Anthony Williams keeps a pile of pillows on his bed to block a drafty window. But that’s not why he sleeps on the living room couch.
The basement wall below his bed is buckling. He’s afraid he’ll fall through or wake up buried by the ceiling. His landlord, Gary Thomas, said foundation repairs can wait until the spring, which brings no immediate comfort to Williams. “Well, it’s been there for a long time. So, I don’t know that it’s going to cause the house to collapse,” Thomas said in a phone interview last week.
Williams, 40, rents the first floor of the 90-year-old home on 18th Street in Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood for $550 a month. He said he doesn’t expect Thomas to fix anything, at least not willingly.
In the past decade, city housing code enforcers and county tax collectors have cracked down hard on Thomas, filing dozens of criminal and civil charges on the hundreds of properties he‘s owned and managed. Fed up with his living situation, Williams armed himself with newfound legal knowledge. He’s now in court — with no lawyer or law degree — trying to apply pressure to one of Akron‘s most litigious landlords, who has filed more than 470 municipal court cases since 1996, almost always to evict his tenants.
Thomas first owned the two-story Kenmore home for less than a day in 2015. He bought and sold it for a $20,000 profit, according to county records.
The new owners, Thomas and Margaret Ballard of Tennessee, moved the home into a trust and hired Twin Oaks Realty of Akron to manage the property. “From our standpoint, it’s hard to manage a remote property,” said Thomas Ballard.
The couple soon realized how expensive the repairs could be on their investment. “We did everything from the exterior gutters to securing windows that were broken [to rehabbing the upstairs],” Twin Oaks Realty property manager Deborah Loughborough said. Demolishing the garage outback just wasn‘t in the couple’s budget. “We were trying to keep expenses as tight as possible,” Loughborough said. “It was just to a point for Margaret that said she couldn't invest in foundation cracks and major issues.”
The home was transferred back to Thomas last February through a buyback clause he said he puts in his sale agreements. The major repairs still need done.
Living in disrepair
Rainwater and daylight trickle through cinder blocks in the basement. The floor looks like a monster is busting up through the cement.
Williams moved in two years ago under Twin Oaks Realty, just after a pipe burst upstairs. Stress fractures in the plaster above his bed have been spreading ever since, he said.
Twin Oaks Realty patched the water-damaged drywall above the shower in late 2018. It‘s still not finished or painted.
In January 2019, a month before Thomas regained ownership, a fatal fire next door singed the side of the house and cracked the windows. Williams watched workers replace siding within four months on another fire-damaged home. But no work was done on his apartment all year, he said.
Between a busted front porch step and the crumbling garage out back, the property has 12 building and health code violations, a third of them old enough to appear on a 2016 housing inspection. The city ordered everything fixed by the end of July 2019.
That never happened, so Akron filed charges under an Ohio law requiring property owners to maintain their premises. It‘s the eighth time Thomas has been criminally charged by the city under the statute. There’s currently a warrant for his arrest after he missed his October arraignment in this latest case, according to court records.
Williams said he never expected Thomas to take on the major repairs, let alone a host of other issues he's raised. “He kept saying, ‘It ain’t that bad. I got people with worse problems,’” Williams said. “Well, I ain't those people.” Thomas called Williams' complaints “pretty ticky-tacky.”
Williams decided in June to do something after he tracked an ant infestation to the rotten floor under the refrigerator and heard the ventilation hood fall on the stove while his son was cooking. None of Williams' friends or family could give him advice. So, he went to the library and found a book filled with arcane legal references. He understood just enough to hit his landlord where it mattered: the rent.
Williams convinced an Akron judge to hold the monthly payments until Thomas fulfilled his obligations as a property owner.
The account is now over $4,000. Thomas is fighting for it all, arguing in a late January filing that the court “erred” in granting the escrow. Williams wants to use it to find another place to live.
A judge will decide.
Steps to escrow rent are detailed on the Akron Municipal Court‘s website. It’s a legal remedy rarely used by tenants. According to a review of city, county and U.S. Census Bureau records, about 90,000 people live in more than 45,000 apartments on 25,000 rental properties in Akron. Only 23, including Williams, filed to escrow rent in 2019.
Tenants usually escrow to force repairs, Akron Clerk of Courts Jim Laria said. To do so, they must be current on their rent and not the subject of an active eviction. “He scared me a couple of times,” Williams said of raising concerns to his landlord. “He said he was going to evict me and bring a three-day notice [to start the process].”
