.

“HANDS is committed to the obligations in the original funding application and regulatory documents to provide a homeownership option to the residents of Redwood Park who are interested and qualified,” wrote Good.
The development is predicted to have around $860,000 dollars in debt after 15 years, the earliest units could be sold, according to Good. The estimated cost for tenants to purchase, based on how much debt is left right now, the need for maintenance, and to set up a homeowners association, is $75,209. That’s well below the median home price in Chambersburg, which is $204,031, according to the real estate listing site Zillow.

Any tenant who qualified to move into the development based on their income, whether it was in year one or year 14, can apply to become a homeowner, provided they complete a mandatory homebuyer counseling program and qualify for a mortgage. Good said HANDS will kick in $1,000 towards closing costs.

David Uram, the CEO of PIRHL, the other housing developer involved in building the Redwood Park Townhomes, stressed how difficult structuring these deals can be, and called not discussing the terms with tenants sooner a “blindspot.” Uram said to his knowledge, the tenants were never told their rent would go towards a down payment or equity.

“I think it’s absolutely amazing that some of the residents have been there that long and maybe that’s a tribute to the project, but we probably ought to start facilitating some communication,” he said.

Marcia Pretlow

Dani Fresh

Marcia Pretlow inside her Redwood Park Townhome.

Keystone Crossroads shared this information with some tenants who hoped to own their townhomes.

One reaction was sticker shock.

“That’s a lot of money still,” said Alexander Houser, who said he was disappointed that years of paying rent did not add up to something concrete attached to his name.

He also repeatedly questioned the way the development had been framed at the outset, saying, if it’s not really rent-to-own, “why was it labeled this way?”

For the Pretlows, finally having the information they sought puts their situation in focus. Over 10 years, they spent more than $85,400 on rent, payment records show. Their kids, who were in elementary school when they moved in, are now nearing college, and decisions about tuition are due soon. Now, they would need to take out a mortgage for tens of thousands of dollars to own the house.

The payment estimate is “a kick in the gut,” said Jonathan Pretlow, but the lack of anything in his name was worse. “When you go into homeownership, that’s pride that you take. That means, ‘I’m the king of my castle,’” he continued.

“I’m disappointed,” said Marcia Pretlow. She questioned why $30,000 of the estimated sale price was needed for repairs and to fund a homeowner’s association, expenses they would again be expected to bear, but which would be out of their control.

Both Jonathan and Marcia Pretlow said they are grateful for aspects of the Redwood Park project. The low rent is a boon, and the amount of space a blessing with so many teenagers in the house. They have spent years envisioning how they would make the place theirs, like finishing the basement or installing ceiling fans through the house, modifications barred to renters.

If they had known all of the terms from the start, they say they might have made different choices. But after so much time, Jonathan Pretlow said he would like to stick it out, if only on principle.

However, they won’t soon forget the feeling of being unheard and in his words, “talked down upon.”

“The only time people make any reaction is when somebody else speaks up for us,” he said. “Hey, don’t you see me? We’re worth something. We live here. We’ve invested.”

Read more from our partners, Keystone Crossroads.

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Inside the Highly Profitable and Secretive World of Payday Lenders



Illustration by Sarah Maxwell, Folio Art

When Bridget Davis got started in the family’s payday lending business in 1996, there was just one Check ’n Go store in Cincinnati. She says she did it all: customer service, banking duties, even painting walls.

The company had been established two years earlier by her husband, Jared Davis, and was growing rapidly. There were 100 Check ’n Go locations by 1997, when Jared and Bridget (née Byrne) married and traveled the country together looking for more locations to open storefront outlets. They launched another 400 stores in 1998, mostly in strip malls and abandoned gas stations in low-income minority neighborhoods where the payday lending target market abounds. Bridget drove the supply truck and helped select locations and design the store layouts.

But Jared soon fired his wife for committing what may be the ultimate sin in the payday lending business: She forgave a customer’s debt. “A young woman came to pay her $20 interest payment,” Bridget wrote in court documents last year during divorce proceedings from Jared. “I pulled her file, calculated that she had already paid $320 to date on a principle [sic] loan of $100. I told her she was paid in full. [Jared] fired me, stating, ‘We are here to make money, not help customers manage theirs. If you can’t do that, you can’t work here.’ ”

Photograph by Brittany Dexter

It’s a business philosophy that pays well, especially if you’re charging fees and interest rates of 400 percent that can more than triple the amount of the loan in just five months—the typical time most payday borrowers need to repay their debt, says the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit organization focused on public policy. Cincinnati-based Check ’n Go now operates more than 1,100 locations in 25 states as well as an internet lending service with 24/7 access from the comfort of your own home, according to its website. Since its founding, the company has conducted more than 50 million transactions.

