tampabay.com

The 'house hustler'

Kenny Rushing says if he can do it, anybody can. He’s gone from crack dealer to prison cell to making a fortune in real estate.

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published May 20, 2006


By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Times Staff Writer
TAMPA — Since getting released from his Panhandle prison cell six years ago, Kenny Rushing, aka Captain Save-a-House, has proclaimed himself leader of an unfolding revolution in Tampa’s black communities.

Drawing on symbolism from the civil rights movement, Rushing beseeches his growing number of followers to “get on the bus,” invest in neighborhood real estate and, like him, make a fortune.

Billboards, radio ads and TV commercials depict Rushing as a friendly businessman who saves grandmothers from losing their homes to shady speculators.

His “House Hustling” method empowers residents by keeping money in the neighborhood, he says. They just need to calculate what it will cost to rehab a distressed property, buy low and eventually resell.

But Rushing rarely rehabs the properties he buys. Sometimes he resells in just days, choosing his buyer from a roster of waiting investors.

It’s an insider’s game that Rushing frequently plays — with the richest white developers in town.

Is he, as he portrays himself, a superhero caped crusader, protector of grandmothers? Ask Thelma Bennett.
Our people own their own land in the hood. Our people attract all types of businesses to the hood.

It could have been a Friday night Hollywood premiere. But it was a Saturday morning in Ybor City.

A white Bentley trailed by Hummers emblazoned with Kenny Rushing’s likeness pulled into the parking lot.

Rushing stepped from the Bentley, his Kangol hat tipped to the side. Inside, 130 mogul wannabes waited to hear him divulge, free of charge, how he built his Tampa Bay real estate empire.

Garbage collectors, college students, contractors and Realtors, they laughed, cheered and murmured choruses of “amen” as Rushing shared his handcuffs to cuff-links life story.

It’s a Horatio Alger tale with a Jay-Z soundtrack: three-time Golden Gloves boxing champ turned reluctant crack dealer, reformed, repackaged and redeemed as a real estate hustler.

He connected with his nearly all-black audience when he introduced young men who scout properties for him and have their own real estate businesses.

“Michael Wyche, you can’t hide from me!” Rushing yelled to a 27-year-old with a drug dealing past. “How much you make last month?”

“Thirty G,” Wyche answered, shorthand for $30,000.

Audience members gasped.

“That’s a month,” Rushing said.

Wyche and a coterie of proteges personify Rushing’s core message of empowerment.

Its essence is this: Why can’t black people get into real estate investing and make the money white people have been making? Why can’t the young black men who push drugs apply the same business acumen to something legit, like real estate?

“It’s time to do for self,” Rushing said. “Black folks dominate what? Sports and entertainment. I want them to say that blacks dominate real estate, which has produced more millionaires than anything else I know.”

Fred Timmons said he has turned his back on drugs under Rushing’s tutelage. He now owns a real estate investment firm and says he makes at least $20,000 a month.

“Kenny doesn’t know this, but I call him 'black Moses,’ ” Timmons said. “He finds people who are lost and brings them to the Promised Land. He knows what it’s like to come up from the streets.”

Hustling is lucrative, but Rushing emphasizes that his brand is always respectful. It’s not about “stealing property, it’s not low-balling anyone. Don’t do that, taking homes,” he told the audience. “I won’t talk to you.”

One elderly woman wanted to sell him two homes for $30,000. He told her they were worth more, and paid twice what she wanted.

A TV commercial portrays him as a cartoon caped crusader named Captain Save-a-House. The premise: Trust Kenny Rushing. Unlike those other guys, he always pays a fair price.

Don’t let them other guys steal your house.

Uh uh. Uh uh.

Don’t let them other guys.

What?

Steal your house.
   — Song in radio spot for Rushing’s business, Rehabber’s Superstore, Inc.

Thelma Bennett, a 73-year-old grandmother, lives on the northern edge of downtown. In 2002, her mother died and Bennett inherited her home in Tampa Heights.Tired of maintaining two homes, she signed a contract with an investor, Ryan Khouri, giving him rights to the property. Khouri then asked Rushing if he wanted to buy it.

Records show that on Sept. 10, 2003, Bennett sold the house to Rushing and his father-in-law, John Floyd, for $20,187. There was an $18,458 lien on the home, money Bennett’s mother owed the city of Tampa housing department. According to Bennett’s closing papers, she netted $1,729 on the deal.

When a friend of Bennett’s, Cohen Williams, found out that she had sold the home, he was furious.


