CINCINNATI — Demetria Cashaw wasn’t looking for a fight until VineBrook Homes taped one to her front door.
“I’ve never been through an eviction,” said Cashaw, who rents a single-family home in Westwood that VineBrook wants her to leave. “It just felt like everything was crumbling down on me. It was so, so, so stressful getting the notices on the door, telling me I had 30 days to vacate, me not knowing where to go. My kids, where’s my kids going to go?”
In a Sept. 1 complaint, VineBrook alleged Cashaw failed to pay July rent. Cashaw responded with a counterclaim that accused VineBrook of violating a federal law against unfair debt collection practices. She’s seeking damages in excess of $25,000. The company is seeking a court finding that Cashaw’s claims are without merit.
As her case approaches a Jan. 10 status conference, Cashaw was not surprised to learn VineBrook is the most prolific eviction filer in Hamilton County, according to a WCPO 9 I-Team analysis of county data.
“I went to the office the first time, I seen other tenants complaining,” she said. “When I went to eviction hearing, it was all VineBrook. There was a ton of us.”
The I-Team’s analysis of Hamilton County eviction filings shows 11 different VineBrook affiliates filed for 1,450 evictions since 2018, including 302 in the first eight months of 2022. Its monthly average number of eviction filings increased 40% this year compared to 2021.
“Evictions are part of their business practice,” said Jordan Cotleur, a staff attorney at Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati.
Cotleur has represented dozens of VineBrook tenants in eviction cases. Cashaw is not one of her clients.
“They regularly charge tenants illegal fees or raise the rents without notice,” Cotleur said. “When the tenant tries to contest this, they don’t have local property managers to sort that out with and then the tenant is left with little to no recourse. So, what happens is that Vinebrook will lock them out of the tenant portal and then file an eviction.”
VineBrook declined to be interviewed but provided a statement saying most of its nearly 10,000 Cincinnati residents avoid eviction by paying their bills, adding:
“Eviction is a last resort and VineBrook works to avoid this outcome at all times. In fact, the vast majority of individuals who have incurred a filing have ultimately resolved outstanding bills, avoided eviction, and remained VineBrook residents in good standing.”
Cashaw, a single mom who manages a Bruegger’s Bagel store in Blue Ash, claims she tried to resolve her dispute with VineBrook. But it refused her July rent payment unless she added $500 for a city code violation over tall grass. Her lease calls for tenants to keep the lawn “in good condition” but adds VineBrook must comply with “building, housing, health and safety codes.”
Cashaw provided text messages and emails showing she paid for lawn service that cut the grass one day after the city sent its May 9 violation to VineBrook. City rules say residents can avoid fines if the grass is cut within 10 days. But VineBrook didn’t notify Cashaw about the fine until May 28, adding it to her bill in June.
“I did nothing to deserve the treatment I received. Nothing,” said Cashaw. “I’m the sole provider for my two children. So, me not paying for my home is completely absurd. It was never my intentions to not pay for the rent. I just wanted them to make right the bill that should have never have came to me in the first place.”
VineBrook’s Cincinnati story
VineBrook is an institutional investor that owns 3,326 homes in Greater Cincinnati, according to its most recent quarterly report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
That report says Cincinnati is VineBrook’s largest geographic market, representing more than 10% of the total value of its 24,153 homes nationwide. VineBrook has added to its local holdings in recent years by acquiring portfolios from other institutional investors. In August, it purchased 1,023 properties from Global Pacific, including 71 in Cincinnati, where it boasts an occupancy rate of 90.9% and average monthly rent of $1,199. That’s 9% lower than Cincinnati’s average rent $1,313 in August, according to realtor.com.
“VineBrook has been part of the solution to the growing demand for safe, affordable single-family rental homes since we purchased our first home in Cincinnati in 2007,” said the company’s statement to the I-Team. “We have had tens of thousands of residents in the Cincinnati, serving close to 10,000 today, and nearly all of them meet their monthly lease obligations—they pay their bills. If a resident faces financial challenges, VineBrook works diligently to aid them, and we have had thousands of residents utilize our hardship program, rental assistance, and free financial literacy courses.”