What the website doesn’t say is that many, if not most, of those transactions were for small loans of $50 to $500 to working people trying to scrape by and pay their bills. In most states—including Ohio, until it reformed its payday lending laws in 2019—borrowers typically fork over more than one-third of their paycheck to meet the deadline for repayment, usually in two weeks. To help guarantee repayment, borrowers turn over access to their checking account or deposit a check with the lender. In states that don’t offer protection, customers go back again and again to borrow more money from the same payday lender, typically up to 10 times, driving themselves into a debt trap that can lead to bankruptcy.

Jared and Bridget Davis are embroiled in a nasty court battle related to his 2019 divorce filing in Hamilton County Domestic Relations Court. Thousands of pages of filings and 433 docket entries by April 26 offer the public a rare glimpse into the business operations of Check ’n Go, one of Cincinnati’s largest privately-owned companies, as well as personal lifestyles funded by payday lending.

The company cleared $77 million in profit in 2018, a figure that dipped the following year to $55 million, according to an audit by Deloitte. That drop in revenue may have something to do with the payday lending reform laws and interest rate caps passed recently in Ohio as well as a growing number of other states.

The day-to-day business transactions that provide such profit are a depressing window into how those who live on the edge of financial security are often stuck with few options for improving their situations. If a borrower doesn’t repay or refinance his or her original loan, a lender like Check ’n Go deposits the guarantee check and lets it bounce, causing the borrower to incur charges for the bounced check and eventually lose his or her checking account, says Nick DiNardo, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati. After two missed payments, payday lenders usually turn over the debt to a collection agency. If the collection agency fails to collect the full amount of the original loan as well as all fees and interest, it goes to court to garnish the borrower’s wages.

That devastating experience is all too familiar to Anthony Smith, a 60-year-old Wyoming resident who says he was laid off from several management positions over a 20-year period. He turned to payday lenders as his credit rating dropped and soon found himself caught in a debt trap that took him years to escape.

Two things happened in 2019, Smith says, that turned around his financial fortunes. First, he found a stable manufacturing job with the Formica Company locally, and then he took his mother’s advice and opened a credit union account. GE Credit Union not only gave him a reasonable loan to pay off his $2,500 debt but also issued him his first credit card in a decade. “I had been a member [of the credit union] for just two months, and I had a credit rating of 520. Can you imagine?” he says. Smith says he is now debt-free for the first time in 10 years.

Consumer advocates say Check ’n Go is one of the biggest payday lending operations in the nation. But knowing its exact ranking is difficult because most payday lending companies, including Check ’n Go and its parent company CNG Holdings, are privately held and reluctant to disclose their finances.

Brothers Jared and David Davis own the majority of the company’s privately held stock. David bought into the company in 1995, but CNG got its game-changing infusion of capital from the brothers’ father, Allen Davis, who retired as CEO of then-Provident Bank in 1998. Allen sold off $37 million in stock options and essentially became CNG’s bank and consultant.

By 2005, however, the sons were part of a public court battle against their father. Allen accused Jared and David of treating his millions in CNG stock as compensation instead of a transfer from his ex-wife (and the brothers’ mother), sticking him with a $13 million tax bill. In turn, the brothers accused Allen of putting his mistress and his yacht captain on the company payroll, taking $1.2 million in fees without board approval, and leading the company into ventures that lost Check ’n Go a lot of money. Several years of legal fighting later, the IRS was still demanding its $13 million. CNG officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Jared and David split $22 million in profit from CNG in 2018 and, according to the Deloitte audit, CNG’s balance sheet showed another $42 million that could be split between the two brothers in 2019. Jared, however, elected not to receive his $21 million distribution “in order to create this artificial financial crisis and shelter millions of dollars from an equitable split between us,” according to Bridget’s divorce filing.

Worse, she claims, Jared said they would be responsible for paying taxes out of their personal accounts rather than from CNG’s company earnings, making her personally responsible for half of the $5.5 million in taxes for 2019. She believes it wasn’t happenstance that $5.5 million was wired to Jared’s private bank account in December of that same year. Bridget has refused to sign the joint tax return, and Jared filed a complaint with the court saying a late tax filing would cost them $1 million in penalties and missed tax opportunities.

