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Cincinnati and VineBrook Homes settle lawsuit over 'public nuisance' business practices

A "for rent" sign on a home in the Pendleton neighborhood.
Becca Costello
A "for rent" sign on a home in the Pendleton neighborhood.

The city of Cincinnati has reached a settlement agreement with VineBrook homes over a lawsuit alleging "public nuisance" business practices by the institutional landlord.

The city sued VineBrook in January 2023, accusing the company of acquiring many single-family homes in low-income neighborhoods and failing to comply with health and building codes. VineBrook responded in February 2024 with a counterclaim, accusing city officials of illegally discriminating against out-of-town landlords.

A joint release published Tuesday says the settlement establishes "a new working relationship for VineBrook Homes and City personnel."

VineBrook owns 734 single-family homes in Cincinnati, according to a spokesperson; that's down from 964 in January 2023, with more than 3,000 in Hamilton County overall.

RELATED: VineBrook, in debt, is ditching Midwest rental properties and facing angry tenants

Neither party admits wrongdoing in the settlement, but each commits to certain actions including a "temporary inspection regime" and changes to VineBrook lease agreements. Learn more about the commitments below.

"We are pleased to reach this resolution after productive communication and coordination with the VineBrook team," said City Manager Sheryl Long in the statement. "Our work here advances the City's goal of ensuring access to quality and affordable housing for our residents."

A city spokesperson said no one from city administration was available for an interview Tuesday.

"VineBrook Homes looks forward to working with the City of Cincinnati to continue our long-standing mission of providing safe, clean and functional homes to our residents at affordable prices," said VineBrook Co-Founder Dana Sprong in the statement. "We are excited for this reset of relations with the City based on mutual cooperation. We are committed to a continued partnership with the City to provide all of our residents with the best housing experience in Cincinnati."

A VineBrook spokesperson said there would be no further public comment.

Mayor Aftab Pureval provided the following statement: "I’m grateful to our Law Department for securing an agreement that meets our City’s goals: protecting tenants, ensuring safe affordable housing, and making sure property owners comply with their responsibilities. Moving forward, we will continue to use every tool at our disposal — including through the courts — to protect tenants throughout Cincinnati."

Cincinnati vs. 'predatory landlords'

The city has sued other large, out-of-town landlords, including Williamsburg Apartments and, most recently, Florida-based REM Capital.

Mayor Aftab Pureval is a frequent critic of the business model. It came up often during City Council's consideration of the Connected Communities Zoning reform.

"I have made it very clear that if you are an out-of-town, predatory landlord or institutional investor that is looking to come to Cincinnati and use predatory tactics against our most vulnerable population, I will take you to court, I will sue you," Pureval said on a recent episode of Cincinnati Edition. "You are not welcome in Cincinnati. That's not just rhetoric. You can ask those other institutional investors."

RELATED: Cincinnati sues Florida-based landlord over 'substandard' living conditions

VineBrook's counterclaim earlier this year says Pureval has repeatedly announced his hostility for "out-of-state investors" and "boasts about the City's plans to oust them from Cincinnati's housing market."

The court document says the city has no desire to actually improve access to housing, and is instead "interested in scoring political points, chasing headlines, and spreading misinformation."

The settlement agreement includes a non-disparagement clause, where both parties agree not to publicly criticize the other; it specifically identifies VineBrook Homes, but does not include "out-of-town landlords" more broadly.

Vinebrook settlement

The settlement agreement is close to 40 pages; see a full copy at the end of this article.

Jeff Lane of Prodigy Properties will be the official monitor for the agreement, monitoring compliance of both the city and VineBrook.

The city agrees to not discriminate against VineBrook or to treat it differently from other owners of residential rental properties. The city also agrees to conducting at least two "training and educational sessions" for certain employees about not treating VineBrook differently. Those employees include city code enforcement inspectors, Greater Cincinnati Water Works customer service representatives, and City Manager's Office communications staff.

The city and VineBrook will participate in a "temporary inspection regime" where the city has the right to inspect 125 properties, with escalating tiers of inspections if the more than 25% of the properties are deemed "non-compliant" with building and health codes. Learn more on pages 14-18 of the agreement below.

VineBrook, meanwhile, agrees to make several changes to lease agreements moving forward (starting 60 days from now). For example, a stipulation that "small cost repairs" are the responsibility of the tenant, and a claim that VineBrook is not responsible for providing temporary housing if the property is uninhabitable. Learn more on pages 6-11 of the agreement below.

Updated: June 11, 2024 at 4:44 PM EDT
This article has been updated with a statement from the mayor.
Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.