Our current mortgage system provides an excellent example of why usury used to be illegal. Many people today believe that usury is just another word for interest, but that is not strictly correct. George O'Brien gives a more thorough explanation of usury in "An Essay on Medieval Economic Teaching," but one aspect of usury is the attempt to conduct a transaction without any risk, or where the risk is only one-sided. One of the fundamental differences between Capitalism and Distributism is the attitude toward usury.
In the current system, based on solidly capitalist principles, you come to me for a loan to purchase a house. I loan you the money (which the banking rules allow even if I don’t really have the money to loan) and the transaction is done. You get legal title to the property, but I have a lien against it. You pay your monthly mortgage bill which, during the first half of the thirty year arrangement, is almost all interest. The interest is money I am charging you for the time it is taking you to repay the money I loaned you. Not only that, but the terms of the agreement establish that, the balance of the principle due is not necessarily the amount needed to pay off your loan. You may have to pay me “early payment” penalties so to offset my "loss" of interest payments. If you fail to pay according to the terms defined in the contract, I can kick you out of your house and you would get nothing in return. I get to keep all of the interest payments, all of money you’ve paid against the principal, and I get the property. This can occur at any point of the term of our contract.
The only way you can avoid this is to pay on schedule, or, if you are not able to do this, sell the house and pay me from the money of the sale. However, you still owe me the balance of the original loan. If you sell for less than you owe, you would still be in debt to me. You are the only one who runs any risk if the value of the property declines. I have entered the agreement with absolutely no risk. Even if you default, the fact that the current system permits me to loan you money I don’t actually have means that I gain title to real property for nothing. Therefore, it doesn’t really matter if the value of the property has decreased; any value greater than zero is pure profit for me along with all of the payments you have made. A better description of this arrangement is that I am purchasing the house at one price and immediately selling it back to you at a much higher price, because I am charging you for the time it takes to repay. I am taking no risk, but you are.
Distributism would make the arrangement quite different.
You come to me for a loan to purchase a house. There are various ways to accomplish this that would be compatible with Distributism. Because of the amount involved, I think the most reasonable way to accomplish this is to go into a contractual partnership regarding the property, but I will use the term “loan” throughout because of its familiarity. The terms I have devised for this partnership are as follows.
1: You and I are joint owners of the property with all of the rights that pertain to ownership.
2: At any time that you are able to pay the balance of the loan, you can do so, bringing our contract to an end and transferring exclusive title to the property to you. If the planned term of our arrangement was fifteen years, you would be required to pay one fifteenth of the loan per year. There would be no requirement for monthly minimum payments beyond the payment for exclusive use. Throughout the year, you are free to pay whatever you can afford against the principle, provided that you pay at least one fifteenth of the loan per year. If the purchase price was $200,000 and you paid $5,000, my loan to you was $195,000, making your yearly payment obligation $13,000. If you were to pay in equal monthly payments, it would be about $1,083 per month. If you pay more than the fifteenth in a year, the amount is applied toward what would be due in future years.
3: Because my ownership of the property gives me rights to use it, but the purpose of the contract is your eventual exclusive ownership of the property, the contract has a provision whereby you pay me for exclusive use of the property on a monthly basis. This includes all rights, like mineral rights, to the land. This arrangement prevents me from interfering with your use of the property, but compensates me for not being able to make use of property in which I have a share of ownership. The amount you would need to pay for this exclusive use would be determined by the purchase price of the property and the percentage of ownership. You would pay me my percentage of one half of one percent of the original purchase price in order to gain exclusive rights to the property for a month. If the purchase price was $200,000 and you paid $5,000 on the initial purchase, you would own 2.5% and I own 97.5% of the property. One half of one percent of the purchase price is $1,000, so you would pay me $975 for exclusive use of the property for the first month. As my percentage of ownership decreases, so does the amount you have to pay for exclusive use.
4: There are no interest charges except as follows. In the event that you have not paid the required fifteenth by the end of a given year, you will pay a monthly interest of 0.5% of the remaining balance of that fifteenth until you have done so. This is not usury because the basic terms of the loan are interest free. I have initially made you the loan at no interest. In doing do, I have forgone the opportunity to use that money for other potentially profitable purposes according to the payment schedule. The agreement is that I will get back one fifteenth of the loan ($13,000) per year. If you fail to pay me that amount, I am unjustly deprived of the use of that money and can charge you interest to counter that loss until it is recovered.
Let’s say that at the end of a given year, you have not paid the full $13,000 due for that year. You will owe 0.5% per month (6% per year) interest on the balance of that $13,000 until it is paid. If the entire $13,000 were past due, the monthly interest charge would be $65. The interest payment will be calculated each month based on the amount past due until you have finished paying it. As with today's interest loans, payments will be applied to the interest due first. However, the interest due is treated as completely separate from the balance due for the loan. The load itself is interest free, so there can be no compounding of the interest with the principal.
5: Your spouse is automatically a participant of this contract, and the two of you can pass it on to one of your children. The same terms would apply and your child could, in turn, pass it on to one of his children.
6: If you stop making payments for a period of time to be determined by the contract, I have the following options:
6a: I can forgive part or all of the money due for either the repayment of the loan or the payments for exclusive use. If I only forgive a portion of the loan due, the remaining terms of the contract remain the same. Forgiving a portion of the loan means transferring you that portion of ownership without payment. Forgiving the balance of the loan grants you full ownership of the property without any further payment.
6b: I can choose to grant you more time, provided that there is no additional charge beyond the terms laid out above for doing so. This would effectively be the same as forgiving you for any interest due for not paying the fifteenth of the loan by the end of the year.
6c: I can buy back your percentage of the property. This means paying you your current percentage of ownership against the original purchase price. If your current percentage of ownership it 50%, then I have to pay you $100,000 in order to buy you out.
6d: We can sell the property. The money from the sale of the property is divided according to our percentage of ownership.
As you can see, there is no option where you walk away empty handed; or worse, still in debt. The only risk, if the property sells for less than the original purchase price, is that our return from the sale will be less than we have invested, but we share this loss in proportion to our percentage of ownership.
Is this really a better arrangement for you? Compare our example, a $200,000 loan with $5,000 down payment for a term of 15 years against the results of any standard mortgage calculator. Since the loan I describe has no interest, compare the exclusive use payments against the interest payments of the standard loan.
Under the Distributist agreement I have outlined, you would need to pay $1,083 per month to pay back the $195,000 I invested over 15 years. The first month after the purchase, you would pay me $1,083 principal plus $969.58 for exclusive use. The following month, you pay $1,083 plus $964.17 for exclusive use. At the end of five years (sixty months), your payment is $1,083 plus $650.00 for exclusive use.
In my proposed Distributist arrangement, assuming that all payments were made on time, you will have paid $200,000 for the property and $88,237.50 for exclusive use. Your total payment for the full term is less than 150% of the original loan. Of course, if you paid the loan off early, your overall cost would be even less. How does that compare to the standard mortgage?
Let’s take a look at what happens if, after five years, you lose your job and cannot continue the contract. Your percentage of ownership is 35%, which is $70,000. If I chose to end our agreement and sell the property, the amount received from the sale is divided according to our percentage of ownership. If it sold for $200,000, you would get $70,000. If I can only sell the property for $100,000. You would get $35,000. The amount of loss (or gain) from the sale is proportionate to our percentage of ownership. The terms of the contract involves a proportionate risk of loss for both of us, but we both walk away with cash in hand.