KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Regina Valiente stared at the piles of trash on an empty lot near her home, just a block from Kansas City’s most prestigious public high school, Lincoln Prep Academy.
Valiente said the lot is a magnet for illegal dumping and is destroying the value of her home.
“Please clean up your property. Do something about this,” said Valiente, who acknowledged she has no idea who owns the property. She was surprised when we told her it's Vinelanders Community Land Trust, a nonprofit who claims its mission is to improve life in the urban core by providing low-cost housing.
Others claim Vinelanders is a scam.
“I'm saying enough is enough,” said Kristy Mitchell, one of three people who contacted FOX4 Problem Solvers about the charity. Mitchell said she joined Vinelanders Community Land Trust three years ago based on the promise that she would one day own a home.
“Everybody was promised a house,” Mitchell said.
Vinelanders founder Alice Goodlow said each house would be paid for entirely by members like Mitchell pooling their $20 in monthly dues. Each member was given a number letting them know how many homes had to be built before it was their turn.
“At first I was number 395,” Mitchell said. “And then I dropped to 199 and my last number was 95 or 99.”
Mitchell thought it was odd that her number kept dropping because she never met a single person who had received a home, though there was often talk
by Vinelanders' leaders that a house was being built.
In fact, Mitchell and others were requested to buy gift cards at home improvement stores that Vinelanders would then use to buy appliances for the new homeowner. But when Mitchell asked for the address of the new home, she said she always met resistance.
“Ms. Mitchell, we are not going to disclose that information at this time,” Mitchell said she was told.
After shelling out hundreds of dollars over the last three years in monthly dues, Mitchell said it became clear to her that she was being scammed.
“I feel like (they are) preying on this community, giving them false hope,” Mitchell said.
A FOX4 Problem Solvers investigation revealed that in the eight years since Vinelanders was formed, not a single house has been built. The charity’s federal tax filings show the organization spends every dollar it takes in on running the charity, and no money on building homes.
Last year, Vinelanders reported to the IRS that it had collected $49,826 in revenue. According to that same filing, about $18,000 was spent on salaries, $11,000 for independent contractors, more than $17,000 for rent and utilities, and about $3,000 for printing and postage.
We showed Vinelanders' tax filings to Rebecca Buford, who runs a subsidized housing program in Lawrence, Kan. that has placed hundreds of families in homes.
She said Vinelanders' operation doesn’t make any sense.
“What is confusing about this is that the membership and all of the money is coming from the people that they claim they are going to help,” said Buford. “I don't know of any nonprofit that gets all their money from the people they serve. “
Buford said her nonprofit doesn’t charge its members any money until they actually receive housing.
So what’s up with Vinelanders?
Its office on 12th street in KCMO recently closed, so Problem Solvers paid a visit to Goodlow’s Northland home, which she shares with her two adult sons who are also active in her charity.
Goodlow would not talk to us, but her sons Ethan and Stanley did. Neither appeared surprised when we told them of the complaints we’d received regarding Vinelanders.
“The problem with Kansas City is that they don't believe until they see it, which is good, but once again we are on God's time,” Ethan Goodlow said. Ethan blamed Vinelanders' lack of success in building homes on the poor community it is trying to serve. He said the charity could have had homes built by now if its members had been better at paying their monthly dues.
“The problem is with our community, the black community,” Ethan said.
Goodlow said a lack of belief in the charity by the black community has prompted his mother to take her charity on the road to St. Louis, Detroit, and Chicago.
“She’s done with Kansas City,” Ethan said.
However, Ethan’s mother Alice told Problem Solvers in an email that Vinelanders has not left Kansas City. It will be moving in July to what she described as a safer downtown.
Former Vinelanders member Kristy Mitchell wants justice. She’s filed a complaint with the Missouri Attorney General’s Office asking for an investigation.