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Legal Aid files to join city lawsuit against VineBrook Homes

Group wants tenants to 'have a voice' in case
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Posted at 4:48 PM, Jan 26, 2023

CINCINNATI — VineBrook Homes is facing a new legal attack by tenants asking to join the city’s lawsuit against the investor-owned real estate company that owns more single-family rental properties and files more evictions than any other Hamilton County landlord.

“We chose to intervene in this lawsuit to make sure that the tenants and residents in the community who are impacted by VineBrook’s harmful practices have a voice in how the lawsuit plays out,” said Jordan Cotleur, a Legal Aid attorney who filed a motion to intervene Thursday on behalf of five clients.

A proposed complaint attached to the motion includes many of the same legal arguments raised last week in the city of Cincinnati’s lawsuit against the company. But it includes some tenant-specific demands that the city did not request, including:

  • Compensatory and punitive damages for five plaintiffs who allege they were harmed by VineBrook’s actions.
  • A court order requiring VineBrook to participate in and pay for mediation before suing tenants for eviction.
  • A court order requiring VineBrook to appoint “local representatives to respond to Hamilton County residents’ property maintenance and (customer service) portal concerns within 48 hours for non-emergency concerns and within 24 hours for emergency concerns.”

VineBrook has yet to respond to the Legal Aid complaint. But in a statement last week, it said it will vigorously defend itself against the city's allegations and added:

"We view this latest development as an opportunity to refocus our efforts and we remain committed to providing safe, functional, and affordable single-family rental homes to residents to help set them on a pathway to homeownership and a better financial future.”

Both the city’s case and the new Legal Aid filing accuse VineBrook Homes of using illegal lease provisions to shift maintenance expenses to tenants and engaging in “self-help evictions,” which means taking possession of a property without the tenant’s permission or a court’s approval.

Both cases also seek the appointment of a receiver to manage VineBrook’s rental properties until building and health codes are resolved.

Cotleur said the Legal Aid complaint should bolster the city’s case and make it easier to secure VineBrook reforms that benefit tenants.

“Many tenants find themselves unable to speak with anybody from VineBrook until they’re in eviction court or until someone from the buildings or health department come out and issue orders,” Cotleur said. “So, having that local representative is going to be key to getting them to comply with their obligations.”

Former VineBrook tenant Demetria Cashaw said the reforms sought by Legal Aid could have made a difference for her. She was sued for eviction after disputing a tall-grass fine that VineBrook paid without her knowledge and added to her rent bill. She had trouble resolving the dispute in the company’s customer service portal and would have welcomed mediation.

“They definitely should have a local representative to respond to complaints,” Cashaw said. “It’s crazy that it’s a phone company answering service that responds to everything.”

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