“We don’t want to make a comment,” Alicia Draines said when reached by phone.
The rental assistance program in this story was created by Montgomery County using $5 million of a $92.7 million payment it received through the CARES Act. The county paid Miami Valley Community Action Partnership to administer the program. The partnership provided rent assistance to nearly 1,600 residents.
“MVCAP is grateful for the investigative efforts of the Dayton Daily News staff. We are continuing to work closely with Montgomery County and will look into the most recent cases that DDN has brought to our attention,” MVCAP President Lisa Stempler said.
Vaughn Gibson fell behind last year after losing his construction job. He sought rental assistance but believed he didn’t get it. He showed the Dayton Daily News electronic records saying he then continued paying his rent and $75 monthly late fees, finally getting caught up this year by spending $2,000 from his tax return after multiple eviction threats.
He had no idea Freedom for Living received $7,200 in September in his name – eight months of rent at $900 a month.
After the Dayton Daily News started contacting tenants, Gibson was one of several who said the landlord reached out to them, credited their accounts and asked them not to talk to anyone about the program. Gibson said the landlord offered him three months of rent, not telling Gibson they were paid for eight months by the government.
“It pissed me off but I don’t want to get evicted. I don’t have money to go somewhere else,” he said. “(I want) to get my money back.”
Don Ewing said he fell behind on rent last year but caught up after Freedom for Living filed for eviction in June. Freedom for Living received $4,815 in rent assistance last year for Ewing, claiming he didn’t pay his $535 monthly rent from April through December.
“If he got four grand for me to stay here and I’ve been paying, then he’s been overpaid,” Ewing said.
Several tenants said they received housing assistance from agencies such as Greater Dayton Premier Management for the same months that the pandemic relief program paid Freedom for Living.
This includes Tammy Smith, who said she paid $341 a month and GDPM covered the rest of her rent through a Section 8 housing voucher. She said she didn’t get other rental assistance last year.
“I wish I did,” she said.
Freedom for Living received $8,400 total in county assistance for Smith’s rental unit, which is her full $1,050 monthly rent for eight months. The application lists the tenant’s name as Leon Haynes and says he has no phone.
“I don’t know who that person is at all, and we’ve been here since we moved in 2018,” she said.
Every application submitted to MVCAP by the landlord asks whether the tenant receives rent assistance, such as Section 8. In all but two cases, the landlord marked, “No.”
The application also says, above the landlord’s signature: “Deliberate misrepresentation may subject me to prosecution under applicable state and federal law.”
Landlord kicked off Section 8
Antoine Draines and all his related companies were kicked off the Section 8 housing voucher program after GDPM scrutinized their paperwork during the investigation by the Dayton Daily News.
An April 27 letter to Draines says the agency found he continued to receive Section 8 payments through April 1, 2021, for a tenant who moved out of his rental unit on or around January 2020. The current renter in that unit is getting rental assistance from Eastway Behavioral Health, it says.
“GDPM takes the position that you knowingly committed fraudulent activity against GDPM, and have knowingly and fraudulently accepted federal housing assistance without a legal right to do so,” the letter says. “This incident goes beyond a mere oversight, is indicative of fraudulent activity, and involves the misappropriation of federal dollars. Compounding the above, both the duration and frequency in which you committed these breaches is severe.”
Freedom for Living and its related companies received $368,520 from Greater Dayton Premier Management in Section 8 vouchers last year.
Draines’ companies were already prohibited in 2018 from accepting additional Section 8 vouchers after the public housing agency had identified numerous program violations at his properties.
GDPM officials, citing federal privacy laws, would not confirm whether specific properties listed as receiving CARES Act help also got Section 8. But after being presented with the newspaper’s findings, the agency said it is comparing its Section 8 voucher list to the county assistance program to identify possible duplicates.
“I find this troubling and outrageous especially in a time where residents and landlords are struggling,” GDPM Executive Director Jennifer Heapy said. “If we have landlords out there committing fraud to unjustly enrich themselves it needs to be taken seriously, and we need to investigate it.”
It is the first time the agency has removed a landlord from the housing voucher program since Heapy joined the agency in 2012.
Montgomery County spokeswoman Deb Decker referred all questions about the newspaper’s findings to MVCAP.
“My only comment is these are not ‘findings,’ they are hearsay,” she said, adding that the information provided by the newspaper was forwarded to the Ohio Auditor of State’s Office, which has oversight of local CARES Act programs.
Miami Valley Community Action Partnership officials have said the program was created quickly last year to get aid to people and prevent evictions, and it didn’t have all the safeguards as other rental assistance programs. A previous Dayton Daily News investigation found some of the largest payments in the program went to uninhabitable properties. Landlords of 10 properties offered to pay the money back after being contacted by the newspaper.
