Escambia man discovers home he's been renting to own for a decade has already been sold

Melvin East has had a rough go of it, lately. The 59-year-old Pensacola man recently lost his leg due to a medical condition and soon after suffered a heart attack.

He is also facing citations and fines over the condition of his house and yard, a case that has been ongoing for months since before his health trouble.

Escambia County code enforcement officers say East’s Pensacola home needs repairs to the roof and windows to bring it up to code, and his yard is full of nuisance conditions like trash and debris.

He appeared in a wheelchair before a county magistrate over the citations on Tuesday, asking for more time to recover so he can do more to address the problems.

While the magistrate agreed to East’s request, he brought up another concern. That the house East believes he is renting-to-own does not actually belong to him.

“The structural stuff will likely require a permit, and to do that work may be somewhat expensive,” said attorney and magistrate Greg Farrar. “Right now, I'm concerned that you may not have an ownership interest in the property.”

According to the Escambia County Property Appraiser’s website, the house East calls home on Petunia Avenue belongs to IWB Holdings Spendthrift Trust. The property was granted to the Colorado company last June through a Quit Claim Deed for $20,000 from the previous owner, Money with Meaning, LLC.

Code enforcement made several attempts to notify IWB Holdings of the violations and most were unsuccessful. Even when the county was finally able to reach someone from the company, they did not respond to the complaints.

East is also aware of the violations and has been taking to steps to clean up the yard. He said he made a rent-to-own deal to buy the house in 2014, putting down $1,700. He has been paying $500 a month since.

“I’m not the owner, but I’m on as the buyer,” East explained to the magistrate. “I’m buying through a mortgage company, Madison Mortgage Company. They’re somewhere in California and I talk to them regularly to see if I'm behind on my payments or whatever, but as far as I know, I've never spoken to the original owner.”

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County records do not indicate East as a buyer, which was news to him.

In fact, according to the property appraiser’s website, the property has changed owners several times over the past decade.

Beginning in 2011, Fannie Mae sold it to Harbour Properties for just over $8,000. That company then signed it over to Jobean LLC in 2016 through a Quit Claim Deed for $10,000 who in turn granted it to Money with Meaning in 2020 through another Quit Claim Deed for $10.

Farrar suggested East get advice from a legal aid service before spending any money on repairs since ultimately the property may not be his now or in the future.

“According to the county's records, they show this owner as being this IWB Holdings Spendthrift Trust,” explained Farrar. “A spendthrift trust is usually something that's done on behalf of an owner that for whatever reason they worry that person would not be prudent with an asset, and they put it into a trust, but that complicates things even more so. I don't know if the person you've been dealing with has the legal authority to even transfer property to you.”

Farrar said the roof and window repairs are necessary because the house isn’t safe.

East, who told the magistrate he currently has no income, said he has collected some windows to replace the broken ones and was arranging for a new roof, when he lost his leg and then suffered a heart attack, which set him back and left him unable to work.

Homesteaded property owners in situations like East’s have the option to tap into county programs and federal dollars to make needed repairs, but because East is not legally the owner those options aren’t available to him.

“On a homesteaded property, especially if they're income challenged, we will provide a notice and then link them to Escambia County Neighborhood and Human Services and there are federal monies that funnel through that department to assist in putting on new roofs or windows and fixing issues that are there,” said Tim Day, Escambia County’s senior natural resources manager.

However, in a rental situation the burden for repairs is on the owner/landlord because the expectation is that rental income will be reinvested in the property. In East’s situation, neither the mortgage company nor the legal owners have stepped up to address the violations.

As long as he is legally in the home, even as a tenant, the county won’t do anything with the structure, but if needed, code enforcement can clean up the yard and place a lien on the property to recoup the cost.

Farrar gave East until June to address the code enforcement violations and again urged him to seek legal counsel.

“My temptation is to put the hammer down and that's where I'm conflicted because I don't know that you have an actual ownership interest and that worries me,” said Farrar. “If it comes back to me again and it turns out that you're not the owner, I may deal with it differently.”

If the repairs aren’t made in 90 days, a daily fine of $20 will begin to accrue. In the meantime, East said he will look into the validity of his rent-to-own arrangement, and he soon hopes to have a prosthetic leg to improve his mobility.

He thanked the magistrate for the time to address the violations.

“That will give me enough time to get my leg,” said East. “I’m supposed to get my leg within the next 30 days and that will give me enough time to function and be able to move and do stuff and look into this legal thing.”

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Escambia County man discovers house he was renting-to-own is not his