Local groups continue quest to curb predatory land contracts


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By GRAIG GRAZIOSI

ggraziosi@vindy.com

COLUMBIA, S.C.

“Vision has no vision.”

That was one of the many chants local demonstrators hurled last weekend at the leadership of a company they accuse of predatory land contract practices when renting homes in Youngstown.

Elder Rose Carter, executive director of the Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing our Neighborhoods, and Ian Beniston, executive director of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., rallied nearly 50 people to travel to South Carolina to confront Vision Property Management.

They went with the hope they could convince the company’s CEO, Alex Szkaradek, and Jonathan Buerkert, the chief business development officer, to sign a “community agreement” that would, among other things, stop Vision from evicting occupants of its homes in Youngstown, stop the company from purchasing or leasing any other properties in the city, and convince it to reimburse YNDC nearly $4,000 for the demolition of a Vision property at 4010 Lemoyne Ave.

The leaders of ACTION and YNDC were realistic; they knew it wasn’t likely Vision Property leadership would sign the agreement – the day before the trip the company released a statement effectively saying it wouldn’t do so in the document’s form at the time – so they prepared specifically for that scenario.

If Vision leadership wouldn’t sign, then the ACTION and YNDC team planned to unleash a campaign of shame. First they’d shame the CEO at his church, then at his home, and then in his neighborhood.

Despite the skepticism, the group achieved one of the goals of the community agreement before leaving. In the days before the trip, Vision Property Management agreed to pay for the demolition of 4010 Lemoyne. It was one victory, though it was not enough to deter YNDC’s trip.

Armed with bullhorns, banners, fliers and an electronic keyboard, the team boarded a chartered bus at 4 a.m. of March 3 and drove 11 hours to Columbia, S.C.

The team was a grab bag of city dwellers who had been victims of Vision’s predatory practices and other locals who were allied with its cause.

For the team members, the hours of sitting and sleeping and staring out the bus windows came to an abrupt stop when the bus cut its engine; the moment it stopped, the demonstrators were out of their seats and filing out of the bus.

A negotiation team consisting of Carter, Beniston, Bobby Reynolds, the president of the Northeast Homeowners Association, and Pastor Jeff Stanford of Beulah Baptist Church on the South Side, went inside Vision Property Management’s headquarters to discuss the agreement with Buerkert.

After a brief prayer and a reading of the community agreement, Beniston asked Buerkert if they would sign the document.

“Not in its current form,” Buerkert said.

Beniston said they were there specifically for that purpose and ended the discussion.

Buerkert asked if there would be any dialog on the document.

“No dialog,” Beniston said.

Outside, the team was chanting and singing various slogans and songs along the access road that allowed traffic into Vision Property Management’s parking lot.

A group of “marshals” meant to protect the demonstrators – including Phil Kidd of Youngstown CityScape and Joseph Napier of the Youngstown Creative Collective – ensured no one accidentally wandered into the street.

When Beniston returned to the group he delivered the news. The group then loaded the buses and continued to Szkaradek’s church.

The church building was large and pristine, and a women’s conference was just letting out as the ACTION and YNDC members disembarked from the bus.

The plan was to place fliers on the cars of the congregants which included a QR code that would take individuals to a list of news stories detailing the practices of Vision Property Management.

A group of women leaving the church were surprised by the sudden swarm of activity in the parking lot. Carter and Pastor Stanford explained why the group was there and what it wanted.

“We aren’t here to stand against you or your church,” Carter said. “We’re simply here to speak with your pastor and ask if he would pray with us for our city.”

After some discussion a member of the church agreed to contact the pastor, but not before police were called to the scene. There were no altercations between the officers and the team members.

While Carter and Pastor Stanford waited to talk with the church’s pastor, the rest of the team returned to the bus and went in search of Szkaradek’s home to address him directly.

Knowing things could get out of hand quickly if they unloaded 50 people onto the man’s front lawn, a dozen of the team members on foot and in Beniston’s Jeep broke off from the main bus to approach the house.

Szkaradek lives on a private road on the shores of Lake Carolina, and his neighbors had been alerted to the incoming demonstrators. They approached Beniston and the demonstrators as they arrived and, wanting to keep in line with the law, Beniston agreed not to travel down the private road. Instead, the demonstrators distributed fliers on a road adjacent to Szkaradek’s road, but still within his neighborhood.

The roads in the neighborhood were lined with large homes with values ranging from $200,000 to more than $800,000 for the homes on the lake, such as Szkaradek’s.

Back in Youngstown, a Vision Property-owned home at 226 E. Lucius Ave. had a tree growing through the interior.

Once the fliers were distributed, the group returned to the bus – at which point the team had been in Columbia for slightly more than two hours – and set off to the same in Buerkert’s neighborhood.

Time constraints and private property forced the leaders of ACTION and YNDC to change course, heading instead to Gibson Park, which is adjacent to the entrance of Buerkert’s neighborhood. The team once again unfurled its banners and chanted against Vision and Buerkert.

With the same hurried pace it had upon arrival, the team packed up and re-boarded the bus for the return trip home.

The Valley contingent left without a signed agreement, but had recouped the cost of a demolition and educated individuals in both Youngstown and Columbia to its concerns about Vision Property Management.

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