Contract Selling as a Form of Property Dispossession

Beryl Satter
Professor of History, Rutgers University-Newark

A sure-fire way to lose one’s property is to pay too much for it — or to buy it on terms that are so onerous as to be predatory.  Both problems are endemic to properties purchased “on contract,” that is, on an installment plan.  I detailed the full repercussions of predatory contract sales in my 2009 book Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America.  That book described the mid-twentieth century exploitation of black Chicago homebuyers through predatory contract home purchases, a period during which banks’ refusal to make mortgage loans to African Americans left many with no alternative but to buy on contract.  Unfortunately, since the 2008 subprime meltdown, the practice has been revived, with predictably tragic results.

From the buyer’s perspective, purchasing a property on contract (also known as an “installment land contract,” “contract for deed,” or legally, “Articles of Agreement for Warranty Deed”), combines the worst of buying and renting.   In a contract sale the seller of the property provides the credit for the purchase – but on harsh terms.  Buyers must make a down payment.  They are also responsible for taxes, insurance, maintenance, and interest.  However, most installment land contracts specify that if the buyer misses even a single payment, the contract seller can repossess the property, keeping everything that the buyer invested to date.  Most also specify that all maintenance on the property is the responsibility of the contract buyer.  If the price charged for the property is excessive, or if maintenance costs are unusually high, then a missed payment and subsequent loss of the property is not uncommon.

In the mid-twentieth century, contract selling became an easy way for white speculators to exploit African Americans’ dreams of home ownership.   In cities across the country, speculators used borrowed money to buy properties from whites.  They then immediately sold those properties on contract to black buyers – routinely charging them double, and sometimes quadruple, the prices they’d paid.  Black buyers who could not keep up the exploitative payments lost their homes.  In Chicago, many of the most active contract sellers repossessed scores of properties every year – retaining the down payment and all money that their black buyers had invested to date. 

Contract selling died down in the 1970s as the now nominally illegal practice of bank redlining lessened in frequency, and as flawed federal housing programs created new ways to exploit black homebuyers.[i]  Unfortunately, it has reemerged in full force since the 2008 subprime meltdown.  Hedge Funds like Harbor Portfolio Advisors have purchased thousands of foreclosed homes from Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association) for about $5000 each. They sell these properties days later at massive markups — $30,000 to $60,000 each. These properties have often been abandoned for years, and are in severely deteriorated condition, yet the contract buyer is solely responsible for the often staggering costs of restoring them to a habitable condition.  These costs mire them in debt and force them to miss payments, ensuring the loss of their properties.  Once again, those with plentiful access to credit are using contract sales to manipulate minority buyers’ dreams of mobility in order to entrap and defraud them, resulting in enrichment for the hedge funds, and property dispossession for those most in need. [ii]

[i] On the 1970s FHA-HUD scandal, see Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race For Profit:  How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). 

[ii] On the recent resurgence of predatory contract selling, see Jeremiah Battle Jr., Sarah Mancini, Margot Saunders, and Odette Williamson, “Toxic Transactions:  How Land Installment Contraacts Once Again Threaten Communities of Color,” National Consumer Law Center, July 2016,

“Dispossessing Detroit”: Learn More and Full Schedule

Hear from the Symposium team’s Nathan Santoscoy, Michigan Law student and Detroit native, about tax foreclosure crisis in Detroit and some of the conversations we’ll be having at our Symposium on Nov. 9:

Learn more about the Detroit story that will be our lens for conversation at “Dispossessing Detroit.”

The full schedule is below. If you have not yet RSVP’ed, we encourage you to do so soon:

We’re excited to see you there!

Symposium: Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019
8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. @ Michigan Law School

Hutchins Hall | 701 S. State St., Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Continental Breakfast and Check-In
8:00 – 8:30 AM | Main Floor Lobby, outside of Hutchins 100

Property Dispossession is Nothing New: A Historical Overview
8:30 – 9:30 AM
Panel discussion on the historical instances of land dispossession experienced by people living in the Detroit area and more broadly.

  • Bernadette AtuaheneProfessor of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law
  • Beryl SatterProfessor of History, Rutgers University-Newark
  • Louise SeamsterAssistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology and African American Studies, University of Iowa
  • Michael WitgenDirector of the Native American Studies, Program and Associate Professor of History and American Culture, University of Michigan

Municipal Bankruptcy: Who Gets What?
9:35 – 10:35 AM
Panel discussion comparing the experiences of Detroit, Puerto Rico, and Harrisburg, PA and the citizens who call these places home during and after bankruptcy proceedings.