VineBrook is the largest of several institutional investors acquiring single-family homes in Cincinnati and elsewhere, a trend that has been linked to rising rents and soaring home prices.
The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority has tried to combat the impact of institutional investors in the Tri-State by acquiring investor-owned properties for home-ownership opportunities and lobbying against their business practices in public forums.
“What we found in our research is that they typically purchase homes in geographically targeted areas, usually the region’s most disinvested neighborhoods,” Port CEO Laura Brunner told the U.S. Senate Banking Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs in August. “They make all-cash offers for the properties and box out first-time and lower-income buyers. Our low home values and high rental market make these properties attractive. It’s a cash cow for investors but a money pit for renters.”
The city of Cincinnati sued VineBrook in 2021 for unpaid water bills and civil finds totaling more than $600,000. VineBrook settled the case, but city officials told the I-Team in February it was reviewing whether to re-open the case.
“The city continues to monitor Vinebrook’s compliance with the settlement agreement and is actively engaged in conversations with their legal counsel to ensure city residents residing in Vinebrook properties have access to safe and healthy housing,” Assistant City Solicitor David Laing told the I-Team in October.
Tenants fighting back
Hamilton County’s eviction data shows 56% of VineBrook cases ended in dismissal, compared to 84% of cases that do not involve VineBrook. In other words, VineBrook is four times more likely to win an eviction judgment than other landlords.
Cotleur said attorneys fighting VineBrook evictions have identified several ways the company’s leases might violate Ohio’s Landlord and Tenant Law. She isn’t aware of any ruling that forced the company to alter its lease terms, partly because VineBrook often settles cases before such rulings are required.
But that could change if a proposed class-action lawsuit advances in its latest attempt to challenge a property administration fee that VineBrook regularly charges its tenants.
Former VineBrook tenants Michael and Lindsay DeBlasis claim Vinebrook violated state law “by charging plaintiffs … for the costs of making repairs,” in a revised complaint that replaces a similar lawsuit rejected by Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Leslie Ghiz last July. Initially, DeBlasis appealed the ruling but later dismissed the case and filed a revised complaint Nov. 10.
The new complaint zeroes in on paragraph 7 of VineBrook’s lease, which assesses a monthly fee of $10 for property administration to help it “pay for the costs associated with maintenance, repairs and damages to the property caused by natural and unnatural events along with general use of the property.” The lawsuit alleges the fee violates several parts of Ohio’s landlord tenant law, including ORC Section 5321.04 (A) (2), which says landlords must “make all repairs and do whatever is reasonably necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition.”
Cotleur identified other examples of questionable lease clauses, including:
- ORC Section 5321.04 (A) (1) says landlords must “comply with the requirements of all applicable building, housing, health, and safety codes that materially affect health and safety.” Paragraph 11.7 of VineBrook’s lease says: “Other than termite control, (tenants) shall be responsible for pest control.” Cotleur says: “By telling tenants that they won’t exterminate, they are directly violating both the Ohio landlord tenant act and the Cincinnati municipal code.”
- ORC Section 5321.13 (C) says “no agreement to pay the landlord's or tenant's attorney's fees shall be recognized in any rental agreement for residential premises or in any other agreement between a landlord and tenant.” Paragraph 126.96.36.199 says, “subject to state law,” tenants will be charged a $350 minimum for “all costs associated with the eviction of lessee, including all lease reinstatement fees or legal fees or attorney fees.” Cotleur says: “Under state law they cannot include in their lease agreement that the tenant will be responsible for attorneys fees.”
- ORC Section 5321.13 (D) says leases cannot “indemnify the landlord” against “any liability of the landlord arising under law.” Paragraph 9 of the VineBrook lease says it “will not be held liable for expenses incurred if the establishment of light, heat and water are delayed” due to utility company policies. Paragraph 11 says “any small cost repair is the responsibility of the lessee.” Paragraph 12.3 of VineBrook’s lease allows it to charge a $75 “trip fee” if it determines a “service call was unnecessary or that the problem was created by abuse or neglect of the lessee, his family, guests or others.”
