By GRAIG GRAZIOSI
Community Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm serving low-income communities, filed a lawsuit against Vision Property Management accusing the real-estate management company of fraud, breach of contract and predatory sales practices.
The lawsuit filed Monday alleges 18 counts of illegal actions against Vision, its subsidiary companies and its leadership.
Under land contracts, prospective owners pay rent to a seller for a predetermined number of years before having the option to purchase the property.
The contracts, however, often push the burden of maintaining, repairing and dealing with financial issues attached to the property onto the renters, offering them no protections that would otherwise be available to traditional renters or mortgage-holders.
This leaves renters open to any number of pitfalls, including pouring thousands of dollars into repairs or agreeing to rent a property that is, unbeknownst to them, in foreclosure.
Steve McGarrity, executive director of Community Legal Aid, said the legal responsibility to ensure the home is habitable is on the landlord, not the tenant.
“State and federal law don’t agree on the idea of ‘buyer beware’ when it comes to these contracts. Landlords have special requirements to disclose issues with the property to prospective tenants and homeowners,” he said.
When tenants ran out of money attempting to make the homes habitable – or when they decided to stop paying their rents to Vision Property upon realizing they’d been misled – Vision Property has evicted them without providing compensation for the investment they’d made in the buildings.
Community Legal Aid also names several of the Vision Property companies as well as Vision Property CEO Alex Szkaradek and Chief Strategy Officer Steven Randall as defendants.
McGarrity said Vision Property’s tactics were intentionally misleading and predatory.
“They told our clients that these homes were habitable. Their website is filled with false claims about their properties. In many cases, their clients weren’t allowed to even see the interiors of the homes before signing a contract,” McGarrity said.
The lawsuit also says Vision Property has engaged in patterns of corrupt activity under Ohio law, racketeering and conspiracy, breach of contract, negligence and civil conspiracy, among other charges.
According to the lawsuit, “The Vision Defendants acted with malice in concert, via a civil conspiracy, for the common goal of profiting from the foreclosure crisis by intentionally violating multiple statutory requirements, including but not limited to those provisions within the Ohio Landlord-Tenant Act, as well as by making fraudulent misrepresentations, at the expense of and to the detriment of the Plaintiffs.”
Community Legal Aid is demanding that Vision Property “immediately restore the properties to habitable condition in compliance with all state and local health and safety codes and ordinances” as well as an injunction prohibiting the company from transferring any of the properties mentioned in the lawsuit and removing its ability to evict the tenants involved in the case.
Rachel Nader, a managing attorney at Community Legal Aid, said the lawsuit is the last hope for one of its clients to keep their home.
“One of our clients is subject to eviction,” Nader said. “We don’t want our clients to have to forfeit the homes they believed they’d eventually own.”
The lawsuit is also seeking compensatory damages for the five plaintiffs named in the filing of at least $25,000 per individual.
In a previous Vindicator story dealing with lease-to-own contracts in the city, Vision said it “was working with all stakeholders involved to address any concerns.”
The Alliance for Congregational Transformation influencing Our Neighborhoods and the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. took a group of activists to Columbia, S.C., last spring to confront the CEO of Vision Property at the company’s headquarters and Szkaradek’s neighborhood.
Elder Rose Carter, the executive director of ACTION, led a group of activists to an Aug. 29 meeting of Youngstown City Council’s Committee on Community Planning and Economic Development to promote a city ordinance aimed at protecting residents from businesses such as Vision Property. The ordinance is being reviewed by the city’s law department and council.
State Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan of Youngstown, D-58th, also has introduced legislation at the state level, House Bill 368, to stop the predatory use of land contracts.
Ian Beniston, executive director of the YNDC and one of the organizers of the trip to South Carolina, has been fighting against Vision Property for years.
“I was very happy this was filed,” Beniston said. “I was in a Vision house last Sunday, 319 Mistletoe, with 3 feet of standing water in the basement.”
Vision Property will have 28 days to respond to the lawsuit.
If you suspect you are the victim of a land contract in bad faith, contact Community Legal Aid at 330-362-8350.