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This house on Duquesne Avenue in McKeesport is listed in a “lease with option to buy” deal for $1,500 down and $378 per month by a South Carolina company, Vision Property Management. Pennsylvania’s attorney general alleges the company’s sales tactics violate state law. (Photo via Zillow.)
A South Carolina company that has heavily marketed its “rent-to-own” homes in McKeesport, Glassport, Braddock and other parts of the Mon Valley is being sued by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, claims that Vision Property Management of Columbia, S.C, and more than 50 affiliated companies used deceptive business practices to market homes that had serious problems that were concealed or never disclosed, including missing plumbing, insect infestations, defective wiring and leaky roofs.
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro brought the lawsuit on behalf of 650 families.
As of Friday, according to the company’s website, Vision Property had 14 houses available in Allegheny County, including one on Duquesne Avenue in McKeesport and others on Maryland Avenue in Glassport and Zimmer Lane in Greenock, Elizabeth Twp.
“Vision Properties and its owners and affiliates take advantage of lower-income Pennsylvanians who face barriers to owning a home,” Shaprio said in a prepared statement. “The company uses misleading sales tactics to lure consumers into ‘rent-to-own’ agreements through which they incur significant, unexpected costs and often never end up owning their homes.”
Vision is 100 percent owned by Antoni Szkaradek and his son, Alex Szkaradek, according to Shapiro.
A message was left Friday by Tube City Almanac with Vision’s offices in South Carolina, seeking comment. The message was not immediately returned.
The company is also being sued in New York state and in 2017 a judge in Wisconsin blocked Vision from doing any further business in that state following a similar lawsuit.
On its website, Vision says most of its customers are “renters who initially did not think owning a home was possible for them.”
It says that its “lease-to-own property” program “empowers renters who do not have the ability to get approved for a traditional mortgage or do not desire to have a traditional mortgage. The program provides the opportunity to build equity in a home without the need for a loan and we offer this program regardless of an individual's credit profile.”
Vision Property Management has been in business since 2004 and helped “thousands of families across America,” the website says.
“We take great pride in creating an available inventory of affordable homes for individuals and families negatively impacted by various employment, health, divorce or other financial reasons,” the website says.
Vision’s marketing materials stress the “dream of home ownership” without making it clear that customers are really buying an option to purchase a house after renting it for seven years, Shapiro said.
According to Shapiro, few of Vision’s customers ever build up any equity in the home they want to purchase.
Less than 10 percent of each monthly payment is put aside for equity by Vision, he said.
According to the lawsuit, under a seven-year contract with Vision, a customer who was paying $420 per month toward the price of a $48,000 home --- plus doing all of the repairs and maintenance --- would be credited for only about $4,000 toward the purchase of the home at the end of the agreement.
In addition, at the end of the lease, the purchase prices of the homes are often inflated 200 to 400 percent over their real values, the attorney general’s office claims, and purchasers are required to waive their right to get an independent real estate appraisal.
When their leases end, only 2 to 7 percent of Vision’s customers ever purchase the home they've been paying rent on, Shapiro said.
Just as troubling, according to the attorney general’s lawsuit, customers are required to do all of the repairs and maintenance to the homes they’re leasing — including major structural repairs, fixing cracked basements and replacing utility lines — even though they don’t own the properties.
In many cases, Shapiro alleged, Vision knew about major problems in the homes it was advertising, but failed to disclose those problems to tenants.
The lawsuit contends the company would turn off water and electrical service at a home so that defective wiring and plumbing wasn't obvious.
Vision operates under the names of at least four dozen other limited-liability companies, many of which aren't registered to do business in Pennsylvania, Shapiro said.
One of the companies is named “Reo Rancho, LP” — an apparent reference to the play and movie “Glengarry Glen Ross,” about a group of unethical real estate salesmen who use high-pressure tactics to persuade buyers into purchasing properties in a development called Rio Rancho Estates.
In many cases, Shapiro said, Vision or its contracted employees would put up a handwritten sign in front of a property that was being leased to make it seem as if the house was “for sale by owner.”
The prospective tenant would never directly meet any Vision employees and almost all business was conducted over the phone or online, Shapiro said.
In a 2014 incident, according to Shapiro’s lawsuit, a man in North Versailles Twp. signed a “lease to own” agreement for a house on Port Perry Road for $32,000, at a cost of $1,000 down and $450 per month.
Although not identified in Shapiro’s lawsuit, records at the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas identify the man as William C. Brown Sr.
According to Shapiro, before Brown could move into the house, he had to replace the roof, the floors and all of the major appliances and install new electrical service at his own expense.
When Brown fell less than three months’ behind on the lease payments, the lawsuit alleged, the company changed the locks and forced him out of the house without ever serving him with an eviction notice (above).
Property tax records show that ownership of the house was never transferred to Brown. Instead, the house was sold for $10 by “BAT Holdings Five, LLC” to “RVFM 2, LLC.”
Both companies are controlled by Vision, according to Shapiro.
In cases such as the North Versailles incident, when a consumer falls behind on their payments, Vision ejects the family and enters into another “rent to own” agreement with another unsuspecting family, “thus continuing an expensive and harmful cycle,” Shapiro said.
But the cycle works to Vision’s benefit, he said, because each successive renter has paid for expensive repairs and upgrades to the homes.
On Vision’s website, the company says it strives “to fully disclose and document all requirements and obligations to contract holders, and communicate them in a clear and easy to understand format to avoid any possible confusion” and that it has provided “nearly 10,000 individuals and families with the opportunity of potential future home ownership.”
Shapiro's lawsuit alleges that Vision and its afflilated companies violated the state’s Consumer Protection Law, the Pennsylvania landlord-tenant law, the state’s Loan Interest and Protection Law and several other statutes.
The lawsuit asks the court to block Vision from engaging in any more “rent to own” or “agreement for deed” transactions Pennsylvania and also demands restitution, civil penalties and court costs.
Shapiro said “rent to own” scams often target people who have been denied credit or a mortgage because of their race, ethnic background or other factors.
Shapiro’s office said that any Pennsylvania residents who think they have been mistreated by a “rent to own” or “for sale by owner” deal should file a complaint at www.attorneygeneral.gov or contact the state Bureau of Consumer Protection at 800-441-2555.
Consumers who believe they have been victims of discriminatory housing practices should email email@example.com or call the state Attorney General’s Civil Rights section at (717) 787-0882.
Jason Togyer is the editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published October 11, 2019.