“For the duration of our marriage and to the present, Jared has full and complete control of all money paid to us from various investments we have made in addition to our main source of income, CNG,” Bridget wrote in her motion. She suspects that Jared, without her knowledge or consent, plowed the money for their taxes and from other sources of income into Black Diamond Group, the fund that invests in the Agave & Rye restaurant chain. Beyond the original restaurant opened in Covington in 2018, “they have opened four other locations in one year,” she wrote, including Louisville and Lexington. (The ninth location opened in Hamilton this spring.) Agave & Rye’s website touts its Mexican fare as “a chef-inspired take on the standard taco, elevating this simple food into something epic!”

In his response, Jared wrote, “We have very limited regular sources of income.” He says he isn’t receiving any additional distributions from CNG, the couple’s primary source of income, “and this is not within my control. The company has declared that we would not make any further distributions in 2020 given economic circumstances. This decision is based on a formula and is not discretionary.” Agave & Rye helped produce $645,000 in income for Black Diamond in 2020 but has paid out $890,000 in loans, he says. Through August 31, 2020, he wrote, the couple’s “expenses have exceeded income from all sources.”

The divorce case filings start slinging mud when the couple accuses each other of breaking up their 22-year marriage and finding new partners. Jared claims Bridget began an affair during their marriage with Brian Duncan, a contractor she employed through her house flipping business. Bridget, he says, paid Duncan’s company $75,000 in 2018 as well as giving him a personal gift of $70,000 that same year. Jared says she also bought Duncan at least one car and purchased a house for him near hers on Shawnee Run Road for $289,000, then loaned money to Duncan. Jared says Duncan has been late in repaying the note.

While Bridget says Duncan has been drug-free for several years, he has a rap sheet with Hamilton County courts from 2000 to 2017 that runs five pages long. It lists a half-dozen counts of drug abuse and drug possession, including heroin and possession of illegal drug paraphernalia; assaulting a police officer; stealing a Taser from a police officer; criminal damaging while being treated at UC Health; more than a dozen speeding and traffic violations; a half-dozen counts of driving with a suspended license; receiving stolen property; twice fleeing and resisting arrest; three counts of theft; two counts of forgery; and one count for passing bad checks.

Bridget has fired back that Jared not only is hiding his money from her but spending it lavishly on vacations, resorts, and high-end restaurants with his new girlfriend, Susanne Warner. Bridget says Jared gifted Warner with $40,000 without Bridget’s knowledge, then declared it on their joint tax return as a “contribution.” Bridget’s court filings include photocopies of social media posts of Jared and Warner globetrotting from summer 2019 to summer 2020: vacation at Beaver Creek Village in Avon, Colorado; cocktails at High Cotton in Charleston, South Carolina, and dinner at Melvyn’s Restaurant and Lounge in Palm Springs, California; getaways at resorts in Nashville and at a lakefront rental on Norris Lake ($600 per night); in the Bahamas at a Musha Cay private residence ($57,000 per night), at South Beach in Miami, and at a private beach at Fisher Island; in Mexico at Cabo San Lucas; in the U.S. Virgin Islands at Magen’s Bay and on a private yacht ($4,500 per night); in California at Desert Hot Springs, the Ritz-Carlton in Rancho Mirage, and Montage at Laguna Beach; and in the Bahamas at South Cottage ($2,175 per night).

For her part, Bridget has gone through some of the top lawyers in town faster than President Trump during an impeachment—six in all, two of whom she’s sued for malpractice. She sent four binders of evidence to the Ohio Supreme Court, asking for the recusal of Hamilton County Judge Amy Searcy and claiming Searcy was biased because of campaign donations from Jared and his companies. Rather than deal with the list of questions sent to her by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, Searcy stepped down. Two other judges have since stepped into the fray, and in March Bridget filed for a change of venue outside of Hamilton County, arguing she can’t get a fair trial in her hometown. At press time, a trial date had been set for June 28 in Hamilton County.

The poor-mouthing in the divorce case has reached heights of comic absurdity. Jared claims he’s “illiquid” because he didn’t get his distribution from CNG in 2019. Bridget has received debt collection notices for the nearly $21,000 owed on her American Express card and a $735 bill from Jewish Hospital. There’s no sign yet that anyone is coming to repossess her Porsche, which according to her filings has a $5,000 monthly payment. Each party has received $25,000 a month in living expenses, an amount later reduced to $15,000 under a temporary legal agreement while the divorce case is being sorted out. Court filings show that Jared’s net worth is almost $206 million and Bridget’s is $22.5 million.