Thomas is alleging in court that Williams was behind on rent and didn’t give him the necessary list of repairs in writing, or 30 days to complete them, before requesting the escrow account. A magistrate ruled that the list was submitted in February 2019, giving Thomas six months to get to work.
Williams said he was late in June because Thomas never showed up to collect, as he usually did, or to make promised kitchen repairs.
Williams has made seven monthly rent payments to the court, living on his personal retirement as he charts a better life. He worked two jobs — at a dollar store and a synthetic rubber factory in Akron — before tearing a rotator cuff in 2018 trying to catch 200 a pound load on the job. After worker‘s compensation ran out, he went back to work at the factory then decided last year that he wanted more than 10-hour shifts at $14 an hour. So he's trying to get his commercial driver’s license while he launches a customized T-shirt business out of his apartment. He dreams of owning a home someday, maybe with the help of neighbors who share his vision of making lasting repairs to the city’s old housing stock. “I'm trying to build a community at the end of the day,” he said. “If we could start with this one house and get another and another, we could build a community.”
He said he believes that withholding the rent prompted Thomas to paint the exterior wall and replace windows on the burnt side of the house. A couple weeks ago, he raced home from Indiana where he‘s studying for his CDL. He had learned that Thomas filed to drain and close the escrow account. “I knew as soon as he did a little bit [of work], he would file a notice to show the court that he's doing something,” Williams said.
City inspectors and county tax collectors have been after Thomas for years, applying more pressure than any single tenant could. In early 2017 after a pair of deadly shootings at one of his properties on Arlington Street, Summit County Fiscal Officer Kristen Scalise, who has labeled Thomas a “slumlord,” teamed up with the Land Bank on Ohio’s first coordinated tax foreclosure operation. They targeted 22 companies operated by Thomas or his associates, who managed 151 properties that owed $883,668 in back taxes and fees at the time.
In a series of expedited tax foreclosures filed against Thomas in 2017, 2018 and 2019, the county went after 86 delinquent properties. Thomas tried but failed to protect them in bankruptcy court. He’s let some of them go at public auction while bidding on others. Currently, he’s fighting in court to overturn a judgment barring him from participating in sheriff’s sales after failing to pay for properties he bid on, which authorities consider one of his ploys to buy time to sell his troubled assets. Thomas said he paid $150,000 in taxes last year, some of it to keep from losing rental properties. Another 40 of his units were certified delinquent in 2019. If left unpaid through March, the back taxes will generate the next round of seized properties.
He alleges he's being treated unfairly by the county and land bank. “They’re discriminating against me,” he said. “There’s plenty of people who aren’t filed on [for foreclosure] when they fall one year behind on their taxes.” The county has offered him repayment plans for tax bills that racked up for years and years, and Thomas has admitted in a previous interview that he makes more money investing his cash in real estate than paying his property taxes, even after incurring late fees and penalties.
Land Bank Executive Director Patrick Bravo and Summit County Fiscal Office staff keep a close eye on Thomas‘ properties. They’re unsure of how he continues to buy and sell rentals, and stay in business, while losing dozens of properties to foreclosure and paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes to keep others. It happened again last year: he paid $50,000 for the home on 18th Street in Kenmore while accumulating the same amount in delinquent property tax debt.
Among the 86 properties targeted by foreclosures, Thomas paid the taxes or sold 40. The Land Bank took possession of the other 46. A dozen have been demolished, with two more scheduled to come down. Fourteen were vacant lots — often the site of a former home torn down by the city and accumulating delinquent taxes.
After wiping clean the delinquent taxes, the Land Bank sold five properties through a Realtor and another on its website. A second property is expected to sell online. Tenants caught up in the enforcement action were asked if they wanted to buy the homes and businesses from the Land Bank after foreclosure — for as little as 10 cents on the dollar. Four renters and two businesses took that offer, including a daycare on South Arlington Street and auto-repair shop on East Exchange Street.
“This has worked really well,” Bravo said of coordinating enforcement with the county. “We’ve got some success stories, but they don’t come without challenges.” One tenant, he noted, wanted to buy her rental unit in North Hill. But it was condemned, so the Land Bank sold her another house it owned in south University Park.
Reach Beacon Journal reporter Doug Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3792.