ORLANDO, Fla. — Imagine paying thousands of dollars up front to rent a home only to find out it isn’t even safe to live there. That’s what former tenants told Action 9 they’ve experienced with a company that’s listing homes for rent across Central Florida.
“See where she plugged the plug in the wall, sir? It caught fire,” Dorothy Hamilton said as she pointed to a charred outlet.
She said the rental home looked like a great deal when she saw it listed online by Sunbelt LLC.
“We sleep with masks on because we’re scared bugs might get up our noses,” Hamilton explained.
According to Hamilton it wasn’t until she paid around $3,000 up front that she was able to get a look inside.
“Instantly I knew I had been had, when I walked through the door because it looked different than what it was online,” Hamilton said.
She found windows that wouldn’t open, no working smoke detectors and a bathroom light that can’t be turned off.
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Just days after she moved in, the county condemned the building, deeming it unfit for human occupancy.
Hamilton was eventually evicted for withholding rent and hasn’t been able to get any money back.
Action 9 found code enforcement has been called to that rental property at least eight times for complaints since 2019.
“For at least three years, we’ve been getting more and more calls about people having issues with either the property or their eviction,” Jeffrey Hussey said.
Hussey is an attorney with Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida. That organization helps those in need with legal issues.
He noted the initial rental price online may seem low but said contracts he’s seen for Sunbelt LLC properties are riddled with extra fees and make tenants responsible for most repairs and problems.
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“Whether it be the sewer backs up or the roof leaks, all those types of things, he’s saying it is the tenant’s responsibility to get them fixed,” Hussey explained.
Action 9 heard similar complaints from renters since 2021 about a company called Florida Beach Coast LLC.
“Horrible condition. There’s no way you could rent something like that to somebody,” William Simmons said.
Simmons refused to move into a home after paying $2,400 up front for a three-month lease.
Turns out the man who owned Florida Beach Coast LLC is now behind Sunbelt LLC. His name is Ben Spivey, and his rental properties are a world away from where he lives, in a lakefront Windermere home valued at nearly $3,000,000.
Jeff Deal went to his home for answers, but no one answered the door, and he has not returned his calls.
Spivey was a controversial dentist with a practice in Ocala. The state department of health repeatedly suspended his license for poor patient care and eventually permanently revoked it.
“Do you feel like he’s just trying to exploit desperate people?” Deal asked Hussey.
“That’s what it looks like. I mean, I don’t know the man. I’ve never met the man, but on paper, that’s what it certainly looks like,” Hussey replied.
Hussey doesn’t believe what happened to Hamilton is an anomaly.
In fact, on that same property, there were four evictions in the last year. One of the former tenants evicted was Bianniris Tejada.
“I think it’s literally legal robbery,” Tejada said.
She told us she paid thousands of dollars up front but admits she didn’t read the lease carefully to notice all the extra fees, and the rental price ballooned from $700 to around $1,200.
“They tried to convince you to oh, just put as much as you can, and then I only gave them $1,000, and they evicted me for not putting the other $200,” Tejada said.
Tejada wonders if the cycle of collecting large fees up front, evicting tenants and bringing in new tenants is an intentional way to boost profits.
“Do it again, you get another $3,000 for the next person. So, it actually potentially could work to his advantage and have these tenants not pay and have them get evicted,” Hussey said.
Be careful before you sign a lease with any company. Read it and contact someone who can help you look it over, perhaps an attorney to make sure you’re not signing your rights away.
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