The L.A. Times Powerful Series: “Buy Here, Pay Here” Used Car Dealers

If there’s a better example of the completely debilitating impact our car culture has on America’s poorer communities, I can’t think of a better one than the “Buy Here Pay Here” used car dealership industry highlighted by the Los Angeles Times in a special series running this week.  The first piece in the series, “A Vicious Cycle in the Used Car Industry” ran in this morning’s paper with follow-ups coming tomorrow and Wednesday.

Desperate to avoid multi-hour (or just downright impossible) transit commutes, less affluent workers get taken in by a “Buy Here Pay Here used-car” salesman who offers a loan at a ridiculously high rate of interest to purchase a beater car.  If the person can’t make all the payments, the dealer forecloses and looks for another victim after reaping thousands from the previous customer.  If the person can, they end up paying tens of thousands of dollars for a car worth tens of hundreds.  The dealership escapes oversight by being both the seller and lender and falling into an industry that is mostly unregulated.

While “Viscous Cycle” is full of pretty horrifiying statistics, reporter Ken Besinger also spends time on some of the individual stories that put a face on the tragedy.  The first story is about a single mother in Hawthorne who declared bankruptcy, so the dealership couldn’t come to her house and take the car, so they tricked her into coming back to their lot where they parked the car in with other vehicles with her children trapped inside.  The story also features a less traumatic, but still horrifying, story of a dealership that apparently has math problems, having people who don’t speak English sign English-language contracts that mis-represent what they are actually paying.

And of course, the entire process aims at taking people of lesser means’ lower income away from them.  The Times notes:

“Their credit is so bad they can’t even get subprime financing, and they’re going to be stuck in that hole for years, unable to get out,” Schwarz said of Buy Here Pay Here customers. “That’s the profile.”

While the Times’ story focuses on the villains and victims in the story, a villains list includes a lack of federal and state regulations; thus far they are avoiding the planning and policy causes that contribute to this situation.  The housing market doesn’t support low-income housing near many of the places where lower income workers can find jobs.  The transit system is not adequate to provide for low-hassle long distance commutes.  Funding transit, especially transit for people of lower income is low priority for too many decision makers.

There’s a lot of things that can be done to relieve some of the horrors wrought by the “Buy Here Pay Here” car industry, but the real long-term solution is to find ways to reduce car dependency for everyone, but especially those that can least afford it.

Anne Lutz-Fernandez and Catherine Lutz have written about a similar issue at our Capitol Hill Streetsblog almost one year ago to the day.  We’ll cover each of the next two installments in our “Featured Headlines” section.