One of them, Eagle Renovations, presented MVCAP a cashier’s check on April 20 for $39,825, citing “application discrepancies” for four rental units featured in the newspaper’s investigation.
MVCAP is in the process of hiring a compliance supervisor and conducting an internal audit. It also is working with the public housing authority to cross-check current and future rental assistance applications against housing vouchers.
“MVCAP is working with Montgomery County to look into these cases and will address each case individually. In some cases, we may request additional documentation from the applicant or the landlord. In other cases, we may seek to recoup funds from the landlord,” Stempler said.
Montgomery County last month began accepting applications for a new $15.8 million rental assistance program, funded with more federal pandemic relief money. County officials say they strengthened application language in response to the previous Dayton Daily News investigation.
‘My rent has always been paid’
Half of the 68 applications filed by Freedom for Living Properties said the renter’s phone was turned off and three said the phone number was unknown. Several renters said they had working phones.
“My phone’s never been turned off,” tenant Eleanor Stockton said.
Stockton said she pays $372 a month for her share of the rent and Greater Dayton Premier Management pays the rest. MVCAP paid Freedom for Living $6,800 for her last year, which is her full $850 rent for eight months – meaning it may have been double paid.
“My rent has always been paid, every month, and on time. I’ve never been behind on my rent and I’ve been here since like 2012,” she said.
Half of the Freedom for Living properties that received pandemic relief aid are on Benchwood Road in Butler Twp.
Many of the properties are legally owned by companies controlled by Vandalia businessman H. David Brusman. Brusman told the Dayton Daily News that all of his companies’ properties are several years into being sold to Freedom for Living via a land contract.
“If there’s any irregularities, I wouldn’t know about it,” he said.
Renter noted red flags
Renters Paige Baskerville and Lee Carroll said they tried to contact MVCAP and called the Ohio Attorney General last year about their concerns Freedom for Living was misusing the program.
They showed a reporter a copy of their lease agreement effective Oct. 1, 2020, saying they paid their first and last months’ rent, $900 each. They didn’t know MVCAP already paid Freedom for Living for June through October for that address in the name of a previous tenant.
When they asked later in October about rent assistance because Carroll lost his job, Baskerville said Antoine Draines sent her a text, which she showed the newspaper.
“I need u to resubmit it for (a different address) instead of (your address). We have already submitted one for that address this year and I don’t want u to be denied,” it said.
Baskerville said they refused to go along for fear of getting in trouble and losing other government benefits. MVCAP records say Freedom for Living got a lump sum rental assistance payment at that other property in a different name a month later, including back rent through May. The $11,400 the company received for that address — $1,425 per month — was the largest payment it got. The people living there now said they weren’t there last year.
Freedom for Living didn’t charge Baskerville and Carroll for November and December, but filed for eviction when they didn’t pay this year. The landlord dropped the eviction right before an April 28 hearing in Vandalia Municipal Court.
“This is what really kind of irks me,” Baskerville said. “I emailed Miami Valley CAP. I’ve called them. I’ve emailed twice, telling them I think my landlord is doing fraudulent stuff through your program.”
She said they received no response.
MVCAP officials declined to comment on Baskerville’s claim. Officials from the Attorney General’s Office couldn’t confirm by deadline if they received any complaints from Baskerville.
Reporter goes door to door
A reporter visited the properties on Benchwood Road, including tenant Dominique Lovett. She claims she never applied for rental assistance and pulled up receipts on her phone showing Eastway paid her $835 rent in full each month last year.
MVCAP also paid Freedom for Living $9,100 last year for 10 months’ rent in her name at $910 a month. Eastway didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
“That’s messed up,” Lovett said, claiming she can’t get the property management company to repair broken appliances. “If he got that type of money back, he could’ve came in here and fixed up stuff.”
Lovett and Stockton looked over the list of renters who received MVCAP assistance. They identified another woman, Arion Washington, who moved out in December after she says Greater Dayton Premier Management refused to pay her rent in mid-2020 because the landlord didn’t fix her broken plumbing.
Reached by phone, Washington said prior to that, GDPM was paying her full $975 monthly rent. MVCAP also paid Freedom for Living $8,500 for nine months of Washington’s rent last year at $950 a month.
At another unit on Benchwood Road, Freedom for Living received $8,400 in rent assistance — eight months of rent at $1,050 a month. The application filled out by Freedom for Living lists a woman as the tenant and says: “Customer was laid off from employer as a result of COVID pandemic.”
But the renter living at that unit is Tim Miller. Miller said he has lived there for years, didn’t apply for rent assistance and doesn’t know the woman listed on the application.