In the early 1990s, Allen Davis was raising eyebrows at Provident Bank (later bought by National City), and not only because of his very unbanker-like look of beard, ponytail, and casual golf wear. He was leading the company into questionable subprime home loans for people with bad credit and a frequent-shopper program for merchants, though the bank’s charter barred him from getting involved in full-blown predatory lending practices. With guidance and funding from his father, Jared, at age 26, launched Check ’n Go in 1994 and became a pioneer in the payday lending industry. Jared and his family saw there were millions of Americans who didn’t have checking or savings accounts (“unbanked”) or an adequate credit rating (“underbanked”) but still needed loans to meet their everyday expenses. What those potential customers did have was a steady paycheck.

Conventional banks share a big part of the blame for the nation’s army of unbanked borrowers by imposing checking account fees and onerous penalties for bounced checks. In 2019, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation estimated there were 7.1 million U.S. households without a checking or savings account.

The Davises launched Check ’n Go on the pretext that it would “fill the gap” for people who occasionally needed to borrow money in a hurry—a service for those who couldn’t get a loan any other way. But consumer advocates say the real business model for payday lending isn’t a service at all. The majority of the industry’s revenue comes from repeat business by customers trapped in debt, not from borrowers looking for a quick, one-time fix for their financial troubles.

Ohio’s payday lending lobbyists got a strong hold on the state legislature in the late 1990s, and by 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray could rightfully claim in a campaign ad that “Ohio’s [payday lending] laws are now the worst in the nation. Things have gotten so bad that it is legal to charge 594 percent interest on loans.” His statement was based on a 2014 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The frustration for consumer advocates was that Ohioans had been trying to reform those laws since 2008, when voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative placing a 28 percent cap on the interest of payday loans. But—surprise!—lenders simply registered as mortgage brokers, which enabled them to charge unlimited fees.

The Davis family and five other payday lending companies controlled 90 percent of the market back then, an express gravy train ripping through the poorest communities in Ohio. The predatory feeding frenzy, especially in Ohio’s hard-hit Rust Belt communities, prompted a 2017 column at The Daily Beast titled, “America’s Worst Subprime Lender: Jared Davis vs. Allan Jones?” (Jones is founder and CEO of Tennessee-based Check Into Cash.) In 2016 and 2017, consumer advocates mustered their forces again, and this time they weren’t allowing for loopholes. The Pew Charitable Trusts joined efforts with bipartisan lawmakers and Ohioans for Payday Loan Reform, a statewide coalition of faith, business, local government, and nonprofit organizations. Consumer advocates found a legislative champion in State Rep. Kyle Koehler, a Republican from Springfield.

It no doubt helped reform efforts that former Ohio Speaker of the House Cliff Rosenberger resigned in spring 2018 amid an FBI investigation into his cozy relationship with payday lenders. Rosenberger had taken frequent overseas trips—to destinations including France, Italy, Israel, and China—in the company of payday lending lobbyists. In April 2019, Ohio’s new lending law took effect and, since then, has been called a national model for payday lending reform that balances protections for borrowers, profits for lenders, and access to credit for the poor, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. New prices in Ohio are three to four times lower for payday loans than before the law. Borrowers now have up to three months to repay their loans with no more than 6 percent of their paycheck. Pew estimates that the cost of borrowing $400 for three months dropped from $450 to $109, saving Ohioans at least $75 million a year. And despite claims that the reforms would eliminate access to credit, lenders currently operate in communities across the state and online. “The bipartisan success shows that if you set fair rules and enforce them, lenders play by them and there’s widespread access to credit,” says Gabe Kravitz, a consumer finance officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Other states like Virginia, Kansas, and Michigan are following Ohio’s lead, Kravitz says. Some states, such as Nebraska, have even capped annual interest on payday loans. As a result, Pew researchers have seen a reduction in the number of storefront lending op­erations across the country. Even better, Kravitz says, there’s no evidence that borrowers are turning instead to online payday lending operations.

Cincinnati is one of five cities chosen for a grant to replicate the success of Boston Builds Credit, an ambitious effort that city launched in 2017 to provide credit counseling in poor and minority communities by training specialists at existing social service agencies. The program also encourages consumer partnerships with credit unions, banks, and insurance companies to offer small, manageable loans that can help the unbanked and underbanked improve their credit ratings. “Right now, local organizations are all kind of working in silos on the problem in Cincinnati,” says Todd Moore of the nonprofit credit counseling agency Trinity Debt Relief. Moore, who applied for the Boston grant, says he’s looking for an agency like United Way or Strive Cincinnati to lead the effort here.

