Sunday, May 4, 2003

Real-estate 'investors' up to no good

John Angelo is stubborn. For more than two years he documented crime in his North Avondale neighborhood.

He'd spy on drug dealers and prostitutes at two homes across the street from him.

He kept logs, noting visitors' clothes and physical appearances and their arrival and departure times. He gave the logs to police and copied elected officials.

One night, 57 people went in and out of one house in three hours.

An 80-year-old neighbor woman told Angelo her home was constantly being vandalized or invaded; once she confronted a man in her basement.

"She was terrified," Angelo recalls.

Others in the neighborhood called police, too. A church helped officers set up surveillance.

Eventually, the dealers were evicted.

An unwelcome sign

Angelo worried about who'd replace them, so he formed a group that used private funds and a city grant to buy both empty houses and rehabilitate them.

One home, a three-story, five-bedroom house, sold to a young professional couple from New York.

The other, a two-story, is still undergoing its renaissance.

Perhaps that's why two strangers climbed onto its ripped-up porch and nailed a sign to the door last week that read, "We Buy Houses - CASH - Any Condition."

Angelo says the sign portends a new danger for his quiet, tree-lined neighborhood of 100-year-old homes.

Fly-by-night real-estate investors, he says, are trying to buy up houses on the cheap. They barely renovate them before selling or renting them back, he says.

"These companies are looking for a quick return ... without long-term quality improvements," he says.

Signs like that one are popping up all over the city, especially in distressed neighborhoods, Councilman John Cranley says.

He says companies vowing to buy rundown homes are undermining efforts by the city to convince homeowners and developers to reinvest in their homes and neighborhoods.

"They send the wrong signal, that this neighborhood's in decline. Get out while the getting's good," he says.

On top of that, these signs are everywhere.

'Ugly houses'

More than 50 fluorescent "We Buy Ugly Houses" billboards dot the Tristate. Five local franchisors of Dallas-based HomeVestors Inc. began buying the advertising in the past year and a half, one local owner says.

That company is totally legitimate, she says. It doesn't nail signs to doors or telephone polls, she adds.

But numerous other companies do. They're papering neighborhoods like Angelo's.

Last fall, Angelo, who's also a special-events producer, began keeping a crowbar and step stool in his car. On his way to work, he'd rip the signs off telephone polls.

He'd also take down the signs touting weight-loss miracles and work-at-home careers.

He can do that because last fall, city council enacted a nuisance ordinance outlawing signs and flyers on telephone poles.

So many flyers crowded his route from Shuttlesworth Circle to downtown that Angelo turned in 80 signs at once to City Hall.

The last straw, though, was that sign nailed to the house Angelo is rehabbing.

He contacted Cranley, who announced Friday that police and the city solicitor's office are investigating.

The sign bears a phone number, but no company name. People who answered the line took messages, but no one returned calls for comment.

Email or phone 768-8395

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