The Equity Factor

Land Trust Helps With Absolutely Heartwarming Prank

This house giveaway video went viral — understandably — but the full story’s more complicated.

(Credit: Defy Media)

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Today’s heartwarming boost: a video of Cleveland housecleaner Cara Simmons being gifted a multi-course gourmet meal, a massage, clothes, a vacation — and a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath house — all arranged and captured by Prank It FWD.

The tearjerker already has five million views on YouTube — understandably — but there’s more to the story than Cara’s adorable kids, a $400 lobster and a four-handed massage.

While the producers of Prank It FWD paid for the full renovation of the Cleveland house, the housing organization Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Cleveland will actually be handing over the keys. Through their land trust program, NHSGC connects moderate-income homebuyers to affordable houses. (For more information about community land trusts, see “Should Community Land Trusts Rank Higher in the Affordable Housing Toolbox?”)

The house Simmons was offered is in the neighborhood of Cleveland Heights (where she and her family currently rent). It had been bank-owned, and was donated to NHSGC by Ocwen Financial Corporation.

“We do complete renovations of houses and sell them below-market to income-qualified households,” says Marge Misak, the director of the land trust program at NHSGC. “Folks work to become qualified for a mortgage. At the point of sale, NHS continues to hold title to a property. We sell a 99-year leasehold interest in the property to the buyer. … One of the key features is that if someone decides to sell in the future, there’s an appreciation-based formula in the land lease that sets the price for what the house should be on the market. It’s designed to be able to keep the house affordable to someone in a similar economic position to the one that the first buyer started out in.”

Prospective buyers generally come to NHSGC and submit some financial documents, which are reviewed by the organization. The buyers then go to financial and homeownership preparation classes to make sure that buyers are prepared to do things like budget for a mortgage and pay for upkeep.

“In this case, we weren’t told this information beforehand. We had a lot of discussions about [Simmons] and her situation, so we knew she was going to be challenged economically,” says Misak. But they didn’t know her specific details until after the show was filmed. Cleveland Heights has high property taxes, and the organization wants to make sure that Simmons is prepared to pay for the taxes, insurance and utilities. NHSGC is working with Simmons to make sure that the added costs of homeownership are something that she wants to take on. “The way that these ‘prize shows’ work,” says Misak, “is that they can say, ‘We can give this to you,’ but then she has to accept it.”

In addition to all of the other gifts, Prank It FWD is offering to pay for the first two years of property taxes, which would ease Simmons’ transition to homeownership and hopefully position her to be able to seek more stable, higher-paying employment. She could also decide to sell the house, if she wanted.

It’s not every day that NHSGC gets to give out houses for free, but they have received donations of formerly real-estate-owned houses in the past. Usually these homes are in need of renovations, but eventually they make their way into the hands of hardworking people like Simmons — minus the hidden camera crew.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Tags: affordable housingclevelandland trusts

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