Most of all, Stephen Kennedy is going to miss the skylight in his bathroom.
That was the feature that finally sold the 68-year-old Kensington resident on the house he’s been renting for the last four years, a house he was expecting to own by now. Instead, it is scheduled to be auctioned off at a sheriff’s sale next month.
Some repairs are badly needed throughout the house, but understandably, he does not want to invest a slice of his low, fixed income into a home from which he may be ejected in a few weeks.
Kennedy is one of at least several dozen victims of Landvest, a rent-to-own real estate scam allegedly orchestrated by a man named Robert Coyle, who is currently under investigation by authorities and being sued by numerous former tenants. Using different corporate identities, Coyle has purchased over 400 properties in the Kensington and Port Richmond neighborhoods of Philadelphia, which are rented out to low and middle-income tenants, often under the guise of a rent-to-own agreement. Many of the houses are in barely inhabitable condition.
Attempts to contact Coyle were unsuccessful.
When he first approached Landvest about renting a house, Kennedy said the company handed him a list of about 90 “fixer-upper” properties within his price range.
“In one place, there was no back wall in the kitchen,” Kennedy said. “They had a rug that was fixed up some type of way. When you walk in from the front, it looked like a wall, but it was nothing but a rug.”
Finally, Kennedy looked at a house on East Wensley Street, not far from the intersection of Ontario and E streets. Not only did it have all of its walls and ceilings, but the house had generous closet space in what was to be his 7-year-old son’s bedroom and hardwood floors in the living room. Then there was the bathroom, with its new toilet and a skylight in the ceiling.
“Once I went in the bathroom, I was like, okay, this is the spot I want,” Kennedy said. “I didn’t know that in the basement I didn’t have a hot water heater, I didn’t have a gas and electric meter, and I didn’t have a water meter.”
Landvest told him that since he was going to own the house, he was responsible for making repairs–a refrain with which many of tenants are now familiar. Eager to own a home for himself and his two young children, Kennedy didn’t object. Nor did he find any of this suspicious. It would be another year before he would really start to worry.
“One day, I’m going down to pay them my rent, and there’s nobody there. The place is basically boarded up. They have the shutters pulled, the doors were locked, and there were padlocks on the doors. I couldn’t get through with phone calls.”
Five months would pass before Kennedy would hear from the owner of the property, which by then had changed hands. As it turned out, Landvest’s Allegeny Avenue headquarters had been raided by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, which confiscated the company’s computers.
No longer able to count on the value of his properties rising, Robert Coyle began defaulting on loans, including one for $3.38 million. He was also under investigation for failing to pay taxes and utilities on some properties, as well as producing forged rental documents in court. Thanks in part to larger economic conditions, Coyle’s strategy was no longer working and, as a result, hundreds of families began to learn that not only were they not going to become homeowners, they might soon be evicted.
“In reality, we don’t know of anyone who actually became the owner through Landvest,” said Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, a staff attorney at Community Legal Services, a public interest law firm representing several Landvest clients. “These are uniformly low-income people who thought this was a nontraditional way to achieve home ownership. Practically, they’re in really tough positions even though they’ve been really dramatically taken advantage of.”
Some Landvest victims are unable to pursue litigation against the company, either because their “rent-to-own” agreements were made verbally or because the tenants, many of whom are not native English speakers, signed off on questionably-worded rental contracts.
The staff at CLS first noticed something was wrong when their paralegals started seeing a surge of complaints from tenants in rent-to-own agreements. Even though the realty companies had different names, the cases all shared common characteristics, including the same company address.
One of those tenants is Kennedy, who sought the help of CLS after receiving several notices that the owner of his house had changed and that he was to pay rent to a new entity, the most recent of which once threatened to evict him.
“I got a letter the other day,” Kennedy said. “As a matter of fact, I was so upset I tore it up.” This time, the letter was sent to inform him that his house would be auctioned off at a sheriff’s sale in early April. Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez’s office is trying to negotiate with the bank to stall it, but so far she has not been successful. Quiñones-Sánchez organized a hearing about Landvest in City Council last month, at which Kennedy and other victims testified.
Kennedy, a recovering drug addict who has been sober for 14 years, has come a long way, to say the least. The now-retired single father spent 18 years living on the streets before entering a drug rehabilitation center, where he finally got clean.
His son, King Shakka, struggles in school, but Kennedy is hopeful that his youngest child will follow in the footsteps of his older, now-grown children, each of whom graduated from high school, with a few of them finishing college and starting families of their own. Whether or not he owns it, Kennedy would prefer to at least be able to stay in this house, which he saw as an ideal place to spend his retirement.
“Sometimes I’m sitting in the tub and I’ll look up at that skylight and think, can I get this somewhere else? I don’t think so, especially not for the price that I’m paying for this right now. And I don’t mind paying. Maybe even $100 or so more, I wouldn’t mind. It would be a little struggle, but I wouldn’t mind. To have to step out of it right now, that’s the hard part.”
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