Real estate developer True North Studio is reshaping downtown Phoenix. The firm recently moved into the monOrchid building, snatched up some restaurants, and announced a partnership with the Santa Fe-based collective Meow Wolf to develop a hotel-art exhibition.
True North founder Jonathon Vento loves to talk to reporters about his projects in the commercial arts district known as Roosevelt Row, particularly Ro2, a highly anticipated, multiuse development approved by the Phoenix City Council in 2017. Vento speaks with gusto about a vision for downtown Phoenix that embraces urbanism while maintaining the "fabric of a neighborhood" and a "sense of community."
But Vento has said less about his recent acquisition of single-family homes in the residential Garfield neighborhood, just across Seventh Street from the hustle and bustle of Roosevelt Row and the Evans Churchill area.
Vento purchased six homes in Garfield this year for between $250,000 and $379,000 per house. He later transferred ownership of the homes to a limited liability corporation called Luxury Rentals. Two of Vento's new homes are currently operating as fixed-term rentals.
Jennifer Kaplan, a public relations consultant, called Phoenix New Times on Thursday after a reporter texted multiple True North employees asking about Vento's acquisition of Garfield homes. At first, Kaplan did not have any answers.
"I didn't even know that he purchased homes," she said.
She called New Times back later on Thursday and said Vento and two business partners are using the homes solely as investments. Kaplan said the homes will operate as long-term rentals and stressed that Vento's acquisition of the homes has no relation to his work with True North.
"It’s actually not a story because True North studio has nothing to do with the purchases," she said.
In a statement released to New Times at deadline, Vento said: "My activities in the historic Garfield neighborhood are personal and do not involve True North Studio. Garfield is a beautiful historic neighborhood rooted by families and small businesses who have maintained it’s special character. My intentions are to historically rehabilitate the properties to preserve, beautify, and improve their infrastructure to offer them for sale or for long-term rental tenants who love the historic Garfield neighborhood."
Drew Trojanowski, who owned a house on Pierce Street, said Vento reached out to purchase his home within five minutes of his agent putting it on the market. "It was mind-boggling," Trojanowski said.
Andrew Starkman said he posted his Ninth Street home on Facebook just to "put some feelers out." Not long after, an agent representing Vento contacted him and explained that the developer was seeking to buy homes in the area. Starkman, himself an agent, said he sold his home to Vento for $250,000 without the hassle of negotiating.
"If I had had to market the property, it wouldn't have been as easy to get that number," Starkman said. "It was like 'Boom. We're done. Let's do it.'"
Neither Trojanowski nor Starkman had a clear idea of what Vento plans to do with their former homes. Starkman noted that tenants have moved into the Ninth Street property he used to live in.
Vento's plans to operate the homes as rentals follows a trend of shrinking home ownership opportunities in Garfield, a historically Latino neighborhood undergoing gentrification.
An affordable housing advocate said he will keep an eye on Vento's plans in Garfield.
"True North talks a lot about investing in communities and building up Phoenix and surrounding areas. I would hope in this instance that they would keep that vision," said Camaron Stevenson, communications director for the Arizona Housing Coalition. "This would be an opportunity for them to create affordable spaces in otherwise increasingly unaffordable areas."
Two neighboring houses owned by Luxury Rentals on McKinley Street remain fenced-off as of Wednesday as contractors worked on refurbishing them. A third house on McKinley appeared to be inhabited, though nobody answered its door when a New Times reporter knocked.
Someone, however, answered the door at a quaint Luxury Rentals bungalow on Ninth Street. Standing next to two turquoise lawn chairs on her front porch, the tenant said she recently signed a lease with Vento, but declined to comment further on the record. Luxury Rentals owns one more house on Ninth Street, as well as a residence on Pierce Street near Welcome Diner.
Two of Vento's Garfield properties, one on McKinley and one on Ninth, are registered as rentals with the Maricopa County Assessor's Office. Rebecca Anders, an operations staffer at True North Studios, is listed on the assessor's website as the business contact for both properties.