Residents Evicted From Homes Obtained in Squatter’s Program

Deceptive practices complaints filed against Maywood businessman accuse him of collecting money for properties he did not own

The two-story vacant house on South 6th Avenue in Maywood caught Latisha Smith's attention. The grey single family home features a large backyard and a garage gate. And the property sits close to the neighborhood school.

Smith "really, really" wanted that house.

"I was excited," Smith said. "My kids wanted their own backyard."

And for one month they called it "home". Smith and her family moved in this summer and turned on the utilities. She said she spent about $1,200 on a plumbing retrofit.

But Smith did not own the house. She was not renting it, either. She was squatting. And once the village found out about it, police said they asked Smith and her family to leave the house because they were trespassing.

"I love that house and they just came and they snatched it from under me," Smith said.

Squatting is generally considered illegal in Illinois. According to state law, the period required for a claim of adverse possession is 20 years.

However, Smith said she is the victim. And the Maywood Police Department now agrees.

Smith said she had attended a housing seminar months earlier hosted by James Gardner, owner of Mastermind Realty. She later signed up for a so-called squatters program and received an official-looking membership card.

"Because it seemed legit. It just seemed real," Smith said.

According to the membership agreement, members would pay an initial fee of $350, along with a $200 monthly fee. In return, members would receive a list of housing opportunities located within the area, money-saving and credit repair tips, and access to free seminars on how to theoretically live rent-free.

Gardner, a long-time Maywood realtor who said he once considered a run for mayor, told NBC 5 Investigates his goal is to help the community and families.

"We don't want to see people on the streets with no place to stay, so what we do is provide an opportunity," Gardner said.

Smith said she received a list of vacant properties and chose the house on South 6th Avenue. She said it had been vacant for more than a year.

"I was like, it was any house I can choose from, I can get it," Smith recalled.

Gardner would not comment on the specifics of the program or how members gained access to the properties. Smith claimed she hired a locksmith.

It is not known yet known how many clients signed up for Gardner's program. However, Maywood's acting village manager said the village has been in contact with at least three program members who were asked to leave the properties.

Maywood Police are investigating several complaints against Gardner. In one case, Gardner was charged with deceptive practices. According to the police report, Gardner's company collected rent in the amount of $700 for a vacant property the company did not own.

In another police report, a victim related that she received information from Gardner that he was granted permission by the Maywood Police Department and the Village of Maywood to allow her to move into a vacant property.

The village said inspections should have been performed on properties and that the program raised a public safety concern.

Gardner declined to comment on the complaints filed against him. But he said he informed program members that they did not own the properties and that sooner or later the rightful owners would return.

Gardner is due back in court on the deceptive practices charge next month. He said he was surprised and disappointed by the backlash.

"I'm trying to do a service to the people and to our community that I live in, that I do business in," Gardner said. "But it's something that I have to deal with," Gardner said.

The Maywood Police Department acknowledged the squatters' motivation.

"In some cases, people are desperate for housing and if they can find a place where they can lay their head for a couple days or months, than that's what they'll do," said Maywood Police Detective Lawrence Connors.

Police said in some cases they are trying to help the squatters by pointing them to social service agencies.

Smith is relying on family members for housing in the meantime. And she said she's not giving up on her dream of having her own house one day.

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