IN PRINT: Tenants face utility cutoffs after manager allegedly pockets funds

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Brenda Black, seen with Felicia Brown, holds up a copy of a lease agreement specifying that utilities are covered by rent payments.

by Jordan Green

 

An unscrupulous property manager took allegedly took utility payments from poor tenants in Winston-Salem and pocketed them for his own benefit.

Felicia Brown was hoping for a new start when she moved into a cluster of unnamed apartments at the intersection of Maryland Avenue and East Fifth Street in Winston-Salem.

But after watching several of her neighbors lose power and the former property manager leave under a cloud of suspicion, her life has been thrown into uncertainty.

“I don’t want the power to be turned off when I’ve been paying my utilities,” she said. “I’ve got three children I’m trying to provide for and do whatever I need to keep them in my life. It’s stressing me to know that my utility money has been stolen and my deposit has been stolen.”

Brown and another tenant, Brenda Black, said they paid $595 per month to a property manager named Dennis Hurt Jr. under lease agreements that indicated heat, electricity and water would be covered as part of rent. The tenants paid their rent in February, but Black said power and utilities have been cut off in about three units. Nora Cowen, senior financial analyst with the city’s utility department, said 24 units in the apartment complex are in final status, meaning that they are at risk of disconnection because of delinquent payments.

Black said Michael Greco, whose company Shiloh Investment Properties took over management of the apartments in mid-February, told the tenants that he would not assume responsibility for bringing the utility payments up to date or refund their deposits so they could move out.

Sitting in a cold office last week, Greco told a reporter much the same.

“We’re giving them the opportunity to sign a new lease,” he said. “If they sign a new lease, the rent goes to $400.

“We’re not going to pay for what’s in the past,” Greco added. “It’s not possible. For us to pay $5,921 isn’t something we can do.” He also said he would not refund deposits.

Greco said his predecessor has also stolen $6,200 in rental deposits from the tenants.

The apartments — a complex consisting of six two-story brick buildings — were purchased by an Australian couple, Anthony and Megan Wolfenden, for $1.3 million in 2006.

Anthony Wolfenden works as an independent distributor for MonaVie, a multi-level marketing company, according to his Facebook page. A promotional YouTube video portrays them popping a cork on a wine bottle on a helicopter, riding a speedboat with their children and playing on a beach, interspersed with testimony about how the company allowed them to pursue their financial dreams.

Greco said the Wolfendens have been losing money on the apartments since they closed on the sale.

“You could probably hold him responsible [for the utility payments],” Greco said last week. “He’s in Australia. He’d probably let the place foreclose.”

But on Monday morning Greco passed out letters to the tenants indicating that his company would honor the leases signed under Hurt’s management. Despite his comments to the contrary last week, Greco contended in a subsequent interview that his position has been the same all along.

“I’ve been in this business for a while,” he said. “You’re an idiot if you don’t honor something that’s in writing. That’s a legal document.”

Wolfenden reiterated Greco’s commitment to honor the leases in an email on Monday.

“My wife and I were left a disaster by another property manager a few years ago,” Wolfenden said. “We have been working diligently since then to rebuild the property and offer good living conditions to our tenants. Mr, Hurt has hurt us, the tenants and the reputation of our property. My wife and I are committed to get this fixed but expect it to take some time, and it will not be easy.”

Greco added a caveat that some tenants don’t have leases signed in their own names.

“When I find their leases, if it’s not 100 percent correct, I’ll take them to court,” he said.

Some of the tenants are wary of Greco’s offer to give them new leases that break up rental and utility payments. If the previous property manager violated their trust once, who’s to say it won’t happen again, they argue.

Greco said he understands their skepticism, but urged anyone with an interest in the matter to look into this track record.

One day Greco found a bus parked in front of an apartment complex he and his wife own in Greensboro — it was part of a tour of blighted housing by the Greensboro Housing Coalition. He explained that they had recently purchased the apartments, and asked for time to rehabilitate them. A couple years later, the apartments won an award from the Greensboro Housing Coalition. Executive Director Beth McKee-Huger confirmed that the housing coalition recognized Greco “for bringing the apartments up to code.”

Greco said his company managed the Maryland Avenue apartments until August 2013. He said Hurt was recruited to take over management with the understanding that he would use rent receipts to make mortgage payments and reinvest in rehab of the apartments, in addition to paying himself.

Wolfenden said he was unaware that Hurt had a criminal record when he hired him to manage the property.

“Mr. Hurt put utilities in his own name and offered leases for apartments covering rent and utilities to some tenants,” Wolfenden said. “Mr. Hurt took all money paid for the apartments by tenants and did not pay me as owner or the utility companies.”

Hurt, who goes by the name “Preacher” on his Facebook account, could not be reached for comment, but Greco said he’s moved on to a rooming house on Jackson Avenue.

“This guy does this for a frigging living,” Greco said.

Hurt was found guilty of embezzlement stemming from an incident that took place in May 2011 while was employed by Nathan Tabor as a property manager at Regent Manor apartments. Tabor is the former chairman of the Forsyth County Republican Party.

“When he came to me, oh, he was a Christian and he loved the Lord,” Tabor recalled. “He loved those in need.”

Tabor said Hurt was responsible for collecting monthly rent receipts from tenants at Regents Manor. One week Tabor took a leave of absence and entrusted Hurt with bringing the deposits to the office on Friday. When he returned and found that the money was missing from the company bank account, Tabor learned from his assistant that Hurt had volunteered to make the deposits himself. Hurt told Tabor that he needed to borrow the money to handle some business and that he planned to return it.

Tabor said Hurt also stole security deposits. Tabor was obligated to pay the tenants back out of pocket.

Judge Lisa Menefee ordered Hurt to pay Tabor $16,620 in restitution, but Tabor said to date he’s only received about $200.

“Any property owners out there should really pay attention if they’re going to hire him as a property manager,” Tabor said. “I asked the court system as a stipulation of his release to not allow him to manage properties. I don’t know why that didn’t happen.”