“That trip fee is illegal,” Cotleur said. “It’s subject to the discretion of Vinebrook and given that their lease says the tenant is responsible for a lot of maintenance issues that they are not responsible for under the law, Vinebrook cannot then determine that the tenant also has to pay a fee for their having to respond to those maintenance requests.”
The Cashaw case
Cashaw’s counterclaim against VineBrook also challenges the company’s ability to add fees to their monthly rent bill by claiming it violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act when it insisted Cashaw pay for the city’s grass fine.
“VineBrook made false and misleading representations of the character, amount and status of the debt, failed to state it was a debt collector in multiple communications with the defendant and used unfair and unconscionable means to collect,” said the Sept. 14 complaint by attorney James Arnold.
Cotleur said debt collection rules typically don’t apply to landlords, who are seen as creditors under the law. That was the case in 2019, when Hamilton County’s first district appellate court ruled against a Legal Aid client who claimed a landlord violated the federal standard.
But Cashaw’s counterclaim asserts VineBrook was acting as a third-party debt collector when it told her she was responsible for the city fine.
"Please note that per your lease agreement you are responsible for properly maintaining maintaining your lawn, which must be compliant with city regulations,” said the May 28 notice from VineBrook customer service. “If a fine is assessed by the Code Enforcement Department, it will also be reflected on your account and your next rental payment will not be accepted until this is paid.”
That email prompted Cashaw to read her lease, which doesn’t say she has to cut the grass or pay city fines. In fact, it mentions grass only once in paragraph 11:
“Lessee agrees to care and keep The Property (including lawns) clean and free of all obstacles, in good condition, and not to alter any of the above without prior written approval from the Lessor.”
The same paragraph says the tenant must “comply with all applicable state and local housing, health and safety codes,” but that requirement is part of a sentence about electrical and plumbing fixtures. Paragraph 12.2 says Vinebrook “agrees to comply with the requirements of all applicable building, housing, health and safety codes.”
Cashaw said she paid two city fines for tall grass in 2021 but didn’t think she should be held responsible for the May 9 citation because she corrected the problem in plenty of time for VineBrook to avoid the fine. She also claims VineBrook gave her conflicting information about the fine before demanding that she vacate the premises on July 13. Examples include:
- May 29, 2022. VineBrook email: “It is noted that your grass has been cut. Closing case. Thank you!"
- June 20, 2022. Cashaw: “I see that I just had a fine added for high grass … no reason for that fine to be added to my account”
- June 23, 2022. Cashaw: “Can we please correct our account in the rent portal so when it’s time for me to pay my rent it can be on time with no issues.”
- July 3, 2022. “Unfortunately, once the city has issued the citation and fine, we are unable to remove it or have them remove it.”
Desperate to resolve the issue, Cashaw traveled to VineBrook’s West Chester office on July 18 with a $1,300 money order for July rent but nothing for the city fine.
“I can’t take the money,” a VineBrook manager said in a cell phone video provided by Cashaw. “We’re done with the conversation about this. If you’re going to sue us, you’re going to sue us. There’s nothing we can do about that.”
Cashaw’s eviction case was transferred out of municipal court to Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Jennifer Branch. On Oct. 19, VineBrook asserted a defense to the debt-collection allegation that said its eviction complaint “seeks only possession and does not seek to collect a debt.” On Dec. 6, VineBrook filed a motion for a rent bond that would cost Cashaw $5,160 plus $1,290 per month starting Jan. 1.
“A rent bond is only fair as the defendant continues to live in the subject premises and continues to owe rent,” the company argued.
VineBrook has yet to request repayment of the city fine, which Cashaw claims the company only paid because it was preparing to evict her.
“Calling the city, I found out they paid the bill the same week they came to put the eviction notice on my door,” she said.
In the meantime, Cashaw urges VineBrook tenants to read their lease and prospective tenants to read the 223 complaints filed against the company on the Better Business Bureau web site in the last 12 months.
“They offer affordable housing in the city of Cincinnati and that’s why they have a lot of tenants,” Cashaw said. “It’s not because they have nice houses. It’s affordable. So, they’re banking on the lower income families who can’t really, who might not do the research like I did and look into it, or can’t afford to get legal help.”