  • Michelle AndersonProfessor of Law, Stanford Law School
  • Juliet MoringielloAssociate Dean for Research and Faculty Development and Professor of Law, Widener University, Commonwealth Law School
  • John PottowJohn Philip Dawson Collegiate Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School
  • David SkeelS. Samuel Arsht Professor of Corporate Law, University of Pennsylvania Law School 

Dispossession in Other Forms: A Closer Look at Detroit 
10:45 – 12:15 PM
Short presentations or conversations on various topics. Each conversation will be limited to 15-20 minutes with 5 minutes for audience questions and will be held three times over the course of an hour and a half. 

  • Right of Refusal
    • 10:45- 11:10 AM; 11:15- 11:40 AM; 11:45- 12:10 PM
    • Speakers: Michele OberholtzerDirector of Tax Foreclosure Prevention, United Community Housing Coalition and Eli SavitSenior Advisor to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan
  • Changes in the Detroit Real Estate Market 
    • 10:45- 11:10 AM; 11:15- 11:40 AM; 11:45- 12:10 PM
    • Speaker: Joshua AkersAssistant Professor of Geography and Urban & Regional Studies, University of Michigan-Dearborn
  • MorningSide v. Sabree: The Tax Foreclosure Crisis
    • 10:45- 11:10 AM; 11:15- 11:40 AM; 11:45- 12:10 PM
    • Speaker: Michael SteinbergProfessor from Practice, University of Michigan Law School 
  • How Data Informs Policy
    • 10:45- 11:10 AM; 11:15- 11:40 AM; 11:45- 12:10 PM
    • Speaker: Jerry Paffendorf, Co-Founder & CEO, LOVELAND Technologies

12:15 – 1:15 PM

Ramifications of Dispossession: Activism and Lived Experiences
1:15 PM – 2:15 PM
A panel discussion addressing the ways dispossession has affected community members and activists. 

  • Sonja Bonnet, Community Legal Worker, Detroit Justice Center
  • David Pitawanakwat, J.D. Candidate, University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and University of Windsor Faculty of Law  
  • Simone Sagovac, Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition

Revitalization Today: Urban Renewal and Eminent Domain
2:30 – 4:00 PM
Panel discussion on the role of revitalization efforts in cities throughout the country. 

Dispossession Reform Round Tables
4:00 – 4:45 PM
Small group discussions with speakers and participants discussing reforms to current issues of land dispossession. Small groups will reconvene to report possible reforms.

Closing Remarks
4:45 – 5:00 PM
Small group discussions with speakers and participants discussing reforms to current issues of land dispossession. Small groups will reconvene to report possible reforms.

Detroit Engagement Day: Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019
10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. @ Detroit

Helping Detroiters “Step Forward” Into Secure Home Ownership

As a part of the 2019 Journal of Law Reform Symposium “Dispossessing Detroit: How the Law Takes Property,” JLR is excited to partner with the United Community Housing Coalition to host a clinic for Step Forward Michigan applications on November 10th. 

After the 2008 financial crisis and downturn in the housing market, Michigan used federal government funding to establish Step Forward Michigan, a program to help homeowners struggling to make mortgage, property tax, or condominium fee payments. Over 30,000 homeowners have received assistance through the program, which is set to end on December 1, 2019. 

The program provides qualifying homeowners with interest free loans of up to $30,000 to help them catch up on delinquent property taxes, mortgage payments and condominium association fees. The loans are forgivable at 20 percent each year, as long as the property remains the homeowner’s primary residence. If the homeowner is still living in the home after five years, the loan is completely forgiven.

To be eligible to apply, the homeowner must have experienced an involuntary hardship that led to the delinquency. Examples of qualifying events are a medical emergency, job loss, divorce, death, or one-time unforeseen out-of-pocket expenses like home repairs. Additionally, the homeowner has to have enough income to cover their future mortgage and property taxes once they are caught up. They must also show that they do not have sufficient cash reserves in their bank account to cover the relevant payments. 

A one-time unexpected event can spiral into financial trouble with outsize consequences. JLR is excited to partner with UCHC and provide Detroit residents with assistance in completing Step Forward applications and moving towards resolving any delinquency in their home ownership-related payments. This is just one of many legal reform strategies that we will discuss at Dispossessing Detroit – RSVP to attend the Symposium here!


Announcing JLR’s 2019 Symposium: “Dispossessing Detroit: How the Law Takes Property”

The Michigan Journal of Law Reform is pleased to announce that its Fall 2019 Symposium,  “Dispossessing Detroit: How the Law Takes Property” will take place on November 9, 2019. All events on November 9 will be held at the University of Michigan Law School.

RSVP to the Symposium today!

