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A pandemic, a motel without power and a potentially terrifying glimpse of Orlando’s future

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Rose Jusino was waking up after working the graveyard shift at Taco Bell when a friend knocked on her door at the Star Motel. The electric company trucks were back. The workers were about to shut off the power again.

The 17-year-old slammed her door and cranked the air conditioning as high as it would go, hoping that a final blast of cold air might make the 95-degree day more bearable. She then headed outside to the motel’s overgrown courtyard, a route that took her past piles of maggot-infested food that had been handed out by do-gooders and tossed aside by the motel’s residents. Several dozen of them were gathered by a swimming pool full of fetid brown water, trying to figure out their next move.

The motel’s owner had abandoned the property to its residents back in December, and now the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic was turning an already desperate strip of America — just down the road from Disney World — into something ever more dystopian. The motel’s residents needed to pay the power company $1,500.

“This is the third time they’re back here!” one man fumed as the power company workers, protected by sheriff’s deputies, pulled the meters from the electrical boxes. “The third!”

“We a bunch of sorry ass men!” shouted a former felon who had served prison time on cocaine and battery convictions. “If our kids go without light, it’s because of our sorry asses.” He castigated his neighbors for spending their stimulus checks on drugs and alcohol, and then peeled a $20 from a three-inch stack of cash.

“Who else? Who else?” he called out as he dropped the bill on the sidewalk. “We need money!”

Soon the pile was growing, and the Star residents who gave were angrily accusing those who hadn’t of freeloading. “Nobody trusts nobody,” yelled a woman in a tank top and red pajama pants who tossed a $50 bill onto the sidewalk.

“I paid my rent,” shouted someone, who tossed in a $10 bill.

An elderly woman covered in bedbug bites threw $1.88 into the pot. “It’s all I got,” she said.

They were still $525.12 short.

Rose hung on the edge of the crowd, thinking about the $40 she had stashed in her bedside table. The motel she called “hell on earth” and “this malnourished place” had been her home for the past nine months.

She worried about her 65-year-old grandmother, who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and needed power for her daily oxygen treatments. She worried about her mother, who suffered from bipolar disorder and was forgoing her medicine to save money. She worried about her neighbors, whose tempers were already frayed by the stress of the pandemic, joblessness and boredom. Gunshots at the motel were becoming a regular occurrence. The power company had cut off the motel two times earlier in the summer. Rose knew that no electricity made everything worse.

She walked back to her room for the $40, threw it on the pile and headed to another shift at Taco Bell.

When she returned home in the evening, the power was back on, but she knew it wouldn’t last long. The next bill, which included unpaid charges going back to March, was for $9,000 and it was due in five days.

The aging motels along Florida’s Highway 192 have long been barometers of a fragile economy. In good times they drew budget-conscious tourists from China, South America and elsewhere, whose dollars helped to pay the salaries of legions of low-wage service workers; the people who made one of the world’s largest tourism destinations — “the most magical place on earth” — run.

In tough times, the motels degenerated into shelters of last resort in a city where low-income housing shortages were among the most severe in the nation and the social safety net was collapsing. Now they were fast becoming places where it was possible to glimpse what a complete social and economic collapse might look like in America.

The pandemic had heaped crisis on top of crisis. The 2008 housing collapse and recession had caused the tourist market to tank at the exact moment the foreclosure crisis was forcing thousands of homeowners and overburdened renters from their homes. Struggling motel owners began renting rooms to the only customers they could find, those who had no place else to go.

In the decade that followed, the tourists returned to Orlando by the millions. Executive salaries at companies such as Disney and Universal soared. So did local real estate prices, buoyed by a booming market for gated, luxury vacation homes.

But almost nothing was done to address the reality that many service workers had emerged from the recession saddled with stagnant wages, bad credit or eviction records that made it nearly impossible for them to rent an apartment and return to a normal life. Many spent much of the past decade stuck in motels with restful names — the Paradise, the Palm, the Shining Light, the Star, the Magic Castle — that belied an increasingly grim reality for both the owners and tenants who found themselves trapped together.

At the Palm, scars of the past recession and the current collapse were evident in the motel’s cramped lobby, which was full of broken air-conditioning units and mattresses stacked to the ceiling. A dozen loaves of donated, day-old bread sat on a table by the front door.

Next door at the Paradise, a leak in the roof had caused black mold to bloom across the walls of one of the rooms. Cockroaches scurried across the floors of others. At the motel’s front desk, a sign warned guests that “due to shortages” there was a charge for toilet paper: $1 a roll.

“We can’t afford to fix anything right now,” the clerk confided.

The owner, who had emigrated from Bangladesh, complained that more than three-quarters of his 40 guests were weeks or months behind on their room bills. Many had jobs or were collecting unemployment insurance, he said, but were refusing to pay because they were protected by the state’s eviction moratorium.

“This kind of business never brings good people,” the owner said, “only bad people.”

Up and down the highway, motel owners told the same story of mounting bills, customers who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for their rooms and buildings that were slowly falling apart because there was no money to fix them.

The Star Motel’s owner abandoned the property in December. Residents have been left to run the place. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Eve Edelheit

The worst of them all was the Star. A six-foot-high wall of trash bisected the parking lot, and children rode their bicycles through big puddles of raw sewage that spilled from a broken pipe. When Rose’s family landed at the motel earlier this year, after a few years in a house followed by a string of increasingly dilapidated motels, she felt as if she had hit “rock bottom.” The hot water didn’t work, and the toilet was clogged with hypodermic needles and crack pipes, she said. Rose’s grandmother and her 12-year-old brother, J.J., shared one bed. Her mother and stepfather took a second bed. Rose had a mattress to herself.

