By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
The Lee Otis house is typical of the homes Wizig advertises. A 700-square-foot home on Shotwell Street, graded at D-minus, was advertised last year for $29,999. The county appraised it at $12,600. A 63-year-old, three-bedroom house on Goforth that was given a D-plus was advertised for $37,999. The county appraised it at $15,000. (Incidentally, Wizig's A-plus house is valued at $982,000.)
Griscom was the only local official contacted for this story who was willing to discuss the nature of Wizig's business practices.
Although the Texas Workforce Commission's Civil Rights Division has a housing department that investigates complaints, both the department's interim housing director and supervisor refused to answer questions about the lease's legality and fairness. The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which offers low-interest loans and grants to clientele similar to Wizig's, lacks the authority to warn the public of predatory lenders and exploitative leases, according to a department spokesperson.
"We don't see something interesting, you know, that occurs in New York and then open up our own investigation on that same conduct here in Houston," he says.
Wizig laughs at the idea that his option-to-buy contracts are set up for the lessee to fail.
"We want an uninterrupted income stream, and the only way we get that is if the customer's happy," Wizig says. "That perception that we're interested in the customer failing could not be further from the truth and further from reality. It just makes no sense We probably lose, on an average eviction, probably two to three months' rent plus all the repair expenses going back in, plus all of the expenses involved with putting the property back in rentable condition once the tenant leaves. So, you know, easily a turnover could cost us $4,000 to $5,000 at the bat of an eye."
Griscom isn't convinced.
The Lee Otis Street resident "hasn't even filed a homestead on this property," Griscom says. "You're dealing with people that just don't understand the marketplace; they don't understand what to do. We're going to send something out to this individual 'If this is your principal place of residence you need to file for a homestead,' because, you know, they need the same protection everyone else has They need all the same rights as everybody else, but most of these people just simply don't know that. It's terrible, it really is."
Although Lynda Bushy is temporarily happy in her new town house, she still wants a home with a yard and a swing set for her kids.
She has filed a complaint against Wizig with the Texas Attorney General's Office, which has received two other complaints from women who found themselves in situations similar to Bushy's. In one of the complaints, under the question "What do you believe would be a fair resolution to this matter?" the woman wrote, "For them to not triple-charge for a house in deplorable condition. For them to stop preying on poor neighborhoods and poor people."
While Wizig has sold most of his Buffalo properties, housing officials in Syracuse are complaining about the status of the 25 or so homes he owns there.
"About half of his properties got outstanding issues, which is not a real good track record," says Jim Blakeman, head of the city's code enforcement department. "His team of repairmen are undesirable, in my expectations so if you were really expecting to do a great job in this city, I don't think you would've retained these individuals, myself."
The bulk of Wizig's properties there are managed by a Syracuse real estate investor named John Kiggins, who in 1991 pleaded guilty in federal district court for his involvement in a $1.4 million HUD-loan scam. Kiggins admitted to lying on federally insured loan applications and received a six-month sentence, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard. Prosecutors said Kiggins led a group of investors who used illegally attained HUD money to buy properties and sell them at much higher prices to others in the group, a scam known as flipping.
Two Houston attorneys have filed or are scheduled to file suits against Wizig for deceptive trade practices.
Meanwhile, Wizig's little yellow signs continue to sprout along roadsides throughout Houston. Home for sale! We finance! No credit needed! It sounds too good to be true.