“I’ve never heard of her,” Miller said. “I lived there and I paid rent. Never had any help on it at all.”
Miller said his rent last year was $850 a month.
Down the road, renter Elizabeth Smith said she applied for MVCAP rental assistance last year but kept paying her rent because she had no idea her landlord received $8,000 to cover eight months of her rent. She said GDPM paid a small portion of her rent last year and she paid more than $800 a month out of pocket.
“If not, we’d have something on our door,” she said.
Neighbor Marcela Moreno said she paid her $275 monthly rent — Section 8 covered the rest — until she got COVID-19 in October. She said she applied for MVCAP assistance then and didn’t pay her portion of the rent through December.
But she didn’t know that, according to county records, in September her landlord had already received assistance in her name. Freedom for Living received $5,285 from MVCAP to cover her rent from June through the end of the year at the full $755 a month.
“I never got any notification, that’s why I applied (for MVCAP) when I had COVID. But he told me not to worry about it, that he would cover for October, November and December and then I would have to start paying again in January,” she said.
The application says Moreno’s phone was turned off. She said her phone wasn’t turned off.
Bapankoun Some moved into a townhouse on Benchwood Road in October and his monthly rent is $925, according to the lease he produced. But Freedom for Living received an $8,600 lump sum payment in his name from MVCAP in November — eight months of rent at $1,075 per month from May through December 2020.
After Some didn’t pay rent in January, February and March of this year, the landlord took him to court. The eviction hearing was scheduled the same day the newspaper started contacting renters. Two days later, the landlord said he would dismiss the case and forgive the back rent. He had Some pay $2,775 for rent through July 2021.
“I’m struggling. I don’t have a job. I have my old mom who’s living with me. I need assistance. But I have to struggle and keep my mom under a roof,” he said. “(He was) applying for rental assistance on my behalf for June, July, August when I was not living here and still trying to evict me?”
Connie Stowes provided a lease agreement showing she moved in on July 20, 2020. She paid her rent until she got sick in October, she said. She hasn’t been able to work since then and has worried about being kicked out.
She didn’t know that Freedom for Living in October received a one-time payment for eight months of rent in her name, including back-rent back through May 2020 — before she moved in.
After the Dayton Daily News started contacting tenants, she said Antoine Draines told her not to worry about the missing rent and that she has a $175 credit on her next month.
“He told me he made a correction on my rent. He said he’s got everything taken care of and if anybody comes by and says anything, wants to ask some questions, just don’t answer,” she said.
Kimberly Winters said she got a three month break from paying her $715 rent last year after applying for rent assistance in October. She didn’t know Freedom for Living received $9,450 in her name — nine months of rent at $1,050 a month covering April through December.
The landlord recently told Winters she doesn’t owe rent until February 2022. She said it may have been an oversight on the landlord’s part.
“For the benefit of the doubt, he is a scatterbrained kind of guy, and he does forget about things a lot,” she said.
One renter avoided eviction and got her money back after the Dayton Daily News knocked on her door.
Brandi Garrett said Freedom for Living told her she had 60 days to move out if she doesn’t pay $1,500 in back rent for this year. She said she paid $800 in April. But after she was visited by a reporter, the landlord gave her the money back and said her rent is covered for the rest of the year.
“He was going to come after me for the rest until he saw you at my door,” she said.
Garrett said she did get a break on her rent last year after she applied for assistance, but her rent was less than $600 per month and GDPM covers the rest. MVCAP records say it paid Freedom for Living eight months of rent for her rent at $1,075 a month.
“That’s fraud,” she said.
Agencies aid renters
Tenants won’t lose their vouchers, Heapy said, but those 43 families renting from Draines’ companies will have to move.
“Obviously as we navigate this situation, the reality of how this is going to impact those clients is always forefront in our minds,” she said.
Renters fear they will be the ones to suffer, having to come up with moving costs and down payments. Section 8 housing availability is limited, and some kids might have to relocate to different schools.
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“How do I go about getting my deposit and my (rent assistance) credited to another landlord to move?” said Kristen Griffith. “Because unfortunately without that money we can’t move. We’ll be homeless with three kids.”
MVCAP paid Freedom for Living $6,000 in rent assistance, covering six months for Griffith’s family. Griffith said she and her wife paid $307 monthly last year, their share of the rent, and GDPM covered the rest.
“We never missed a payment,” she said.
Agency officials say they will help displaced tenants.
“GDPM and MVCAP are working together to help the Freedom for Living renters who are looking for new residences,” Stempler said. “MVCAP has funding available to assist with rental payments, security deposits and moving expenses. The affected renters will receive more information on MVCAP’s programs directly from GDPM in the coming weeks.”