Councilwoman María Quiñones Sánchez represents the residents of Philadelphia’s Seventh Councilmanic District. Her district includes the Kensington neighborhood, where Robert Coyle’s “Landvest” rent-to-own scam was centered and where hundreds of his foreclosed properties are located. Mr. Coyle’s activities have had a devastating impact on both individual families and the neighborhood as a whole, and have imposed significant costs in the form of governmental services and public safety. These spiraling costs and effects continue today, and will stretch far into the future.
As a legislative aide and attorney in the Council office, I was hired in part directly to deal with the Landvest crisis, to help individual constituents seeking legal remedy and to attempt to coordinate interagency and policy responses that might mitigate the effects of mass foreclosure and vacancy in a such a concentrated area. I have had to spend countless hours on Landvest-related matters over the past three years, as have employees in the Mayor’s Office, Law Department, Licenses and Inspections, the First Judicial District, and the Police Department.
Our office continuously receives calls from victims of Mr. Coyle, who believed they were building equity towards a goal of homeownership, stability, and independence. Some of these constituents were able to negotiate deals preserving their homes, with the help of nonprofit or volunteer legal services lawyers. Some were desperate enough to accept disadvantageous terms in settling with the foreclosing banks, just to avoid more loss. Some victims did not have enough proof to keep their homes, but cannot give up and still call us hoping we can figure out how to get them justice, or because they need help finding new housing they can afford. These victims are poor, and often non- English speaking – demographic maps that our office commissioned show how Mr. Coyle’s rent-to-own holdings were centered in areas where such populations made for easy marks.
To give just a hint of how far reaching the damage is, one constituent I helped was an Iraq war veteran, who was about to close on his first home purchase – but his mortgage approval was disrupted by a past illegal eviction judgment against him by a Coyle Landvest company. Our office was able to get this judgment cleared, and worked with the First Judicial District to strike all past Landvest evictions that were based on fraudulent or nonexistent rental licenses, but most of the affected tenants could not be located and notified, and may continue to be disadvantaged by these judgments appearing on credit reports, hurting their ability to access housing, employment, and lending.
Our office also receives calls from neighbors of these properties, an overwhelming number of which remain vacant, with many falling apart or persistently open to trespassers. The vacant properties have created a public safety crisis. Some are owned by the foreclosing banks or their assignees; with so little equity left in the properties, it is not generally cost-effective to rehabilitate them, so they are left to further degrade. When demolition is inevitably required, that cost will be borne by the City of Philadelphia. Others remain titled with Coyle-related entities, effectively abandoned. Given the high rate of drug and other crime in this part of the City, these vacant properties are a magnet for those harmful activities and pose a direct threat to safety and security for nearby residents.
Finally, there are signs that Mr. Coyle’s scam has created a precedent that is being repeated, with his properties giving rise to new scams. Our office has received reports from constituents who were “sold” foreclosed Landvest properties by individuals who did not possess title to the properties they were purporting to sell. There is no way for us to make these new victims whole. We have been approached by buyers and would-be buyers of portfolios of Landvest properties who plan to again market them as “rent-to-own” properties, so they can take money from renters without obligating themselves to spend funds to bring the buildings up to code. One large portfolio of Landvest-related debt was recently acquired by a company linked to Mr. Coyle’s son. I hope this case is influential in deterring similar activities by Mr. Coyle and others in the future, and hope that scrutiny is extended as well to the lending practices that facilitated this incredibly destructive scam.
Thank you for your consideration of our statement.
Jennifer Kates, Esq.
Office of Councilwoman María Quiñones Sánchez