The Texas Civil Rights Project is calling on local authorities to investigate a string of suspicious housing deals that could cause seniors to lose their homes.
A company called Castro has been approaching Montopolis residents to see if they qualify for free home repairs paid for by the government. According to homeowners, the solicitors urged them to sign contracts granting Castro full legal rights over their homes.
Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Brian McGiverin says the Travis County District Attorney and the Texas Attorney General must investigate immediately.
"There’s nothing to stop them from taking out a loan against the house or selling the house," he says. "At this point, everyone who signed one of these contracts is at serious risk of losing their homes."
McGiverin says Castro's "property restoration agreements" seem harmless, but the contracts contain provisions giving the company power of attorney over the home. Another clause allows Castro to begin collection and even foreclose on the home if residents breach the contract. Elderly homeowners are the most vulnerable victims, McGiverin says.
"They’ve got a giant asset that people want – their homes," he says. "People feel like they can take advantage of them."
Attempts by KUT to contact Castro were not successful.
Montopolis homeowner Ruben Cantu, 52, shared his experience at a press conference organized by the Texas Civil Rights Project Friday. Cantu, who works as a handyman, says his training helped him see that the solicitors were acting suspiciously.
"When the inspectors came by, I sensed that they didn’t even know what they were doing," he says. "They were just walking around taking pictures of this and that. That’s when I caught on."
When he read the contract, Cantu says he was shocked that the company was requesting legal rights over his home to conduct simple repairs. He signed the initial contract agreeing to the home inspection, but he refused to sign the rest when the inspectors returned the next day.
Cantu says he notified his neighborhood association about the inspectors right away. This week, he knocked on every door in his neighborhood to alert other residents who signed the contracts and may be at risk.
"I’ve been here 50 years," he says. "I care about the people who live here in my neighborhood. We work so hard to buy our homes. I acknowledge that a lot of people could lose their homes this way, and I stepped in."
McGiverin says he has not seen the trend in Austin before, but housing scams tend to happen in developing neighborhoods where the property value is expected to rise.
"Frankly what I’m afraid of is that we don’t know how many neighborhoods in the city they’re targeting," McGiverin says. "We know about Montopolis, but we don’t know what could be happening elsewhere. It’s all the more reason why the District Attorney needs to act on this now."