Rose’s grades suffered, she got into a fight at school and was suspended from her high school’s JROTC program, which had been a source of stability and pride in her life.

In April she started a gofundme account, hoping it might help her escape the Star. “Moving from hotel to hotel just want to be stable with my family,” she wrote in her pitch. But it drew no donations.

A few weeks later, she moved into an abandoned room near the front of the property that cost her $100 a week. Her brother, who had grown weary of sharing a bed with his grandmother, upgraded to a mattress of his own.

Rose cleaned the dog feces off the room’s floor and scrubbed her new room’s soiled mattress with bleach and Pine-Sol. Then she bombed the place with bug spray to get rid of the roaches and tracked down a working air conditioner from another room.

Electric company workers restore power to the Star Motel after residents pool their money together in July to pay a delinquent utility bill. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Eve Edelheit

By early August, it was clear that it was just a matter of time before the motel was permanently shuttered. The power company had its demands, and the water company wanted $57,000 by January.

Some residents bought gas-powered generators. Some searched nearby trailer parks for a place that might take them. Others tried to blot out their anxiety with drugs and liquor. Rose waited and tried not to worry.

“Just gotta survive,” she said.

For much of the past year she had watched a gated community, consisting of 1,000 vacation homes, take shape just across the six-lane highway from the Star. All the while, her family sank deeper into poverty. The lesson for Rose was inescapable.

“The economy just keeps going up, up, up, and the minimum wage is staying the same. So how do they expect people to be able to pay their rent and pay for their car? That’s why more people are ending up in these hotels. There’s not enough resources out there to help us be able to help ourselves.”

A few miles west of the Star Motel on Highway 192, the Rev. Mary Lee Downey was reaching the same conclusion. The pandemic, she worried, was pushing the Orlando area to the brink of a collapse far more serious than the 2008 recession.

That recession had led her to start the Community Hope Center, which had helped hundreds of families escape the motels. Still, the total number of motel families never really shrank despite the decade long run of economic growth.

What was happening at the Star drove home the problem. Many families had filled out forms seeking help from a program administered by Downey’s organization that would pay two months rent and their security deposit if they could find an apartment they could afford. “Trying to find rental or anything to get us out of here,” wrote Maykayla Harper, who was 20, pregnant and earning about $9 an hour at Burger King.

Rose’s family had filled out the same form.

The problem: There were almost no apartments for people earning less than $25 an hour. To Downey it often seemed as if everyone – local government officials, residents at the Star, congregants at her church – expected her 19-person charity to fix a problem that had festered for more than a decade.

A filled dumpster overflows at the Star Motel in Kissimmee, Fla. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Eve Edelheit

Before the pandemic, Downey had planned to build a 200-unit apartment complex on 5.5 acres that the Methodist Church gave her in 2018. All of the apartments would be reserved for the area’s lowest wage earners.

Downey estimated that she would need to raise about $15 million to make it work. But this summer, just as the economy was sinking, a consulting company that she had hired to study the feasibility of a fundraising effort told her that she wouldn’t be able to pull in more than $3.5 million.

“Maybe we should consider buying the Star,” one of her board members suggested.

Downey quickly concluded it would cost far too much to buy and renovate the decrepit motel. Instead she suggested they consider buying the Magic Castle, a shabby, purple 107-room motel where Rose’s family had stayed off and on over the years.

The owners, who purchased it in 2005, were asking $4.7 million, more than Downey could afford. But she thought that if they were willing to be flexible on the price, she might be able to buy the motel, rehab the rooms and use them as temporary bridge housing.

As word spread that Downey might buy the Magic Castle, some motel owners questioned whether she was tough enough to kick out drug abusers and other problem tenants. “Mary has a heart of gold. She’s tireless,” said one motel owner who has worked with Downey. “But it isn’t the 99% nice that runs a hotel. It’s the 1% nasty.”

Downey had different reservations. If the recession persisted, wages stagnated and the unemployment rate stayed high, the families she took in might be stuck in rooms for years on end. She had started her charity to get families out of motel rooms. Buying a motel felt a bit like surrender.

Five days after the residents raised the $1,500 to turn the power back on at the Star, it went off for good. No one from the state or county government showed up to help the motel residents, some of whom were too old and infirm to survive the blistering August heat for more than a day or two.

Items and debris left in abandoned rooms at the Lake Cecile Inn in Kissimmee, Fla. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Eve Edelheit

The list of people and agencies that had abandoned the Star as it descended into near-anarchy and filth was long and growing. The owner had disappeared in January. Osceola County Public School employees stopped visits to the motel around the same time. It was too dangerous, a school official said.

The county’s Human Services Department said there was little it could do to help the people stuck there. The county didn’t have any homeless shelters, and local officials weren’t going to spend money to help people find refuge in safer motels.

“We want them out of the hotels,” said Celestia McCloud, the county’s director of human services.

Even law enforcement officials seemed to avoid the Star. Sheriff’s deputies provided security for power company officials when they turned off the electricity. But a few days earlier, when an enraged resident fired a gun at one of his neighbors, it took deputies more than 45 minutes to arrive at the motel.

On the day the lights went out for good, one of the few people who came to the Star to help was Barbie Austria, who runs a small homeless ministry out of a black Dodge pickup truck. While Downey’s Community Hope Center worked on the larger issues that trapped families in the motels, Austria’s focus was narrower. On the day the power went out, her priority was making sure no one died.

Austria, 58, wore her long black hair in a single braid and carried a loaded pistol and extra magazine in her fanny pack. When she felt she was being watched at the Star, she would quietly place her hand on its grip.

Her first stop was Room 129, where Richard Sheldon, 82, lived with his bedridden partner, Allyson Jones. She knew that Sheldon and Jones couldn’t survive more than a day or two in the heat.

Sheldon’s journey to the Star had begun six years earlier with his wife’s death from lung cancer. In the months that followed, his discount ticket business went belly up, and the bank foreclosed on his three-bedroom house. Since then, home had been a series of increasingly run-down motels, ending with the Star.

Most mornings Sheldon made his way across the motel’s parking lot, his aluminum walker scraping the blacktop, to the bus stop where he caught a ride to Walmart. There he usually bought two tins of dog food for his Chihuahuas and a 12-ounce bottle of Caliber vodka for Jones, who downed the booze to dull the pain of several recent strokes.

“It’s been hard on me taking care of her,” Sheldon said. “But it’d be harder on her if I didn’t do it.”

Resident Richard Sheldon, 82 walks to Walmart with his walker at the Star Motel in Kissimmee, Fla. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Eve Edelheit

Sheldon and Jones brought in only about $1,500 a month in Social Security and disability payments, which meant that most motels were beyond their budget. Austria found a $1,000-a-month motel that would take them and promised that she would help Sheldon and Jones with the bill until she could find them a cheaper option.

A dozen residents gathered to help Sheldon load his possessions into Austria’s truck and tell him goodbye. An elderly woman from Room 127 hugged him, tears streaming down her face, her eye blackened from a fight earlier that day.

“You got to go where it’s okay,” she cried.

“We’ll miss you, Mister Richard,” said a mother who was raising two young boys in a room on the second floor and spent many evenings stumbling around the parking lot in a drug-induced haze.

“I imagine I’m gone for good,” Sheldon told her.

“He’ll be back,” another neighbor muttered under her breath.

Austria maxed out her credit card helping a few Star residents move into safer motels: a single mom from Puerto Rico and her 3-year-old daughter; an elderly man who served time in prison decades earlier and spent his evenings sweeping the sidewalk in front of his room; the young pregnant woman who worked at Burger King and had filled out the form for the Community Hope Center’s housing program.

Each day Austria visited the Star, new people pleaded with her to get them out. She turned down a 61-year-old woman whose room was thick with swarming flies. Her husband had died in the motel room earlier in the year. “This is not me. I’m a neat freak,” the woman pleaded as her 5-year-old granddaughter watched. “I just get depressed.”

Austria decided that the woman’s problems were too severe to dump on a struggling motel owner. The toll of it all was wearing on her. She had been working in the motels on Highway 192 for more than a decade but had never seen a situation as desperate as the Star.

“I feel lost,” she said.

Later that evening, a county commissioner called her for help hauling away the growing hill of rotting garbage in the Star parking lot. Austria had organized a similar effort a few weeks earlier, handing out shovels, marshaling volunteers and finding a company to haul away the trash.

This time she told the county commissioner she wouldn’t help.

“We don’t need another trash pickup,” Austria said. “We need to abandon ship.”

After the power went out at the Star, Rose’s family spent the last of their savings on a week’s stay at the Magic Castle, where the rooms were going for $39 a night. The plan was to buy time until they could come up with a plan.

Her stepfather had applied for a dishwashing job at Chili’s but didn’t get it. Rose was temporarily out of work, too. One of the employees on her shift at Taco Bell had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and she couldn’t go back to work until she proved she was virus free.

“Everything has got a waiting list or costs too much money,” she texted her manager.

Her boss replied with an address of a testing site that was 11 miles away. But neither Rose nor her parents had a car. So, it wasn’t an option.

Rose Jusino helps pack up her family’s room at The Magic Castle motel as they prepare to move back into the Star Motel after a generator has been provided to them by Barbie Austria. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Eve Edelheit

Now she was sitting alone on the Magic Castle’s third-floor landing, a quiet perch that overlooked the motel’s empty parking lot and swimming pool. Another steamy Florida morning was turning into another scorching day.

She had moved to the Orlando area with her parents when she was just a toddler. Her family’s house outside Providence, R.I., was purchased to make way for an airport expansion.

“I’d love to go back to my hometown,” her mother had said earlier that morning.

“Our hometown,” Rose corrected.

“But they don’t have nothing,” her mom continued.

For a few years, when Rose’s grandmother was working as a manager at the Rodeway Inn, they all lived in a small house in nearby Poinciana, Fla. Her neighbors owned a trampoline and took her out on a water scooter. Rose had a friend who lived in a house so big that it seemed like “a mansion.”

“I thought we’d be there forever,” she said.

But her grandmother suffered a heart attack and the family income shrank to about $2,000 a month, the sum total of her mother’s and grandmother’s disability checks. Home became a series of motel rooms. Rose celebrated her 15th birthday at the Duo Boutique Hotel. Her parents couldn’t afford a present that year so her stepfather, an amateur tattoo artist, offered his services as a gift. “Don’t get anything stupid, and don’t get it where anyone can see it,” Rose’s mother warned.

Rose pulled the Gideon Bible from the nightstand and flipped through it for inspiration before landing on Jeremiah 29:13. “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” The verse grabbed her like the lyric to a great pop song. “It was so clear,” she said. “It made perfect sense.” Her stepfather inked it across her back.

Her plan was to finish her senior year of high school and enlist in the Air Force. The previous summer she had visited Robins Air Force Base in Georgia with her high school’s JROTC program and thought “it was like heaven.”

The gyms where the troops lifted weights and played basketball were bigger than any she had seen. The meals were cheap and plentiful. “I got a plate and figured that it was going to be at least $13,” she said, “but it was only $2.” Her squadron won an award for being the best on the base.

The military offered her something that had eluded her for most of her life. “It’s a home wherever you’re at, and I’ve always wanted that,” Rose said. “That’s what the military gives you – stability, hope, more than a lot of things can offer.”

Her family had four days left at the Magic Castle. Rose’s mom was thinking about sending Rose, her brother and grandmother to live with Rose’s 21-year-old sister in Orlando. For now, though, home was still the Star, where residents were fighting over generators and gunshots rang out nightly.

Rose Jusino moves back into her room at the Star Motel. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Eve Edelheit

Rose needed to pick up some clean clothes from her room, so she and her brother headed off to the motel, which was about a half-mile down the highway. They passed a woman begging for change at a traffic light, stores hawking discount Disney T-shirts, an Asian massage parlor and a recently shuttered Quality Inn, where they had briefly stayed in January.

“This is the crackhead area,” Rose said. “Up there is more the prostitute’s spot.”

She pushed open the door to Room 236 and was greeted by a blast of hot air that smelled of cat urine, cockroaches and mold. She didn’t flinch. Inside, Rose had tacked a Puerto Rican flag to one of the walls. A broken television sat atop her dresser along with a plastic trophy from Taco Bell that praised her “hard work and dedication.”

“Only five or six people out of 30 got one,” Rose said of the trophy.

Her brother eyed the room’s silent air conditioner. “That thing used to blow,” he said. “When it came on it felt good in here.”

For Rose, the hardest part of living at the Star was the feeling of isolation. Rose’s co-workers across the street at the Taco Bell wouldn’t go near the motel. Nor would her ex-girlfriend, who had broken up with her right before the pandemic hit. Some days Rose blamed her life at the motel and her inability to afford “nice things” for the failed relationship.

“People come and people go,” Rose said. “Money comes and money goes. Nothing is forever.”

“Family is forever,” her brother replied.

“No,” Rose said. “Not even family.”

She stared out her window at the piles of rotting trash, roving pit bulls and the long-abandoned swimming pool. Her brother dashed outside to meet a church bus that was giving away free lunches in the motel’s circular driveway.

The heat was stifling. Rose mopped her face with her T-shirt. “Damn,” she said. “We’re stuck.”

As summer wore on, trash piles at the Star continued to grow. The raw sewage from a broken pipe spread farther across the parking lot. Someone ransacked Rose’s room and stole her clothes.

Finally, in early September, Rose’s parents found a way out, at least for now. A Kissimmee-based real estate agent, who provides aid to motel families and had helped them in the past, paid $3,000 in deposits and application fees for an extended-stay suite in a run-down resort community. Their new landlord agreed to overlook the fact that Rose’s parents had poor credit and had just started new $9-an-hour fast food jobs.

The rent for the new place was $1,350 a month. For it to last, Rose’s stepfather, who was starting at Burger King and Boston Market, would need to work 50 to 60 hours a week. Rose’s mother, who can only work part time because she collects disability, needed 20 hours a week.

Neither of her parents could afford many sick days. Nor could they absorb any unexpected expenses. Rose wanted to go back to work, too, just in case they needed the money. But her mother pressed her to focus on her grades.

“This is your senior year, the big year,” she told her. “Don’t do that to yourself.”

For the first time in months, Rose had a clean, safe place to sleep. She didn’t have to worry about gunshots or the electricity going out. For the moment, she wasn’t totally stuck.

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Bad Credit

Inside the Highly Profitable and Secretive World of Payday Lenders

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Illustration by Sarah Maxwell, Folio Art

When Bridget Davis got started in the family’s payday lending business in 1996, there was just one Check ’n Go store in Cincinnati. She says she did it all: customer service, banking duties, even painting walls.

The company had been established two years earlier by her husband, Jared Davis, and was growing rapidly. There were 100 Check ’n Go locations by 1997, when Jared and Bridget (née Byrne) married and traveled the country together looking for more locations to open storefront outlets. They launched another 400 stores in 1998, mostly in strip malls and abandoned gas stations in low-income minority neighborhoods where the payday lending target market abounds. Bridget drove the supply truck and helped select locations and design the store layouts.

But Jared soon fired his wife for committing what may be the ultimate sin in the payday lending business: She forgave a customer’s debt. “A young woman came to pay her $20 interest payment,” Bridget wrote in court documents last year during divorce proceedings from Jared. “I pulled her file, calculated that she had already paid $320 to date on a principle [sic] loan of $100. I told her she was paid in full. [Jared] fired me, stating, ‘We are here to make money, not help customers manage theirs. If you can’t do that, you can’t work here.’ ”

Photograph by Brittany Dexter

It’s a business philosophy that pays well, especially if you’re charging fees and interest rates of 400 percent that can more than triple the amount of the loan in just five months—the typical time most payday borrowers need to repay their debt, says the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit organization focused on public policy. Cincinnati-based Check ’n Go now operates more than 1,100 locations in 25 states as well as an internet lending service with 24/7 access from the comfort of your own home, according to its website. Since its founding, the company has conducted more than 50 million transactions.

What the website doesn’t say is that many, if not most, of those transactions were for small loans of $50 to $500 to working people trying to scrape by and pay their bills. In most states—including Ohio, until it reformed its payday lending laws in 2019—borrowers typically fork over more than one-third of their paycheck to meet the deadline for repayment, usually in two weeks. To help guarantee repayment, borrowers turn over access to their checking account or deposit a check with the lender. In states that don’t offer protection, customers go back again and again to borrow more money from the same payday lender, typically up to 10 times, driving themselves into a debt trap that can lead to bankruptcy.

Jared and Bridget Davis are embroiled in a nasty court battle related to his 2019 divorce filing in Hamilton County Domestic Relations Court. Thousands of pages of filings and 433 docket entries by April 26 offer the public a rare glimpse into the business operations of Check ’n Go, one of Cincinnati’s largest privately-owned companies, as well as personal lifestyles funded by payday lending.

The company cleared $77 million in profit in 2018, a figure that dipped the following year to $55 million, according to an audit by Deloitte. That drop in revenue may have something to do with the payday lending reform laws and interest rate caps passed recently in Ohio as well as a growing number of other states.


The day-to-day business transactions that provide such profit are a depressing window into how those who live on the edge of financial security are often stuck with few options for improving their situations. If a borrower doesn’t repay or refinance his or her original loan, a lender like Check ’n Go deposits the guarantee check and lets it bounce, causing the borrower to incur charges for the bounced check and eventually lose his or her checking account, says Nick DiNardo, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati. After two missed payments, payday lenders usually turn over the debt to a collection agency. If the collection agency fails to collect the full amount of the original loan as well as all fees and interest, it goes to court to garnish the borrower’s wages.

That devastating experience is all too familiar to Anthony Smith, a 60-year-old Wyoming resident who says he was laid off from several management positions over a 20-year period. He turned to payday lenders as his credit rating dropped and soon found himself caught in a debt trap that took him years to escape.

Two things happened in 2019, Smith says, that turned around his financial fortunes. First, he found a stable manufacturing job with the Formica Company locally, and then he took his mother’s advice and opened a credit union account. GE Credit Union not only gave him a reasonable loan to pay off his $2,500 debt but also issued him his first credit card in a decade. “I had been a member [of the credit union] for just two months, and I had a credit rating of 520. Can you imagine?” he says. Smith says he is now debt-free for the first time in 10 years.

Consumer advocates say Check ’n Go is one of the biggest payday lending operations in the nation. But knowing its exact ranking is difficult because most payday lending companies, including Check ’n Go and its parent company CNG Holdings, are privately held and reluctant to disclose their finances.

Brothers Jared and David Davis own the majority of the company’s privately held stock. David bought into the company in 1995, but CNG got its game-changing infusion of capital from the brothers’ father, Allen Davis, who retired as CEO of then-Provident Bank in 1998. Allen sold off $37 million in stock options and essentially became CNG’s bank and consultant.

By 2005, however, the sons were part of a public court battle against their father. Allen accused Jared and David of treating his millions in CNG stock as compensation instead of a transfer from his ex-wife (and the brothers’ mother), sticking him with a $13 million tax bill. In turn, the brothers accused Allen of putting his mistress and his yacht captain on the company payroll, taking $1.2 million in fees without board approval, and leading the company into ventures that lost Check ’n Go a lot of money. Several years of legal fighting later, the IRS was still demanding its $13 million. CNG officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Jared and David split $22 million in profit from CNG in 2018 and, according to the Deloitte audit, CNG’s balance sheet showed another $42 million that could be split between the two brothers in 2019. Jared, however, elected not to receive his $21 million distribution “in order to create this artificial financial crisis and shelter millions of dollars from an equitable split between us,” according to Bridget’s divorce filing.

Worse, she claims, Jared said they would be responsible for paying taxes out of their personal accounts rather than from CNG’s company earnings, making her personally responsible for half of the $5.5 million in taxes for 2019. She believes it wasn’t happenstance that $5.5 million was wired to Jared’s private bank account in December of that same year. Bridget has refused to sign the joint tax return, and Jared filed a complaint with the court saying a late tax filing would cost them $1 million in penalties and missed tax opportunities.

“For the duration of our marriage and to the present, Jared has full and complete control of all money paid to us from various investments we have made in addition to our main source of income, CNG,” Bridget wrote in her motion. She suspects that Jared, without her knowledge or consent, plowed the money for their taxes and from other sources of income into Black Diamond Group, the fund that invests in the Agave & Rye restaurant chain. Beyond the original restaurant opened in Covington in 2018, “they have opened four other locations in one year,” she wrote, including Louisville and Lexington. (The ninth location opened in Hamilton this spring.) Agave & Rye’s website touts its Mexican fare as “a chef-inspired take on the standard taco, elevating this simple food into something epic!”

In his response, Jared wrote, “We have very limited regular sources of income.” He says he isn’t receiving any additional distributions from CNG, the couple’s primary source of income, “and this is not within my control. The company has declared that we would not make any further distributions in 2020 given economic circumstances. This decision is based on a formula and is not discretionary.” Agave & Rye helped produce $645,000 in income for Black Diamond in 2020 but has paid out $890,000 in loans, he says. Through August 31, 2020, he wrote, the couple’s “expenses have exceeded income from all sources.”


The divorce case filings start slinging mud when the couple accuses each other of breaking up their 22-year marriage and finding new partners. Jared claims Bridget began an affair during their marriage with Brian Duncan, a contractor she employed through her house flipping business. Bridget, he says, paid Duncan’s company $75,000 in 2018 as well as giving him a personal gift of $70,000 that same year. Jared says she also bought Duncan at least one car and purchased a house for him near hers on Shawnee Run Road for $289,000, then loaned money to Duncan. Jared says Duncan has been late in repaying the note.

While Bridget says Duncan has been drug-free for several years, he has a rap sheet with Hamilton County courts from 2000 to 2017 that runs five pages long. It lists a half-dozen counts of drug abuse and drug possession, including heroin and possession of illegal drug paraphernalia; assaulting a police officer; stealing a Taser from a police officer; criminal damaging while being treated at UC Health; more than a dozen speeding and traffic violations; a half-dozen counts of driving with a suspended license; receiving stolen property; twice fleeing and resisting arrest; three counts of theft; two counts of forgery; and one count for passing bad checks.

Bridget has fired back that Jared not only is hiding his money from her but spending it lavishly on vacations, resorts, and high-end restaurants with his new girlfriend, Susanne Warner. Bridget says Jared gifted Warner with $40,000 without Bridget’s knowledge, then declared it on their joint tax return as a “contribution.” Bridget’s court filings include photocopies of social media posts of Jared and Warner globetrotting from summer 2019 to summer 2020: vacation at Beaver Creek Village in Avon, Colorado; cocktails at High Cotton in Charleston, South Carolina, and dinner at Melvyn’s Restaurant and Lounge in Palm Springs, California; getaways at resorts in Nashville and at a lakefront rental on Norris Lake ($600 per night); in the Bahamas at a Musha Cay private residence ($57,000 per night), at South Beach in Miami, and at a private beach at Fisher Island; in Mexico at Cabo San Lucas; in the U.S. Virgin Islands at Magen’s Bay and on a private yacht ($4,500 per night); in California at Desert Hot Springs, the Ritz-Carlton in Rancho Mirage, and Montage at Laguna Beach; and in the Bahamas at South Cottage ($2,175 per night).

For her part, Bridget has gone through some of the top lawyers in town faster than President Trump during an impeachment—six in all, two of whom she’s sued for malpractice. She sent four binders of evidence to the Ohio Supreme Court, asking for the recusal of Hamilton County Judge Amy Searcy and claiming Searcy was biased because of campaign donations from Jared and his companies. Rather than deal with the list of questions sent to her by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, Searcy stepped down. Two other judges have since stepped into the fray, and in March Bridget filed for a change of venue outside of Hamilton County, arguing she can’t get a fair trial in her hometown. At press time, a trial date had been set for June 28 in Hamilton County.

The poor-mouthing in the divorce case has reached heights of comic absurdity. Jared claims he’s “illiquid” because he didn’t get his distribution from CNG in 2019. Bridget has received debt collection notices for the nearly $21,000 owed on her American Express card and a $735 bill from Jewish Hospital. There’s no sign yet that anyone is coming to repossess her Porsche, which according to her filings has a $5,000 monthly payment. Each party has received $25,000 a month in living expenses, an amount later reduced to $15,000 under a temporary legal agreement while the divorce case is being sorted out. Court filings show that Jared’s net worth is almost $206 million and Bridget’s is $22.5 million.


In the early 1990s, Allen Davis was raising eyebrows at Provident Bank (later bought by National City), and not only because of his very unbanker-like look of beard, ponytail, and casual golf wear. He was leading the company into questionable subprime home loans for people with bad credit and a frequent-shopper program for merchants, though the bank’s charter barred him from getting involved in full-blown predatory lending practices. With guidance and funding from his father, Jared, at age 26, launched Check ’n Go in 1994 and became a pioneer in the payday lending industry. Jared and his family saw there were millions of Americans who didn’t have checking or savings accounts (“unbanked”) or an adequate credit rating (“underbanked”) but still needed loans to meet their everyday expenses. What those potential customers did have was a steady paycheck.

Conventional banks share a big part of the blame for the nation’s army of unbanked borrowers by imposing checking account fees and onerous penalties for bounced checks. In 2019, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation estimated there were 7.1 million U.S. households without a checking or savings account.

The Davises launched Check ’n Go on the pretext that it would “fill the gap” for people who occasionally needed to borrow money in a hurry—a service for those who couldn’t get a loan any other way. But consumer advocates say the real business model for payday lending isn’t a service at all. The majority of the industry’s revenue comes from repeat business by customers trapped in debt, not from borrowers looking for a quick, one-time fix for their financial troubles.

Ohio’s payday lending lobbyists got a strong hold on the state legislature in the late 1990s, and by 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray could rightfully claim in a campaign ad that “Ohio’s [payday lending] laws are now the worst in the nation. Things have gotten so bad that it is legal to charge 594 percent interest on loans.” His statement was based on a 2014 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The frustration for consumer advocates was that Ohioans had been trying to reform those laws since 2008, when voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative placing a 28 percent cap on the interest of payday loans. But—surprise!—lenders simply registered as mortgage brokers, which enabled them to charge unlimited fees.

The Davis family and five other payday lending companies controlled 90 percent of the market back then, an express gravy train ripping through the poorest communities in Ohio. The predatory feeding frenzy, especially in Ohio’s hard-hit Rust Belt communities, prompted a 2017 column at The Daily Beast titled, “America’s Worst Subprime Lender: Jared Davis vs. Allan Jones?” (Jones is founder and CEO of Tennessee-based Check Into Cash.) In 2016 and 2017, consumer advocates mustered their forces again, and this time they weren’t allowing for loopholes. The Pew Charitable Trusts joined efforts with bipartisan lawmakers and Ohioans for Payday Loan Reform, a statewide coalition of faith, business, local government, and nonprofit organizations. Consumer advocates found a legislative champion in State Rep. Kyle Koehler, a Republican from Springfield.

It no doubt helped reform efforts that former Ohio Speaker of the House Cliff Rosenberger resigned in spring 2018 amid an FBI investigation into his cozy relationship with payday lenders. Rosenberger had taken frequent overseas trips—to destinations including France, Italy, Israel, and China—in the company of payday lending lobbyists. In April 2019, Ohio’s new lending law took effect and, since then, has been called a national model for payday lending reform that balances protections for borrowers, profits for lenders, and access to credit for the poor, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. New prices in Ohio are three to four times lower for payday loans than before the law. Borrowers now have up to three months to repay their loans with no more than 6 percent of their paycheck. Pew estimates that the cost of borrowing $400 for three months dropped from $450 to $109, saving Ohioans at least $75 million a year. And despite claims that the reforms would eliminate access to credit, lenders currently operate in communities across the state and online. “The bipartisan success shows that if you set fair rules and enforce them, lenders play by them and there’s widespread access to credit,” says Gabe Kravitz, a consumer finance officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Other states like Virginia, Kansas, and Michigan are following Ohio’s lead, Kravitz says. Some states, such as Nebraska, have even capped annual interest on payday loans. As a result, Pew researchers have seen a reduction in the number of storefront lending op­erations across the country. Even better, Kravitz says, there’s no evidence that borrowers are turning instead to online payday lending operations.

Cincinnati is one of five cities chosen for a grant to replicate the success of Boston Builds Credit, an ambitious effort that city launched in 2017 to provide credit counseling in poor and minority communities by training specialists at existing social service agencies. The program also encourages consumer partnerships with credit unions, banks, and insurance companies to offer small, manageable loans that can help the unbanked and underbanked improve their credit ratings. “Right now, local organizations are all kind of working in silos on the problem in Cincinnati,” says Todd Moore of the nonprofit credit counseling agency Trinity Debt Relief. Moore, who applied for the Boston grant, says he’s looking for an agency like United Way or Strive Cincinnati to lead the effort here.

Anthony Smith is thankful that he’s escaped the downward spiral of his payday loans, especially during the pandemic’s economic turmoil. “I’m blessed for every day I can get paid and have a job during these difficult times, just to be able to pay my bills and meet my responsibilities,” he says. “I’ve always kept a job, but until now I’ve had crappy credit. That doesn’t mean I’m a bad guy.”

Can others worth millions of dollars say the same?

Inside the Highly Profitable and Secretive World of Payday Lenders Source link Inside the Highly Profitable and Secretive World of Payday Lenders



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What’s Questionable Credit and Can I Get a Car Loan With It?

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Questionable’s definition means that something’s quality is up for debate. If a lender says that your credit score is questionable, it’s likely that they mean it’s poor, or at the very least, they’re hesitant to approve you for vehicle financing. Here’s what most lenders consider questionable credit, and what auto loan options you may have.

Questionable Credit and Auto Lenders

Many auto lenders may consider questionable credit as a borrower with a credit score below 660. The credit score tiers as sorted by Experian the national credit bureau, are:

  • Super prime: 850 to 781
  • Prime: 780 to 661
  • Nonprime: 660 to 601
  • Subprime: 600 to 501
  • Deep subprime: 500 to 300

The nonprime credit tiers and below is when you start to get into bad credit territory and may struggle to meet the credit score requirements of traditional auto lenders.

This is because lenders are looking at your creditworthiness – your perceived ability to repay loans based on the information in your credit reports. Besides your actual credit score, there may be situations where the items in your credit reports are what’s making a lender question whether you’re a good candidate for an auto loan. These can include:

  • A past or active bankruptcy
  • A past or recent vehicle repossession
  • Recent missed/late payments
  • High credit card balances
  • No credit history

There are ways to get into an auto loan with questionable credit. Your options can change depending on what’s making your credit history questionable, though.

Questionable Credit Auto Loans

If your credit score is less than stellar, it may be time to look at these two lending options:

  • What Is Questionable Credit and Can I Get a Car Loan With It?Subprime financing – Done through special finance dealerships by third-party subprime lenders. These lenders can often assist with many unique credit situations, provided you can meet their requirements. A great option for new borrowers with thin files, situational bad credit, or consumers with older negative marks.
  • In-house financing – May not require a credit check, and is done through buy here pay here (BHPH) dealers. Typically, your income and down payment amount are the most important parts of eligibility. Auto loans without a credit check may not allow for credit repair and may come with a higher-than-average interest rate.

Both of these car loan options are typically available to borrowers with credit challenges. However, if you have more recent, serious delinquencies on your credit reports, a BHPH dealer may be for you. Most traditional and subprime lenders typically don’t approve financing for borrowers with a dismissed bankruptcy, a repossession less than a year old, or borrowers with multiple, recent missed/late payments.

Requirements of Bad Credit Car Loans

In many cases, your income and down payment size are the biggest factors in your overall eligibility for bad credit auto loans. Expect to need:

  • 30 days of recent computer-generated check stubs to prove you have around $1,500 to $2,500 of monthly gross income. Borrowers without W-2 income may need two to three years of professionally prepared tax returns.
  • A down payment of at least $1,000 or 10% of the vehicle’s selling price. BHPH dealers may require up to 20% of the car’s selling price.
  • Proof of residency in the form of a recent utility bill in your name.
  • Proof of a working phone (no prepaid phones), proven with a recent phone bill in your name.
  • A list of five to eight personal references with name, phone number, and address.
  • Valid driver’s license with the correct address, can’t be revoked, expired, or suspended.

Depending on your individual situation, you may need fewer or more items to apply for a bad credit auto loan. However, preparing these documents before you head to a dealership can speed up the process!

Ready to Get on the Road?

With questionable credit, finding a dealership that’s able to assist you with an auto loan is easier said than done. Here at Auto Credit Express, we want to get that done for you with our coast-to-coast network of special finance dealerships.

Complete our free auto loan request form and we’ll get right to work looking for a dealer in your local area that can assist with many tough credit situations.

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Entrepreneur Tae Lee Finds Her Fortune

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By Jasmine Shaw
For The Birmingham Times

Birmingham native Tae Lee had plans last year to visit the continent of Africa, the South American country of Columbia, and the U.S. state of Texas.

“I was going to stay in each place for like four to six weeks, and then COVID-19 happened,” she said. “So, I just was like, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna go to Mexico and stay for six months.’”

Once home from Playa Del Carmen, located on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, the 33-year-old entrepreneur put the final touches on “Game of Fortune: Win in Wealth or Lose in Debt,” a financial literacy card game for ages 10 and up.

“We created ‘Game of Fortune’ because we realized there was a gap in learning the fundamentals of money,” said Lee. “We go through life not knowing anything about money and then—‘Bam!’—real life hits. Credit, debt, and bills come at us quick!”

Lee believes the game “gives players a glimpse of real life” by using everyday scenarios to teach them how to make wiser financial decisions without having to waste their own money.

“I feel like [financial literacy] can be learned in ways other than somebody standing up and preaching it to you over and over again,” she said. “You can learn it in ways that are considered fun, as well.”

Which is why “we want the schools to buy it, so we can give students a fun way to learn about financial literacy,” she added.

Lee, also called the “Money Maximizer,” is an international best-selling financial author, speaker, coach, and trainer who is known for her financial literacy books, including “Never Go Broke (NGB): An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Money and Freedom” and the “NGB Money Success Planner High School Edition.” The Birmingham-based financial guru focuses on creating diverse streams of income in the tax, real estate, insurance, and finance industries.

For Lee, it’s about building generational wealth, not debt.

Indispensable Lessons

Lee got her first glance at entrepreneurial life as a child watching her mother, Valeria Robinson, run her commercial cleaning company, V’s Cleaning. Robinson retired in 2019.

“My grandmother had a cleaning service, too,” said Lee. “So, even though I didn’t start out as an entrepreneur, watching my mom and grandma do it taught me a lot.”

Lee grew up in Birmingham and attended Riley Elementary School, Midfield Middle School, and Huffman High School. She then went on to Jacksonville State University, in Jacksonville, Alabama, where she earned bachelor’s degree in physical education. She struggled to find a career in her field and became overwhelmed by student loans.

“My credit and stuff didn’t get bad until after college,” she said. “I was going through school and taking money, but nobody told me, ‘Oh, you’re gonna have to pay all of this back.’”

Before embarking on her extensive career in money management, Lee had not learned the indispensable lessons that she now shares with clients.

“‘Don’t have bad credit.’ That’s all I learned,” she remembers. “Financial literacy just wasn’t taught much. I learned the majority of my lessons as I aged.”

In an effort to ward off collection calls and raise her credit score, Lee researched tactics to strategically eliminate her debt.

“I knew I had to pay bills on time, and I couldn’t be late with payments,” she said.

Lee eventually began helping friends revamp their finances and opened NGB Inc. in 2017 to share fun, educational methods to help her clients build solid financial foundations.

“People were always coming to me like, ‘How do I invest in this?’ and ‘How do I do that?’ So, I said to myself, ‘You know what, people should be paying to pick your brain.’”

Legacy Building

While Lee enjoyed watching her clients reach milestones, like buying a new car with cash or making their first stock market investment, she was also designing “Game of Fortune” to teach the value of legacy building.

“The game gives players the knowledge to build generational wealth, not generational debt,” she said. “It gives you a glimpse of life, money, and what can truly happen if you mismanage your coins.”

Using index cards to create her first “Game of Fortune” sample deck, Lee filled each card with pertinent terms related to debt elimination and credit and wealth building. She then called on a few friends to help her work through the kinks.

Three of her good friends—Barbara Bratton, Daña Brown, and Sha Cannon—were just a few of the people that gave feedback on the sample deck.

“From there I met with Brandon Brooks, [owner of the Birmingham-based Brooks Realty Investments LLC], and four other financial advisors to fine-tune the definitions and game logistics,” Lee said.

Though Lee was unable to land a job in physical education after graduating from college, she now sees her career with NGB Inc. as life’s unexpected opportunity to teach on her own terms.

“Bartending and waitressing taught me that working for someone else was not for me,” she replied. “In order to get the life I always wanted, I had to create my own business.”

In her entrepreneurial pursuits, Lee strives to be an open-minded leader who embraces the need for flexibility.

“COVID-19 has shown me that in entrepreneurship you have to maneuver,” she said. “When life changes, sometimes your business will, too. You may have to change the path, but your ending goal can be the same.”

“Game of Fortune: Win in Wealth or Lose in Debt” is available and sold only on the “Game of Fortune” website: gameoffortune.money. To learn more about Tae Lee and Never Go Broke Inc., visit taelee.money and nevergobroke.money or email [email protected]; you also can follow her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/nevergobrokeinc) and Instagram (@nevergobrokeinc).

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