Anthony Smith is thankful that he’s escaped the downward spiral of his payday loans, especially during the pandemic’s economic turmoil. “I’m blessed for every day I can get paid and have a job during these difficult times, just to be able to pay my bills and meet my responsibilities,” he says. “I’ve always kept a job, but until now I’ve had crappy credit. That doesn’t mean I’m a bad guy.”

Can others worth millions of dollars say the same?

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Bad Credit

What’s Questionable Credit and Can I Get a Car Loan With It?



Questionable’s definition means that something’s quality is up for debate. If a lender says that your credit score is questionable, it’s likely that they mean it’s poor, or at the very least, they’re hesitant to approve you for vehicle financing. Here’s what most lenders consider questionable credit, and what auto loan options you may have.

Questionable Credit and Auto Lenders

Many auto lenders may consider questionable credit as a borrower with a credit score below 660. The credit score tiers as sorted by Experian the national credit bureau, are:

  • Super prime: 850 to 781
  • Prime: 780 to 661
  • Nonprime: 660 to 601
  • Subprime: 600 to 501
  • Deep subprime: 500 to 300

The nonprime credit tiers and below is when you start to get into bad credit territory and may struggle to meet the credit score requirements of traditional auto lenders.

This is because lenders are looking at your creditworthiness – your perceived ability to repay loans based on the information in your credit reports. Besides your actual credit score, there may be situations where the items in your credit reports are what’s making a lender question whether you’re a good candidate for an auto loan. These can include:

  • A past or active bankruptcy
  • A past or recent vehicle repossession
  • Recent missed/late payments
  • High credit card balances
  • No credit history

There are ways to get into an auto loan with questionable credit. Your options can change depending on what’s making your credit history questionable, though.

Questionable Credit Auto Loans

If your credit score is less than stellar, it may be time to look at these two lending options:

  • What Is Questionable Credit and Can I Get a Car Loan With It?Subprime financing – Done through special finance dealerships by third-party subprime lenders. These lenders can often assist with many unique credit situations, provided you can meet their requirements. A great option for new borrowers with thin files, situational bad credit, or consumers with older negative marks.
  • In-house financing – May not require a credit check, and is done through buy here pay here (BHPH) dealers. Typically, your income and down payment amount are the most important parts of eligibility. Auto loans without a credit check may not allow for credit repair and may come with a higher-than-average interest rate.

Both of these car loan options are typically available to borrowers with credit challenges. However, if you have more recent, serious delinquencies on your credit reports, a BHPH dealer may be for you. Most traditional and subprime lenders typically don’t approve financing for borrowers with a dismissed bankruptcy, a repossession less than a year old, or borrowers with multiple, recent missed/late payments.

Requirements of Bad Credit Car Loans

In many cases, your income and down payment size are the biggest factors in your overall eligibility for bad credit auto loans. Expect to need:

  • 30 days of recent computer-generated check stubs to prove you have around $1,500 to $2,500 of monthly gross income. Borrowers without W-2 income may need two to three years of professionally prepared tax returns.
  • A down payment of at least $1,000 or 10% of the vehicle’s selling price. BHPH dealers may require up to 20% of the car’s selling price.
  • Proof of residency in the form of a recent utility bill in your name.
  • Proof of a working phone (no prepaid phones), proven with a recent phone bill in your name.
  • A list of five to eight personal references with name, phone number, and address.
  • Valid driver’s license with the correct address, can’t be revoked, expired, or suspended.

Depending on your individual situation, you may need fewer or more items to apply for a bad credit auto loan. However, preparing these documents before you head to a dealership can speed up the process!

Ready to Get on the Road?

With questionable credit, finding a dealership that’s able to assist you with an auto loan is easier said than done. Here at Auto Credit Express, we want to get that done for you with our coast-to-coast network of special finance dealerships.

Complete our free auto loan request form and we’ll get right to work looking for a dealer in your local area that can assist with many tough credit situations.

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Bad Credit

Entrepreneur Tae Lee Finds Her Fortune



By Jasmine Shaw
For The Birmingham Times

Birmingham native Tae Lee had plans last year to visit the continent of Africa, the South American country of Columbia, and the U.S. state of Texas.

“I was going to stay in each place for like four to six weeks, and then COVID-19 happened,” she said. “So, I just was like, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna go to Mexico and stay for six months.’”

