TAMPA — During the foreclosure crisis, a lot of investors made a lot of money off the misfortune of others. But few were as prolific as Jimmy Dean Chancey and his nephew, Michael Chancey.
Through a myriad of companies, the duo has acquired scores of houses in the Tampa Bay and Jacksonville areas for as little as $10 apiece. They got some at foreclosure auctions, others directly from desperate homeowners like Tarsha Santiago of Gibsonton.
"She said they knocked on her door more than once, and she was facing a number of things that were weighing on her mind plus facing foreclosure," said lawyer Pamela Jo Hatley, who later represented Santiago. "They kept coming by and telling her they could help her with an attorney, they would help her avoid foreclosure, she could stay in her home and they talked her into doing this deal with them."
In exchange for a few hundred dollars, Santiago deeded her four-bedroom, two-bath house to a company connected to the Chanceys.
More than a year after it began investigating the pair, prompted by stories in the Tampa Bay Times and on a Jacksonville TV station, the office of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is trying to put the Chanceys permanently out of business. In a complaint filed this month in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, Bondi's office accuses the two of "unfair and deceptive trade practices" that include deliberately misleading homeowners and renting out houses without disclosing they are in foreclosure.
"The defendants have (operated) through an interrelated network of companies that have common ownership, office managers, business functions, business locations and employees, that commingled funds and that engaged in a common scheme," the complaint says.
Jimmy Chancey, 63, did not return calls or an email seeking comment. Michael Chancey, 55, did not return calls.
The Chanceys began acquiring houses several years ago, initially through homeowners association foreclosure auctions. When an owner fails to pay association dues, the HOA can put a lien on the house and foreclose. Whoever bids the highest amount that covers delinquent dues and other costs gets title to the property and can rent it out until the bank forecloses and the property is sold.
From 2011 to 2013, investors like the Chanceys often got title to expensive homes for just a few thousand dollars. But as more and more people began bidding at HOA auctions, driving up prices, the Chanceys tried a new approach — going straight to the homeowner.
"They prey upon people who are facing dire financial difficulties," Hatley said, "and from what my client told me, they were actually going door to door in her community and knocking on houses. They did their research and found which homeowners were facing foreclosure. They would always give homeowners some piddling amount and tell the homeowner all they have to do is sign a quitclaim deed and the whole (foreclosure) thing would go away."
In reality, it would not go away. The borrower would still be responsible for the mortgage and could face a potential deficiency judgment if the bank couldn't sell the house for the amount owed.
Homeowners "don't realize this because this outfit tells them a lie," Hatley said of Chancey-connected businesses.
Among the defendants named in the attorney general's complaint is HOA Problem Solutions, started by Michael Chancey in 2013 and operated by Jimmy Chancey. Records show that the company often approached homeowners shortly after a foreclosure sale date was set and got them to sign a quitclaim deed.
Then, the company would try to delay the sale.
"Any successful HOA foreclosure sale prevents (the Chanceys) from successfully renting the properties on a long-term basis because once a property is sold, ownership changes hands and there is no legal basis for continuing to collect rents," the complaint says.
First, lawyers for the Chanceys would file motions to help drag out the foreclosure proceedings. Then, if the property went to auction, an agent for the Chanceys would bid up the price. If the agent was the high bidder, he or she wouldn't pay, forcing the sale to be rescheduled and enabling HOA Problem Solutions to keep collecting rent.
As the Times has reported, the high bidders on several houses linked to the company registered under the phony names Sadie Daquiri, Tori Bleigh and Jeff Stamkos. In each case, they failed to pay, and HOA Problem Solutions retained title to the property.
Tenants, meanwhile, were often left in the dark about pending foreclosures.
In a story last year, WJXT-TV spotlighted the plight of Army Specialist James McCollum who returned to Jacksonville after two tours in Iraq and rented a house he found online. He had paid a total of more than $15,000 in rent to RHMG Inc.— one of Michael Chancey's companies — when he discovered that the bank was foreclosing and that he, his wife and two daughters would have to find another place although they lived on a fixed income and could not afford to move.
"This is our home," McCollum, who is disabled, told the station. "This is where we expected to be."
In cases such as that, Bondi's office says, the Chanceys and their companies "failed to disclose that the property was in foreclosure, failed to make payment on the mortgages as required by Florida statutes, applied rents received to (their) own use and caused tenants to incur expenses" including moving costs and security and utility deposits.
And because tenants are typically named as defendants in foreclosure suits, they also faced "harm to their credit scores," the complaint adds.
The attorney general's office wants the Chanceys, HOA Problem Solutions and others named in the complaint to pay up to $15,000 for each alleged violation of state law and to return rents, security deposits and properties acquired from distressed homeowners. The Chanceys should also be permanently barred from the residential real estate business, including any activities connected with homeowner association foreclosure auctions, the complaint says.
HOA Problem Solutions has taken down its web site and is no longer an active company in Florida, state records show.
"I can only assume they're now laying low, or hopefully getting out of the scamming business entirely," said Clearwater attorney Brandon Mullis, who has represented homeowners associations that tussled with the Chanceys "Maybe the circus packed up and left town."
But while HOA Problem Solutions and three similarly named companies are technically out of business, HOA Problem Solutions 5 is still active. The companies still hold title to numerous houses in the Tampa Bay area and could rent them out until the banks foreclose.
Michael Chancey's RHMG, also remains active, as does a new company, Bravo Home Management, that he started in April.
In its complaint, Bondi's office tacitly acknowledges the difficulty of identifying all of the individuals and entities connected to the Chanceys that might have been involved in alleged violations of state law.
Beneficiaries of as many as 400 land trusts "are unknown to the Attorney General, who therefore sues them under these fictitious names," the complaint says. "(The office) will amend this complaint to add their true name and capacities when they become known."
As for the Tarsha Santiago, she was able to get her house back because her husband, a co-owner, had not signed the quitclaim deed. But Hatley, the Santiagos' attorney, is skeptical that the attorney general's suit will have much impact on stopping the Chanceys.
"I think the American people are creative in they how they make money," she said, "and as you go down the food chain and get to these bottom feeders, if there' s any opportunity to make money, they're going to take it."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate