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Victim of Detroit’s ‘fake landlord’ scam gets chance to buy her home

The scam — exposed in an investigation by NBC News and Outlier Media — affects as many as 1 in 10 tenants facing eviction in Detroit, but perpetrators rarely face consequences.
June Walker outside her home.
A donor has agreed to help June Walker buy her Detroit home for $45,000.Sylvia Jarrus for NBC News

DETROIT — A grandmother who faced eviction here last year after she fell victim to a “fake landlord” scam is getting the chance to buy her home, lawyers connected to her case said.

June Walker, 65, signed a rent-to-own lease on a three-bedroom bungalow in 2019 and spent the next two years fixing it up, paying $550 a month to a man who claimed to work for her landlord. 

She thought she’d bought the house until June, when the home’s actual owner — a Florida-based real estate company called Boccafe LLC — filed to evict her. Walker’s case was one of several NBC News and Outlier Media reported on last fall in an investigation of the scam, in which people sell or rent vacant homes they don’t own. At the time, Walker was worried she’d become homeless. 

Those worries subsided this week, when an agreement filed in Detroit’s 36th District housing court paved the way to end the eviction. Boccafe pledged to sell Walker the house for $45,000, which Walker will pay using money from a donor who read about her case on NBC News. 

The deal calls for Walker to get the deed to her house by June 30. 

“I’m elated,” Walker said. “Hopefully this will open doors or help other people who are going through this or keep them from going through something like this.” 

The donor, a Texas entrepreneur who grew up in Detroit, asked not to be identified. 

Boccafe bought Walker’s house on the east side of Detroit for $25,000 last year, records show. The agreement also requires Walker to pay Boccafe $700 a month in rent dating back to last June, which her lawyer said will come from federal Covid assistance funds. And Boccafe agreed to make some repairs.

“We had a lot of people who were all trying to find a win-win situation,” Boccafe attorney Randy LeVasseur said. “We found one, and we’re happy to move forward.”

June Walker, 65, faced eviction from a home she thought she owned. Sylvia Jarrus for NBC News

One of Walker’s lawyers, Ted Phillips, the executive director of the United Community Housing Coalition, a Detroit housing advocacy organization, was glad to see Walker’s case resolved but said most victims of the “fake landlord” scam lose their homes. 

The scam has flourished in Detroit, where a foreclosure crisis devastated homeownership, leaving tens of thousands of properties vacant or in the hands of out-of-town investors. It’s fueled by discriminatory lending practices and limited access to conventional home loans in the predominantly Black, high-poverty city. Housing lawyers say the scam affects as many as 1 in 10 Detroiters facing eviction.

But the perpetrators have rarely faced prosecution. Phillips and other attorneys said that they haven’t been a priority for law enforcement and that the scammers can be hard to identify because they typically use fake names and temporary phone numbers. 

Walker reported her scam to police in November, and police recently filed paperwork with the Wayne County prosecutor’s office to issue an arrest warrant, a police spokesman said. 

A spokeswoman for Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said the warrant was being reviewed and declined to comment further. 

Several local elected officials have promised funding and legislation to educate Detroiters to avoid the scam and to hold out-of-state property owners accountable for what happens in their homes, but no bills have been introduced. 

Phillips said the attention the scam has gotten has raised awareness about challenges facing renters in Detroit, contributing in part to more than $800,000 in grants his organization recently received to help buy Detroiters out of predatory land contracts.  

Telling stories like Walker’s “makes it easier to come back and say, ‘We need to prevent stuff like this from happening,’” Phillips said.