The Symposium will bring together a diverse range of academics, practitioners, and community members to speak on this important topic through the lens of the Detroit experience. We aim to have attendees learn, connect, and deepen their understanding of property dispossession and related topics. 

A few of our speakers include:

  • Michelle Anderson, Professor of Law, Stanford Law School 
  • Bernadette Atuahene, Professor of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law
  • Amina Kirk, Senior Legal and Policy Advocate & Organizer, Detroit People’s Platform
  • Simone Sagovac, Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition
  • Eli Savit, Senior Advisor to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan
  • Louise Seamster, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology, University of Iowa
  • David Skeel, S. Samuel Arsht Professor of Corporate Law, University of Pennsylvania Law School 

On November 10, 2019, JLR will partner with the United Community Housing Coalition to host an HPTAP (Homeowners Property Tax Assistance Program) application clinic. This event will take place in Detroit. 

We look forward to sharing more with you about our program in the coming weeks – and we look forward to seeing you there!

Volume 52 Issue 4 Summer 2019

Jeffrey Levicki
Does a Non-Extreme Answer to Extremism Exist (pdf)

Keynote Address
Sammy Rangel
Keynote Address (pdf)

Symposium Article
Leonard M. Niehoff
Policing Hate Speech and Extremism: A Taxonomy of Arguments in Opposition (pdf)

Symposium Essays
Rebecca J. Marston
Guilt by Alt-Association: A Review of Enhanced Punishment for Suspected Gang Members (pdf)

Anna C. Williford
Blurred Lines: What is Extremism (pdf)

Symposium Transcript
Khaled Beydoun, Nina Mozeihem, & Samuel Bagenstos
Interview with Khaled Beydoun (pdf)

Emily S.P. Baxter
Protecting Local Authority in State Constitutions and Challenging Intrastate Preemption (pdf)

Christian H. Robertson II
Different Problems Require Different Solutions: How Air Warfare Norms Should Inform IHL Targeting Law Reform and Cyber Warfare (pdf)

Volume 52, Issue 3 Spring 2019


Eli Savit
States Empowering Plaintiff Cities (pdf)

Kit Kinports
The Quantum of Suspicion Needed for an Exigent Circumstances Search (pdf)

Paul David Stern
Tort Justice Reform (pdf)

Charles Aside III
The Innocent Villain: Involuntary Manslaughter by Text (pdf)


Kara Naseef
How to Decrease the Immigration Backlog: Expand Representation and End Unnecessary Detention (pdf)

Megan C. Anderson
21st Century Cures Act: The Problem With Preemption in Light of Deregulation (pdf)

Volume 52, Issue 2 Winter 2019


Carl T. Bogus
Books and Olive Oil: Why Antitrust Must Deal with Consolidated Corporate Power (pdf)

Theresa A. Vogel
Critiquing Matter of A-B-: An Uncertain Future in Asylum Proceedings for Women Fleeing Intimate Partner Violence (pdf)

Wayne Batchis
The Political Party System as a Public Forum: The Incoherence of Parties as Free Speech Associations and a Proposed Correction (pdf)

Ying Hu
Robot Criminals (pdf)


Julie Aust
Switching Employers in a Working World: American Immigrants and the Revocation Notice Problem (pdf)

Nicholas Karp
This We’ll Defend: Expanding UCMJ Article 2 Subject Matter Jurisdiction as a Response to Nonconsensual Distribution of Illicit Photographs (pdf)

Volume 52, Issue 1 Fall 2018


Jeffrey Abramson
Jury Selection in the Weeds: Whither the Democratic Shore? (pdf)

Kevin K. Washburn
Agency Pragmatism in Addressing Law’s Failure: The Curious Case of Federal “Deemed Approvals” of Tribal-State Gaming Compacts (pdf)

Andrew N. Vollmer
Accusers as Adjudicators in Agency Enforcement Proceedings (pdf)

Nicole Stelle Garnett
Post-Accountability Accountability (pdf)


Meredith D. McPhail
Ensuring That Punishment Does, in Fact, Fit the Crime (pdf)

Micah Telegen
You Can’t Say That!: Public Forum Doctrine and Viewpoint Discrimination in the Social Media Era (pdf)

Volume 51, Issue 4 Summer 2018


Elizabeth Geltman
Environmental Health Regulation in the Trump Era: How President Trump’s Two-for-One Regulatory Plan Impacts Environmental Regulation (pdf)

Erum Sattar, Jason Robison, and Daniel McCool
Evolution of Water Institutions in the Indus River Basin: Reflections from the Law of the Colorado River (pdf)

Justin Fisch
The Case for Effective Environmental Politics: Federalist or Unitary State? Comparing the Cases of Canada, the United States of America, and the People’s Republic of China (pdf)