A Baltimore judge has ordered a Houston property owner to correct code violations on 49 vacant, blighted homes he owns in that city within 90 days.
The homes are owned by Scott Wizig, who, as we detailed in a 2004 story, has built a lucrative business of buying dilapidated homes on the cheap and enticing unsophisticated first-time home buyers with "option to buy" agreements that seem to set occupants up for failure. We like to call it "Wiziging."
But it's Wizig's penchant for owning uninhabited eyesores that was at the center of the Baltimore litigation. Under a recently enhanced "Community Bill of Rights Statute," six community associations sued Wizig and nine of his LLCs, accusing him of scooping up approximately 140 properties at foreclosure auctions and then letting them rot.
We reached out to Wizig and his Baltimore attorney, Dana Petersen Moore, for comment, and will update if we hear back.
Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Pamela J. White agreed with the community organizations, ruling July 31 that Wizig's properties suffered from "unsafe and uninhabitable conditions" that have "remained unabated despite ongoing violations and nuisance(s)."
These include broken windows; boarded-up doors and windows; collapsed or rotting roofs; trash-strewn yards; and, our favorite, a house split open by a fallen tree.
In a court filing, the plaintiffs allege that "these dangerous conditions significantly and negatively affect the healthy, safety, and welfare of the neighborhoods in which the Vacant Buildings sit, as well as the use and enjoyment of adjoining properties."
Although Wizig was ordered to clean up 49 homes, he owns 165 properties in Baltimore -- 138 of which are vacant buildings, according to Jason Hessler, assistant commissioner of litigation with the Baltimore Housing Department's Permits and Code Enforcement Division. (Baltimore's City Paper deftly covered Wizig's Charm City invasion in 2004).
The City of Baltimore has imposed liens on most of those properties, Hessler said. (Hessler said one of his first dealings with Wizig was when the city fined him for placing hundreds of illegal "bandit signs," targeting neighborhoods with large Hispanic populations. Wizig wound up paying $40,000 and stopped posting the signs, Hessler said).
It's similar to a situation Wizig ran into in Buffalo in 2002, when a city housing court representative called him "the biggest slumlord we've ever seen in Buffalo." Wizig had bought 281 homes for $615,700 in a foreclosure auction and then started Wiziging it up. As we reported in 2004:
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.
By the end of the year, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer sued Wizig. An AG's report from 2003 stated that Wizig's homes "frequently had failed heating systems, no water or gas, inoperable toilets, leaking roofs, collapsed ceilings and exposed electrical wiring -- all of which are violations of housing codes. Wizig's leases and rental contracts contained illegal provisions that held tenants responsible for repairs he was legally required to make and forced tenants to pay double the cost of repairs he performed." Wizig eventually settled with the AG's office, agreeing to pay $50,000 in repairs, rental credits, rescinded mortgages, restitution and investigative costs.
So what happens if Hell's Thermometer doesn't drop to 32 degrees, and Wizig doesn't clean up the Baltimore homes in time?
Robin Jacobs, a staff attorney at the Community Law Center, which helped bring the suit on behalf of the community associations, told us that the newly enhanced law "allows equitable relief, so it's fairly broad in terms of what the court may order."
Wizig's SWE Homes has been in business since 1987, but the properties are owned by seemingly countless LLCs.
"Nothing's in his name, everything's in an LLC, and he's probably got 40 or 50 of them," Hessler said.
Wizig and his companies are locally prolific as well, according to Harris County District Clerk records. We plan to update this post soon detailing the allegations that have surfaced since our 2004 story. But first, we have to take a bleach-bath. The last time we wrote about Wizig, we didn't feel truly clean until we scrubbed off the first two layers of skin.
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