Once home from Playa Del Carmen, located on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, the 33-year-old entrepreneur put the final touches on “Game of Fortune: Win in Wealth or Lose in Debt,” a financial literacy card game for ages 10 and up.

“We created ‘Game of Fortune’ because we realized there was a gap in learning the fundamentals of money,” said Lee. “We go through life not knowing anything about money and then—‘Bam!’—real life hits. Credit, debt, and bills come at us quick!”

Lee believes the game “gives players a glimpse of real life” by using everyday scenarios to teach them how to make wiser financial decisions without having to waste their own money.

“I feel like [financial literacy] can be learned in ways other than somebody standing up and preaching it to you over and over again,” she said. “You can learn it in ways that are considered fun, as well.”

Which is why “we want the schools to buy it, so we can give students a fun way to learn about financial literacy,” she added.

Lee, also called the “Money Maximizer,” is an international best-selling financial author, speaker, coach, and trainer who is known for her financial literacy books, including “Never Go Broke (NGB): An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Money and Freedom” and the “NGB Money Success Planner High School Edition.” The Birmingham-based financial guru focuses on creating diverse streams of income in the tax, real estate, insurance, and finance industries.

For Lee, it’s about building generational wealth, not debt.

Indispensable Lessons

Lee got her first glance at entrepreneurial life as a child watching her mother, Valeria Robinson, run her commercial cleaning company, V’s Cleaning. Robinson retired in 2019.

“My grandmother had a cleaning service, too,” said Lee. “So, even though I didn’t start out as an entrepreneur, watching my mom and grandma do it taught me a lot.”

Lee grew up in Birmingham and attended Riley Elementary School, Midfield Middle School, and Huffman High School. She then went on to Jacksonville State University, in Jacksonville, Alabama, where she earned bachelor’s degree in physical education. She struggled to find a career in her field and became overwhelmed by student loans.

“My credit and stuff didn’t get bad until after college,” she said. “I was going through school and taking money, but nobody told me, ‘Oh, you’re gonna have to pay all of this back.’”

Before embarking on her extensive career in money management, Lee had not learned the indispensable lessons that she now shares with clients.

“‘Don’t have bad credit.’ That’s all I learned,” she remembers. “Financial literacy just wasn’t taught much. I learned the majority of my lessons as I aged.”

In an effort to ward off collection calls and raise her credit score, Lee researched tactics to strategically eliminate her debt.

“I knew I had to pay bills on time, and I couldn’t be late with payments,” she said.

Lee eventually began helping friends revamp their finances and opened NGB Inc. in 2017 to share fun, educational methods to help her clients build solid financial foundations.

“People were always coming to me like, ‘How do I invest in this?’ and ‘How do I do that?’ So, I said to myself, ‘You know what, people should be paying to pick your brain.’”

Legacy Building

While Lee enjoyed watching her clients reach milestones, like buying a new car with cash or making their first stock market investment, she was also designing “Game of Fortune” to teach the value of legacy building.

“The game gives players the knowledge to build generational wealth, not generational debt,” she said. “It gives you a glimpse of life, money, and what can truly happen if you mismanage your coins.”

Using index cards to create her first “Game of Fortune” sample deck, Lee filled each card with pertinent terms related to debt elimination and credit and wealth building. She then called on a few friends to help her work through the kinks.

Three of her good friends—Barbara Bratton, Daña Brown, and Sha Cannon—were just a few of the people that gave feedback on the sample deck.

“From there I met with Brandon Brooks, [owner of the Birmingham-based Brooks Realty Investments LLC], and four other financial advisors to fine-tune the definitions and game logistics,” Lee said.

Though Lee was unable to land a job in physical education after graduating from college, she now sees her career with NGB Inc. as life’s unexpected opportunity to teach on her own terms.

“Bartending and waitressing taught me that working for someone else was not for me,” she replied. “In order to get the life I always wanted, I had to create my own business.”

In her entrepreneurial pursuits, Lee strives to be an open-minded leader who embraces the need for flexibility.

“COVID-19 has shown me that in entrepreneurship you have to maneuver,” she said. “When life changes, sometimes your business will, too. You may have to change the path, but your ending goal can be the same.”

“Game of Fortune: Win in Wealth or Lose in Debt” is available and sold only on the “Game of Fortune” website: To learn more about Tae Lee and Never Go Broke Inc., visit and or email; you also can follow her on Facebook ( and Instagram (@nevergobrokeinc).

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