While 2013 was a year that saw a sudden scarcity of available single-family homes, affordable rentals and even foreclosures in many areas, the real estate sector saw no shortage of bizarre and outrageous tales. With more Americans pushed into renting, and more homeowners becoming “accidental landlords,” there was a bumper crop of scams, swindles and just plain nastiness on the part of landlords and tenants. But when it comes to the most outrageous stories of the past year, squatters, bad neighbors, real estate agents, “ghost hosts” and homeowners associations also made the mix in our selection.
Along with the reports of tenants spitefully trashing their rentals came the story of one who purportedly didn’t stop there. A tenant in a basement room of Terry and Kathy MacDonald’s house in Golden Valley, Minn., allegedly ignored their bans on smoking and drinking, then became such a nuisance when drunk that neighbors called police. When the McDonalds asked him to leave, Minneapolis-St.Paul TV station KARE-TVreported, their tenant verbally threatened them and began punching holes in walls, urinating on carpet, breaking fixtures and otherwise doing harm to the home and the McDonalds’ peace of mind. He purportedly became so threatening that, on the advice of police, the McDonalds finally fled their own home to stay in a hotel, rather than risk further confrontation — then offered to pay him to leave rather than take the time and expense of legally evicting him.
FROM LANDLORDS TO LOCKUP
In the realm of bad behavior by landlords, it’s tough to top the allegations against one in the Chicago area whom police say tortured, threatened and starved his two mentally challenged tenants as part of a scheme to get them to turn all their pay over to him. Roy Estivez, 26, of Calumet City, Ill., achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the first person charged under Cook County’s new Human Trafficking Initiative. Authorities said that Estivez (pictured above) used an electrical cord and a heated butcher knife to whip and burn the young male tenants of a South Chicago apartment, and also sexually assaulted one of them with a power tool. He’s believed to have intimidated his tenants into silence with warnings that he would harm their families and claims that he paid bribes to police.
Earning a dishonorable mention in the bad-landlord category is Gerald Singer, 74, convicted of arson and fraud in for a series of fires — from the mid-1990s until 2007 — at homes and other buildings that he owned in western Michigan and northern Indiana. Singer was sentenced in federal court to a mandatory 55 years in prison and ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution.
2013 seemed an especially fruitful year for swindlers using Craigslist and other means to trick renters into paying them money for a chance to move into foreclosures and other properties that weren’t actually available to occupy. Several variations on that rental scam were reported across the U.S., but if what police say is true, the boldest might have been in Missouri. Amanda S. Paris, 44, of Independence was arrested in November and charged with six felony counts of “stealing by deceit” for allegedly bilking at least six families out of thousands in rent and deposits on a house that she lived in and pretended to own, and promising each that they’d be the sole occupants when she moved out in the fall.
In the category of real estate investment scams, one of the most notorious in a crowded field was Jill Marie Silvey, 51, of San Jose, Calif., who was sentenced to 15 years for duping her friends and family members out of more than $2 million to finance a lifestyle that the San Jose Mercury News described as including luxury automobiles, expensive furniture and designer clothes. Prosecutors said that the real estate agent persuaded more than 20 investors to give her money as part of a plan to generate profit by extending loans to homeowners. The short-term loans were supposed to be secured by the homes; however, the owners of the homes did not receive loans and weren’t even aware of Silvey’s scheme. The real estate agent had forged their names on fake documents and deeds.
When it comes to schemes, another that refuses to go away involves those who occupy properties based on mostly mythical concepts about “squatter’s rights,” even as states such as Florida act to close loopholes on property ownership. Perhaps the most publicized was the case of alleged squatter Andre Barboso, 23, who for months reportedly lived and entertained friends in a foreclosed and vacant luxury home in Boca Raton, Fla. — claiming the right under a deed of adverse possession. But in terms of raising the stakes, it’s hard to top the case of Lamont Butler and his fellow congregants in the Moorish Science Temple of America who allegedly have claimed the right nationwide to take possession of empty mansions, refuse to register motor vehicles, etc., because of a belief that African-Americans don’t need to follow U.S. property laws.
SNAKES IN THE GRASS
In the highly competitive category of most undesirable neighbors, those who made news included a loud-laugher, a helicopter pilot who wanted to put a helipad in his yard, and actor James Franco. But a Philadelphia-area woman in this competition could also be in the running in the real estate agent category, if the allegations against her are true.
Andrea Straub and her husband, Jonathan, were accused of vandalizing a neighbor’s for-sale property by knocking down its “For Sale by Owner” sign and littering its lawn with dead snakes and rats. They were cited by police based on surveillance video that purportedly showed them in the act. But the Straubs, whose property also was listed for sale, maintained that the video was inconclusive as far as the identities of the persons shown. Still, Andrea Straub was subsequently fired by the real estate company she worked for and Main Line Media News recently reported that a judge found Jonathan Straub guilty of harassment and disorderly conduct against the neighbor, who was in the hospital at the time of the incident. Jonathan Straub was fined $25.
Tasked with creating and enforcing rules, some homeowners associations just don’t seem to know when to back off. Take the case of the Harbor Cove Homeowners Association in Las Vegas. One of its recent residents was a young man with bones so brittle, reported The Associated Press, that he’s had more than 500 painful fractures, and who’s spent most of his time in bed since becoming a teenager. When 19-year-old Eric Doyle’s family bought a used ambulance that would allow him to travel on a stretcher to stores, movies and events, Harbor Cove reacted by banning it from being parked at the Doyle home. The HOA cited an association rule against commercial vehicles, and threatened the Doyles with fines.
It was Harbor Cove that ended up paying, though, when the Doyles filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Under federal fair housing laws, homeowners associations aren’t exempt from making reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities. Though it admitted no wrongdoing, the Harbor Cove association agreed to a settlement involving a $65,000 award to the Doyles, as well as promises by the HOA to train staffers in fair housing practices and put “We are a fair housing provider” prominently on its letterhead.
GHOST HOSTS WITH THE MOST
The phenomenon on the “ghost-hosted” party — turning vacant properties into the sites of no-holds-barred events, via invites on social media — appeared to have gone up in class (sort of) with a Thanksgiving weekend bash in La Habra Heights, Calif. And when we say bash, that’s as in: breaking into a secluded and luxurious party house, doing more than $1 million in damage and theft, and charging admission besides.
Not content to simply follow the “Sharpie party” fad of vandalism and graffiti at an empty foreclosure, attendees at the Nov. 23 “mansion party” targeted a house that at one point was listed for sale at $21 million. It’s price wasn’t the only thing that got slashed in 2013, though, as police described the wreckage and stolen items from a home stocked with artifacts that included suits of armor and a stuffed snow leopard. But what social media giveth it can also take away: In announcing the arrest of 16 teenagers in the incident, police said that they were clued to their identities by pictures posted online showing them partying at the scene of the crime.