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It started when Lynda Bushy saw one of the small yellow bandit signs lining the curbs in her northeast Houston neighborhood: Homes available for people with bad credit. Call now.
Bushy, a 43-year-old data coordinator for M.D. Anderson, never had owned a home. But she and her husband, a retired carpenter, wanted to leave something permanent behind for their three children.
A home was "something I can grow old with and they can mature with, you know?" Bushy says now. "We don't ever have to move again, you know? Put a swing set in the backyard."
Bushy, her husband and their 13- and 11-year-old children lived comfortably in a three-bedroom manufactured home. Their oldest, in his twenties, lived on his own. Their home was nice, and Bushy never thought much about owning a house thanks to the family's poor credit history. Because of the three car repossessions on her record, every home she was interested in required at least $7,000 down. But this little yellow sign raised her hopes.
When Bushy called the number, she found a helpful sales agent at Scott Wizig Enterprises in Bellaire. The company has sold single-family homes and apartments throughout Houston since 1987 and is one of about 30 corporations Scott Wizig has registered with the Texas Secretary of State's office. They own hundreds of properties. The agent provided the Bushys with a list of homes in their price range, and the family dropped their $3,000 tax refund check as a down payment for a house on Kings Chase.
Or at least Bushy thought it was a down payment.
She says the agent switched the paperwork from a down payment agreement to a lease agreement with an option to buy. Bushy found it weird, but at the time it just seemed like a technicality.
Bushy also found it strange when she went to pick up the house key from the agent and was told Scott Wizig Enterprises didn't have a key to the front door. She says the agent gave her a set of doorknobs and a new key, and told Bushy to get into the house through the garage door and change the knobs herself.
"I should've known then -- if they don't have the key to the front door, something's wrong," Bushy says.
They soon discovered the air conditioning in their new home would not turn off. The kitchen's electrical outlets didn't work, so they had to run an extension cord from the dining room. When Bushy called Scott Wizig Enterprises to complain, she says, she was told to have a priest bless the property with holy water. The house needed an exorcism, they said.
By April, two months after the family moved in, they were told to move out. The company says she never paid. Bushy says they never accepted her monthly check.
The way Wizig conducted business was enough to make Bushy suspect there were others like her out there. But nothing could prepare her for what showed up on an Internet search.
It turned out that Wizig didn't operate just in Texas. He was infamous in Buffalo, New York, where many considered him to be the worst slumlord in the city's history. His deceptive business practices drew heat from the state attorney general's office and the city's housing court. For years, Wizig battled the residents and authorities of Buffalo and New York state without making so much as a peep in Houston.
In Buffalo, his leases landed him in criminal court. In Houston, his leases made him rich.
In October 2000, Scott Wizig bought 281 homes in a Buffalo foreclosure auction for $615,700.
No one in Buffalo ever had heard of the Houston property owner, but Mayor Anthony Masiello told The Buffalo Newshe was "cautiously optimistic" about Wizig's plans. The newspaper called him "the city's gutsy new landlord." Shortly after Wizig bought the homes, the paper sent an investigative reporter to Houston to thumb through Wizig's background. According to the paper's subsequent story, "Wizig has kept a good reputation. The director of Houston's code-enforcement division, who professes to know every slumlord in the city, has never heard of him."
The homes Wizig bought were in Buffalo's most blighted neighborhoods -- many were abandoned and awaiting their execution on the city's demolition list. The city's decades-long population loss had left a nearly 16 percent vacancy rate, according to a 2004 Brookings Institute study.
The abundance of vacant homes in some neighborhoods led to more criminal activity, says Kim Harman, who heads a housing advocacy group called Eastside PRIDE. Wizig bought many homes in the same neighborhoods Eastside PRIDE has spent the last seven years trying to clean up. When the city owned the properties, she says, officials were responsive to Eastside PRIDE's pleas to board up or tear down whatever homes they could. But Wizig was a different story.
"Suddenly those houses were in the hands of a private owner that was not responsive at all," Harman says.
Although Wizig paid an average of $2,200 each for houses that were in awful condition, he was able to get people to agree to pay ten times that amount, not including exorbitant option-to-buy fees and 12 percent mortgage payments. This rent-to-own program, similar to the one currently used in Houston, eventually became the subject of a state attorney general's investigation.