“This was done in three days, like it was a race car,” Williams said. “It was sign this, sign that, bam bam boom, fast and quick. I tried to tell her to wait, but she wouldn’t.”

Three weeks after buying the home from Bennett, Rushing and Floyd sold it for $70,000 — a markup of $50,000.

When told last month about the sale, Bennett sighed softly and looked down at the pile of closing papers on her kitchen table. She stayed silent for several minutes.

“That’s not right,” she finally said.

Williams shook his head and slumped against the kitchen wall.

“Oh my God,” he said. “Oh my God. I knew it. I knew it.”

Though Rushing attended the closing, and though the closing papers specify what Bennett netted, he said he didn’t know that she got less than $2,000 from the sale of her home.

“I had no control over the deal, I didn’t negotiate it,” Rushing said. “Don’t slant this, I’m not taking advantage of a woman.”

He said it was a stroke of luck that he bought her home, only to discover a week afterward that developers were buying up land in that exact area. Though Rushing has made it his life’s work mastering real estate in that part of Tampa, and though it was common knowledge among others in Tampa Heights that a project was slated for that area, he says he was unaware of such activity.

Had he known about the project, he said, he would have shared his good fortune with Bennett.

“If I had known the house was worth $70,000, I would have paid her a lot more,” he said. “In that case, I definitely would have paid her $60,000. Easy.”

Now that he knows, what would he, or his alter-ego, Captain Save-a-House, do?

“I’m not about to say, 'Here you go, here’s all I made on the property.’ ”

***

Many who sell their homes to Rushing leave the negotiating table with an affection for him that goes beyond the economics of the deal.


In October, the property appraiser valued Diana Crum’s home on N 21st Street at $67,163. She sold it to Rushing for $56,000. A month later, records show he sold it for $115,000.

“I’m happy with Kenny,” said Crum, who is a bus driver. “He was fair with me.”

Rushing said he’s not sure, but Crum’s house may have needed some repairs that he paid for after buying it, reducing his profit considerably.

In February, the property appraiser valued Melvin and Sonia Lake-Gunn’s Ybor Heights home at $134,000. They sold it to Rushing for $93,000. He sold it a month later for $195,000.

“He didn’t do any harm,” Melvin Gunn said.

“I had an offer that was double what Kenny was offering. But I felt comfortable with Kenny. He was honest, there was no pressure. I have nothing bad to say about him. It was a great deal.”

Rushing said he sold the house for less than $120,000 and made no more than $30,000 on it. The higher price recorded on public records is there because the buyer fixed up the home before closing, he said. The buyer got an appraisal that valued the home at $195,000, got a loan for that amount and closed the deal.

Another satisfied customer: Mazie Watson.

The 68-year-old grandmother had fallen behind on the taxes on the Belmont Heights home she had owned for 30 years. On welfare, she couldn’t keep up with repair bills. She responded to an ad for Rushing’s business offering quick cash for homes. He invited her to his office.

“He was very polite and asked if this is what I wanted to do,” Watson said. “He didn’t force anything on me.”
The property appraiser’s office valued the house at $77,438. In April 2005, Watson sold it to Rushing for $50,000.

She netted $2,935 on the deal.

Records show Rushing sold the house 35 days later for $100,000.

“I can’t tell you the specifics of the deal because I don’t have them,” Rushing said. “The house may have been rehabbed.”

Watson has no complaints. She spends her days watching cable TV at Hacienda Villas, an Ybor City retirement home, happy that the “good Lord” led her there.

“I was ready to move on,” Watson said. “He (Rushing) helped me do that.”

“CEO, entrepreneur, publisher, motivational speaker, activist, philanthropist. Kenneth Rushing Jr.: The right vision at the right time.”


— Article heading in the debut April issue of “House Hustling” magazine, published by Rushing’s Rehabber’s Superstore.

Rushing, 32, makes his criminal past in Des Moines an integral part of his wheeling-and-dealing persona. But he’s reluctant to provide details.“It’s an embarrassment for me to talk about this stuff.”
 

He had to grow up fast in Iowa. Mom lost her job as a nursing home cook, dad couldn’t hold a job. When Kenny was just 9, he sold peanut brittle and mint cookies to white suburban kids to help his family get by. He mowed lawns, he shoveled snow.

At 15, he could not resist the pull of the easy money to be had dealing drugs. He asked the neighborhood dealer if he could sell crack, made $760 the first night and started a new career.

“I was a friendly drug dealer,” Rushing said. “I didn’t like it. I was a good businessman, but drugs made me feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t for me.”

He had a promising boxing career: 26-0 with 23 knockouts by age 18, he said.

“I was a three-time Golden Gloves champion,” Rushing is quoted in a cover story last year for a start-up magazine called Ice Cream, where he’s listed as one of two staff writers. “I went to the Olympic trials.”

But he was shot in the shoulder, dashing his dreams of greatness, Rushing said. He continued to deal drugs until seven years in prison turned his life around.

This is the official Rushing version of how he embarked on his new career, a redemptive story arc stretching from his reluctance as a petty Iowa drug dealer to a real estate empire built on self-reliance and compassion in Tampa Bay.

Others offer a different script.

The promising boxing career derailed by injury?

Fiction, according to Kervin Veasley, head coach of the gym where Rushing boxed. He remembers Rushing: skinny kid, wore gang colors, sparred sometimes. But three-time Golden Gloves champ?

“He’s stretching it,” Veasley said. “I’m shocked he said he was.”

“There’s no way he won the Golden Gloves,” said Donald Avant, president of Iowa Golden Gloves. “I’m the guy who would know.”

Rushing has an undated newspaper clipping that says he won the Novice Division, 156 pound weight class. Avant said records aren’t kept for Novice, which is reserved for inexperienced fighters. If he won in Novice division, he automatically would have gone to the Open division, which keeps records — none of which show him winning.

Who did Rushing defeat for the other two Golden Gloves championships?

“Just put in there that I was a Golden Gloves champ,” Rushing said. “I don’t want to get into how many times. I won the Golden Gloves, Silver Gloves, the (Amateur Athletic Union) championships.”

Rushing also backed away from his statement that he went to the Olympic trials before he got shot. Actually, he said, he just had always wanted to go.

A low-rung, reluctant drug dealer?

Early in 1993, Rushing walked into an apartment filled with smoke, 9mm guns and 2½-pound bags of cocaine. The FBI had wired the room with cameras for its investigation of the L.A. Crips gang operation in Iowa. They caught 19-year-old Kenny Rushing on tape, stuffing what they said was a 1-kilogram package of cocaine into his pants.

“He dealt one time with this group,” said his attorney, Peter Berger. “But Kenny was a small-time guy.”

The feds say Rushing, aka “Guido,” was hardly small time. They described him as the Des Moines crack distributor for the Crips, at a time when crack ravaged the Midwest.

“He was a big fish for Des Moines,” said Jamie Bowers, a special assistant state prosecutor on the case. “At the time, he was probably the biggest fish in town, very successful as a drug dealer. The Crips didn’t let just anyone into that room. Kenny was the local hookup for these guys.”

The Crips had a reputation for unrestrained violence, said Jim Donlan, an FBI agent who helped break the case.

The wire on the Des Moines apartment was for a month, but agents cut it short after 17 days because they feared more killings, he said.

Rushing was comfortable in that company, Donlan said. “It wasn’t like he stumbled into them one day.”

Sentenced to 12½ years in prison, Rushing cooperated with the government, had four years shaved from his sentence and came to Tampa in 2000.

Rushing studied more than 100 real estate books while in prison. Released on probation from in 2000, he went to work rehabbing houses for a development company his uncle started in Tampa.

He met a nurse named Katrice who worked at Tampa General Hospital, married her in July 2001, and continued to work real estate deals.Rushing describes his system for buying real estate as an eight-step process. It includes how to scout for distressed homes and calculate if it’s worth it to rehab a house.“

Everything I’m teaching you today, I’ve done,” Rushing told his seminar audience. “It’s allowed me to be successful.”

He doesn’t charge an admission fee. Rather, he invites attendees to become prospectors, scour the city for land and show him properties they find. If he buys, he’ll pay them a fee.

Buying rundown homes at discount and flipping them for profit is big business. On busy street corners, men wear sandwich boards that advertise fast cash for homes. Billboards blaring “We Buy Ugly Houses,” the trademark of Dallas-based giant HomeVestors, loom over blighted areas.

In this crowded field, Rushing has carved a niche. In 45 deals since 2002, records show, he and his companies received a total of $1,367,254 more than they paid. Most were in the city’s central core, the properties typically flipped within two months after they were bought. Some sold in days. In every deal, Rushing or his companies paid cash.

All is not profit, however. What’s not recorded in the public record is the money Rushing spends to paint, clean or make minor adjustments to improve a home’s appearance. He also shares his markups with partners who provided him with cash to close deals.

In many cases, he said, the buyer rehabilitates the home and gets a loan for the higher value of the house. In those deals, the home prices reflect the mortgage amount and are much higher than what he sold for, he said.

