MAY 18, 2014
“HUD Inspection Records Shed Light On lawsuit”
Dan Gearino, The Columbus Dispatch
A Dayton apartment company that sued a Columbus man for defamation was not approved for federal assistance at six Ohio properties in part because of a long list of maintenance concerns.
Government records, obtained by The Dispatch from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, provide an independent look at one of the contentions in a $1 million-plus lawsuit filed by the Connor Group against James Raney of Columbus. They describe conditions similar to some of the allegedly defamatory statements Raney made on his blog and other online forums.
In January 2011, HUD said this about a Connor property in Columbus:“Of primary concern with the property is the structural fractures and cracking to a number of the buildings’ walls, foundations and support beams; the condition of exterior stairwells; the questionable condition of the roof (evidence of past and possible leaks were noted throughout the property); the condition of windows, doors and door jambs; extensive sidewalk cracking; inadequate drainage; deteriorated landscaping; bowed stairwell floors; and numerous items of deferred maintenance,” read a letter from William E. Hughes, director of project management in HUD’s Columbus office.
He was writing about Lexington Park on the Northwest Side, a property that the company describes as “luxury apartments.” Inspectors also took dozens of photos showing the conditions.
Ryan Ernst, a Connor Group spokesman, said conditions at the complex are much better than what was shown in the HUD inspection.
At the same time, Raney said he is not surprised by the descriptions of the properties in the records. He joked that the logical next step is for Connor to sue HUD, saying in an e-mail that the company should “show the same courage and conviction in trying to silence these slanderous bureaucrats as they did with me.”
Housing advocates say this lawsuit, which The Dispatch first wrote about in March, is unlike anything they have ever seen in a landlord-tenant issue.
“This is just over the top,” said Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Housing and Homelessness in Ohio. He was surprised by the lawsuit because “most landlords are pretty pragmatic” and would have concerns that a high-profile lawsuit would be bad for business.
Raney, an information-technology developer who now lives in Harrison West, was sued in response to his blog, http://www.rentn.org, and other online writing in which he described his experiences at a Connor property and posted photos and descriptions of other Connor properties submitted by readers.
Connor has argued that Raney made a series of statements with a “reckless disregard for whether or not they were true.”
The case is in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court in Dayton, which is where Connor is based. Raney’s attorney has filed a motion to dismiss and said the suit is the company’s attempt to silence a critic.
The government records begin in 2010, when Connor applied for mortgage insurance at nine properties in the state through the Federal Housing Administration. Three properties were approved, and six were not. The applications covered only about half of Connor’s properties in the state.
Lexington Park was Connor’s only central Ohio property inspected by HUD. The others were in the Dayton and Cincinnati areas. (Raney lived at a different Northwest Side complex, the Meridian, which was not inspected; he has written on his website about conditions at Lexington Park and several other properties that were inspected.)
Connor disagreed with assessments made by HUD inspectors, Ernst said in an email. “So did two different independent inspectors whose reports refute HUD’s characterization of Lexington Park,” Ernst wrote. “We take great pride in the improvements we make to our communities after acquisition. In the 76 months we’ve owned Lexington Park, we’ve completed $2.2 million in proactive capital improvements — well ahead of industry standard for a community that size.”
He provided two reports from non-government inspectors in which the property was described as being in good repair, one from before the HUD rejection and one from after. One of them, from Nova Consulting of Salt Lake City, said the buildings “appear to have been provided with adequate preventative maintenance” and listed $500 in critical repairs and $1,000 in noncritical repairs.This is in contrast to HUD’s report, which listed $52,846 in critical repairs and $524,964 in noncritical repairs at the complex.