An ex-convict businessman who claims he found Jesus and changed his life while serving time in prison for fraud is being sued by would-be tiny homeowners after he collected thousands of dollars in payment but failed to build them tiny homes that his company advertises for as low as $29,900.
The businessman, Matt Sowash, founder of the Colorado-based nonprofit Holy Ground Real Estate, whose conversion testimony can be viewed on YouTube, explained in a video posted in 2017 that God showed him how to "create a business to support ministry and ministry to support business."
"He showed me to create business to support ministry and ministry to support business and have them work together," he said.
Sowash started Holy Ground Tiny Homes in July 2020 as a tax-exempt charity, The Denver Post reported. His charity's website promises "to build big dreams with tiny homes," which range in size from 14 feet to 32 feet and are priced at a fraction of the cost of traditional homes.
The largest tiny homes can cost up to $60,000, while the median home price in the U.S. was $428,700 as of the first quarter of 2022.
The self-professed born-again developer heavily promoted the tiny homes to his nearly 80,000 followers on TikTok, and orders came flooding in.
Among those who made orders is Clara Virginia Davis, a 24-year-old elementary school teacher in upstate New York.
Davis, who filed one of the lawsuits against Sowash, told NBC News that his "charming" persona and professed love of God convinced her to wire him $42,000 in January for an 8-by-28-foot modular home. He promised to deliver the home on Aug. 1, but he never did.
"I gave him my life savings," Davis told NBC News.
Responding to Davis' claims, Sowash told the news network that he tried to call Davis about the home but only heard back from a lawyer trying to work out a settlement. He further claimed that Davis' home was not supposed to be completed until October and that the construction was slated to begin weeks ago.
A tiny home is described as a dwelling typically under 600 square feet, according to Tiny House Ideas.
A survey conducted by IPX 1031 found that during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many as 86% of American first-time home buyers expressed openness to buying a "tiny house" as their first home, pointing to their affordability, efficiency and eco-friendliness.
Since 2001, tiny house listings have grown by an average of 8.6% a year. More than 1.4 million homes can be classified as "tiny."
Robyn Bellamy and her husband Mark Bellamy, who live in Oregon, also filed a lawsuit against Sowash's Holy Ground Real Estate firm in June.
Robyn Bellamy alleges that she paid Sowash $47,924.75 in the spring of 2021. But when he failed to deliver the home, she demanded that "Holy Ground either refund her money or build her Tiny Home immediately," according to the lawsuit.
"Holy Ground responded that it would refund her money only if the company could sell her unbuilt Tiny Home to someone else," the filing notes.
In May 2021, Mark Bellamy signed an installment agreement with Holy Ground "for the design, sale, and delivery to Oregon" of his own tiny home for $32,477 to be paid over a year.
Mark Bellamy had paid a total of $21,646.50 for the house when he was told by Holy Ground that his tiny house wouldn't be ready until October 2021. That date then shifted to December 2021, then February 2022.
"When it became apparent to Mr. Bellamy in early 2022 that the supposed February production would not occur, he ceased making the remaining installment payments on the building contract. In early February 2022, Mr. Bellamy demanded that Holy Ground produce his Tiny Home within 30 days or provide him with a full refund of his money. Holy Ground did neither," the lawsuit states.
Sowash told NBC News that the Bellamys were on the "build list" and that when he tried to contact them about beginning construction on their homes, "they said to stay in contact with their lawyer."
Lori Birckhead, a Tennessee woman who took out a loan and wired $46,500 to Holy Ground in April for a tiny home that should have been delivered in July, told The Denver Post that she believes Sowash took her money knowing that he had no intention to deliver the home as promised while continuing to market his false promise to new unsuspecting customers.
"He took my money knowing, 'I'm not going to give this woman a house anytime soon, if ever.' There's no doubt about that now," said Birckhead, who said she was told her tiny home would be delivered in 27 to 30 months.
Multiple complaints from other disgruntled customers were also shared on the Better Business Bureau's page for Holy Ground, which received an "F" grade.
Holy Ground Real Estate did not respond to The Christian Post's request for comment.
On another website operated by Sowash called Racing for Glory, which features a racing ministry (reality show), a garage ministry and a rescue ranch, Sowash said: "We use proceeds from our nonprofit business, Holy Ground Tiny Homes, to fund our many projects and ministries."
Sowash told the news network that he took out a $400,000 loan from the lender to build the tiny homes, but he could not maintain the payments because of a high interest rate.
"I just couldn't do it," he said.
In an Aug. 31 letter to customers, Sowash said home deliveries were delayed by three years. He said he delivered more than 250 homes in the last 20 months, and nearly 100 were sold at loss of $8,000 to $10,000 each due to high material costs.
"The past several months have been very exhausting in terms of the struggles associated with making sure everyone either gets the home they ordered" or receives a refund, Sowash noted.
In 2006, Sowash co-founded a free amateur poker league in Denver. He was sentenced in 2009 to five years in prison for bilking more than $470,000 from investors in the league. He claims that he had a spiritual awakening in prison.
In 2019, Sowash said God whispered to him during a moment of frustration and said: "Matt, build a tiny house."