Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Rent-to-own complaints aired

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rent-to-own housing deals promise an easy way for low-income renters or people with bad credit histories to buy a home.

But more than 50 neighborhood leaders from West Price Hill to Northside told Cincinnati City Council members on Monday that these so-called lease-option contracts often take on a predatory edge.

Many contracts require renters to make repairs on homes, pay above-market rents and buy houses at prices that aren't supported by an independent property appraisal.

"What we're talking about is people who are willing to take advantage of others in the name of profit," said Gary Pieples, a Legal Aid lawyer who has represented many low-income renters in bad rent-to-own deals.

But landlords say that lease-option deals are a smart way for consumers who are shunned by traditional banks to get a loan. They say it's a good way to improve the city's dismal 38.9 percent home ownership rate, too.

City Council's neighborhood and public services committee and the health, tourism, small business and employment committee met Monday evening to discuss whether legislative remedies are needed to curb bad lease-option deals reported in some of the city's poor and working-class neighborhoods.

Lease-option contracts typically promise a renter a chance to buy a home after paying an up-front option fee of at least $1,000 and making rent payments for a set term of one or two years. The renters have a chance to purchase the home if they meet all terms and conditions and secure a loan.

Assistant City Solicitor Pat King suggested two options for council - either beef up landlord-tenant laws or investigate whether some real estate investors commonly run afoul of state laws.

King said most lease-option contracts are in fact so-called land contracts that are already regulated by state law.

Consumers who sign land contracts have protection because investors are required to provide written contracts, record contracts with the county and provide full disclosure of a property's repair history and ownership claims such as mechanics liens.

Other potential remedies investigated by city staffers - including registration of landlords who offer lease-options - is too problematic, King said.

Ohio Rep. Steve Driehaus, D-West Price Hill, has tried to build support to write new statewide laws on rent-to-own deals, but he's had little success convincing other lawmakers to join the cause.

Councilwoman Laketa Cole said council will continue to investigate ways to stop lease-option abuses. "It's our hope that we can put something in the books to fight this," Cole said.

E-mail kalltucker@enquirer.com

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