Anyone willing to work hard can do what he has done, Rushing said.

Those who fail have only themselves to blame.

“Why can’t that be you?” Rushing told a seminar audience last month. “The only reason that cannot be you is if you got some kind of physical or mental impairment ... I only see beautiful people and talented people here.”

***

 

Tampa has seldom seen a redevelopment project the size and scope of the one planned for Tampa Heights.
With construction to begin next year, the $500-million Heights of Tampa project will transform a 50-acre racially mixed neighborhood of old homes into an upscale community of 1,900 condos and townhomes for downtown professionals.

The developers are among the most powerful in Tampa: Bill Bishop and Don Wallace, the founder of Lazydays RV Supercenter.

Rushing bought properties and sold them to a trust that assembled the land Bishop and Wallace wanted for the Heights of Tampa project.

Did Rushing help obtain property that black people in the neighborhood were reluctant to sell to outside developers? Or was he working independently of the project, relying on his own savvy to buy low from neighbors and sell high to developers he knew needed the land?

It depends on whom you ask.

Rushing said he sold up to 10 properties that became part of the Heights of Tampa project. In a subsequent interview, he said he was involved in no more than eight or nine sales. He said he was not a front man for the project but worked independently. “I’m not a sell-out,” he said.

While downplaying his role, Rushing said Wallace and Bishop are business acquaintances. He said he has met several times with Bishop, and that Wallace helped line up someone who may provide a vehicle for his bus tours. “I’m very inspired by Don Wallace,” Rushing said.

Wallace and Bishop say they don’t know Rushing.

Wallace spokeswoman Deanne Roberts said Wallace told her that Rushing called him once with a business proposition, but Wallace passed.

Bishop said he met Rushing once, during a Tampa Heights neighborhood event when Rushing rolled up in a Hummer and introduced himself. Apart from that brief meeting, however, Bishop said he hasn’t spoken with Rushing.

“I wouldn’t know him if I bumped into him,” Bishop said.

Advised that Bishop and Wallace said they didn’t know him, Rushing said he never said he knew them, only that he admired Wallace and met once with Bishop.

Public records show Rushing’s direct involvement in three land deals that became part of the Heights of Tampa project, including Thelma Bennett’s home. On those deals, Rushing and his associates collected a total of $104,800 more than they paid. He also was listed as a witness on the deeds of two other deals.

All the properties were sold to Tampa Trust Inc., a company owned by Lawrence Fuentes and Albert C. Kreischer Jr. Kreischer said he handles only the title work and does not know details about the deals, which he said are brokered by investors he would not name.

Tampa Trust, in turn, sold the properties in October 2005, along with nearly 100 other parcels, to Land Assemble, for more than $10.7-million. Land Assemble is Bishop’s company that put together the property for the Heights of Tampa.

Joe Schwartz is a real estate broker who now provides much of the cash Rushing pays when he buys property. He used to work on Bishop and Wallace’s land acquisition team. Schwartz says Rushing had a more prominent role in acquiring land for the Heights of Tampa project than public records or Rushing indicate.

Schwartz said Rushing was adept at dealing with longtime residents unwilling to sell. “There were people who wouldn’t talk to us,” Schwartz said. “They suspected we were speculators.”

“Kenny has the gift of gab,” he said. “He was well-liked and had a lot of access we didn’t have. He had their ear, he was very honest and straight-forward, and he delivered what they were looking for. They got a fair price.”

Told of Schwartz’s comments, Roberts said there was no “formal relationship” between the Heights of Tampa project and Rushing. But she said Rushing was adept at figuring out which properties Wallace and Bishop would need. She said company records show 15 confirmed deals with Rushing.

“He would just bring us deals,” Roberts said. “Some we turned down. Some we didn’t. It was a deal-by-deal basis.”

***

Thelma Bennett knows little about what Wallace and Bishop are planning in Tampa Heights.

She’s more concerned about finding a new home because of what Wallace and Bishop plan for Central Park Village. The Housing Authority plans to start moving residents out of Central Park Village in the next year. Details of a 28-acre plan are to be released on Monday.

Bennett said she certainly could use some of the money Rushing and his father-in-law collected in 2003, three weeks after public records show they resold her Tampa Heights home for $49,800 more than they paid for it.

Whatever happened to that house?

Rushing sold it to Tampa Trust, which demolished it and sold the property to Bishop’s land development company.

A vacant lot now, it’s slated for a new townhouse.

Times staff writers Jeff Testerman, Matt Waite, Janet Zink and Sherri Day and Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.