New York State Officials Sue ‘Predatory’ Rent-to-Own Home Seller

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Authorities in New York State are the latest regulators to crack down on what once was one of the nation’s largest seller of rent-to-own homes.

In a suit filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Thursday, the state attorney general’s office and the Department of Financial Services contend that the company, Vision Property Management, operated an “illegal, unlicensed mortgage lending” business by using deceptive lease agreements to sell often-rundown homes in upstate New York.

The lawsuit contends that Vision, which is based in Columbia, S.C., portrays itself as a consumer-friendly company that offers lower-income people a chance at homeownership. But in reality, the regulators said, the company profits by putting hopeful home buyers into houses that are often uninhabitable. Renters are required to make all repairs and make monthly payments in agreements that more closely resemble a mortgage than a lease.

“Vision targets vulnerable consumers who are eager to share in the ‘American dream’ of homeownership,” the complaint said.

A lawyer for Vision did not return a request for comment.

The lawsuit identified at least 150 homeowners in New York who had entered into contracts with Vision, which at its peak owned more than 5,000 homes across the country. It was filed more than a year after lawyers from the financial services department went to court to compel Vision to comply with an administrative demand seeking documents and business records.

“We took this action to protect New York consumers by putting an end to these illegal, predatory and unconscionable business practices,” said Linda A. Lacewell, New York’s superintendent of financial services.

The financial services agency opened its investigation of Vision after The New York Times published a series of articles in 2016 about the postcrisis revival in the so-called seller-financing of rundown homes in deals like rent-to-own leases. The series focused on a number of national firms that had acquired cheap foreclosed homes in the wake of the crisis, including thousands of homes sold by Fannie Mae, one of the big government-controlled mortgage finance firms.

Two years ago, Fannie Mae agreed to stop selling foreclosed homes to Vision and other firms like it after the prodding of Representative Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Mr. Cummings had sent a letter to Fannie’s regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, urging it to stop the home sales after The Times reported on some of Vision’s business practices in Baltimore.

The suit is the state’s second strong message to rent-to-own firms that use aggressive tactics some consider predatory. Just last fall, the New York attorney general reached a settlement with a number of trailer park operators that gave hundreds of people who signed rent-to-own leases the right to tear up those deals and recoup any deposits they had paid toward their mobile homes.

Other cities and states, including Cincinnati and Wisconsin, have sued Vision over its business practices in recent years. Seller-financed deals have also prompted state legislatures in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois to consider laws to protect consumers.