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Eviction filings and code complaints: What happened when a private equity firm became one city’s biggest homeowner

Christopher Neely stands in front of the home he had rented from FirstKey in Memphis. Neely said he had problems with water leaks that led to mold and cockroaches, so he broke his lease and moved out. (Andrea Morales for The Washington Post)

MEMPHIS — She was late on rent and back in eviction court. Second time this year. Fourth time in the past two. Cassandra Brown, married mother of two, was fighting to stay in a house that her family had owned for years, until they lost it to the bank shortly after the 2008 financial meltdown.

Now, she and her family continued to live in the same house as renters, paying more each month in rent than they once did in mortgage. Brown didn’t want to uproot her children, even as the house passed from one investor to the next, finally landing with the $35 billion New York private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management.

Cerberus has become in just three years the largest owner of single-family homes in this Mississippi River town, with nearly 1,800 houses rented out to thousands of residents.

It also uses unusually aggressive tactics to recover late rent. The property manager it owns and operates, FirstKey Homes, files for eviction at twice the rate of other rental home property managers in the Memphis area and threatens renters with removal at the highest rate among the area’s large management firms, going to court more than 400 times this year alone, according to a Washington Post analysis of county records and interviews.

Cerberus-owned homes in Memphis also racked up property code violations this year at a consistently higher rate than other single-family rentals in the same neighborhoods, equal to a new violation every day or two. The 190 total citations were usually minor, such as for unmown lawns, but they also have included major problems such as a burned-out house not far from Graceland that sat for nearly a year before the city recently condemned it. The frequency of code violations has caused frustration among local officials.

“They don’t care. They are just here to lease their properties without consequence,” said Memphis Public Works Director Robert Knecht, who oversees code enforcement.

Nationwide, single-family homes — white-picketed symbols of the American Dream — are increasingly owned by far-flung investors, with the percentage held by landlords growing from 13 percent nationally to 17 percent between 2008 and 2016, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. These homes are offered to local residents only as rentals, reflecting a profound shift in who profits from homeownership today, with communities struggling at times to handle the fallout.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, no major city has suffered a bigger percentage drop in owner-occupied single-family housing than Memphis, partly the result of predatory mortgage lending giving way to a flood of foreclosures.

Now, many of these homes are owned by investors, including Cerberus, a firm specializing in distressed assets that takes its name from the mythical hound guarding the gates of the underworld.

“It’s created a second wave of exploitation,” said Webb Brewer, a public interest attorney in Memphis.

Cerberus — one of the nation’s largest owners of rental homes — declined to comment for this article. FirstKey Homes said the company was working to reduce its evictions in Memphis, which it described as a “challenging” market with a poverty rate that is more than twice the national average.

“Evictions are a bad outcome for residents as well as the owner,” Martin Esteverena, chief executive of FirstKey Homes, said in a written statement responding to The Post’s inquiries. “We want to avoid them by seeing that residents can truly afford the rent.”

FirstKey also said it had never seen a list of its property code violations until The Post provided it with one. FirstKey then noted that 85 percent of its code violations this year were for “tenant responsibilities,” such as parking cars on lawns.

FirstKey pointed out that it spent $4 million this year to maintain properties in Memphis and plans to roll out its first fleet of company-branded maintenance vehicles in the coming months.

“We not only want, but need the communities we invest in to prosper and grow,” Esteverena said in a statement.

The company said 85 percent of its Memphis customers surveyed earlier this year reported that their rental homes were satisfactory, good or great.

Yet its number of eviction cases has continued to rise, jumping to 435 filings through Oct. 30 of this year, a 52 percent increase over the same period last year.

That means more visits to the fast-moving chaos of eviction court — where landlords usually win and the fees for renters pile up.

On her visit to court, Brown took a seat at the back of the wood-paneled courtroom. FirstKey had filed nearly half of the 63 evictions cramming the afternoon docket. In just 22 minutes, FirstKey renters were hit with a total of nearly $30,000 in judgments and fees.

When Brown’s case was called, FirstKey’s attorney said Brown and her husband owed $2,242.90: past-due rent, plus a 10 percent late fee, attorney’s fee and other costs.

“Ms. Brown,” said the judge, “do you agree or disagree with the amount they are requesting?”

She didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t believe her original balance of $1,058 had ballooned so high.

“I agree,” she finally said.

“I’ll grant the judgment.”

Brown had 10 days to pay up or get put out.

When Cerberus created FirstKey Homes in 2015 to manage its portfolio of rental homes, it said the new company “will offer its residents best-in-class property management services.”

That was the familiar pitch from large investors after the housing bubble burst in 2008. They were searching for huge scale and outsize returns in a market once left to local mom-and-pop landlords. Institutional investors had already changed the market for commercial real estate and apartment towers. They wanted to do the same with houses.

Many of these firms set up their own property managers to capture the usual 5 to 10 percent management fee.

They said renters benefited, too.

“The emergence of the professionally managed single-family rental industry has provided residents a much-improved resident experience,” the National Rental Home Council, a trade group that includes FirstKey, said on its website.

But others saw a troubling transformation. When wealthy investors are able to buy single-family homes in bulk, residents can be left with only the facade of the American Dream.

“This is the new feudalism,” said Julia Gordon, executive vice president at the National Community Stabilization Trust, a nonprofit organization created in response to the 2008 housing crash. “Many of these homes are not going to go back to traditional single-family homeownership.”

Cerberus has bought 20,730 homes since 2015, when it joined the Wall Street landlords club, according to FirstKey. It has spent at least an estimated $1.6 billion from its investment funds, which manage money raised from pensions, wealthy families and foundations. The number of rental homes owned by Cerberus nationwide has tripled in the past 1 1/ years.

“We see this as a vibrant and durable asset class,” said Esteverena, FirstKey’s chief executive, who was on stage at a single-family rental industry conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., earlier this month, where he was joined by representatives of four other rental-home companies that together owned more than 200,000 homes.

Most of Cerberus’s houses are in medium-size cities hit hard by foreclosures, such as St. Louis, Indianapolis and Memphis, the last of which saw a drop in the percentage of homes that are owner-occupied from 82 percent to 73.5 percent between 2008 and 2016. The Midwest is its “bread and butter,” Esteverena said at the conference.

The company concentrates in what Esteverena called “workforce housing,” an industry term used to describe homes for median-income households. In Memphis, the average FirstKey rental home is a three-bedroom house that rents for $1,117 a month.

Cerberus is led by co-founder Stephen Feinberg, the firm’s co-chief executive who was named earlier this year to President Trump’s intelligence advisory board. One of the firm’s highest-profile moves came in 2007, when it bought troubled automaker Chrysler, a deal that ended in the auto company’s bankruptcy two years later.

Now, Cerberus has turned its attention to single-family rentals, with “their hands pretty deeply involved in the investment,” said a former FirstKey executive, who agreed to talk about the business only on the condition of anonymity.

The move to buy up thousands of rental homes is seen as a bet that many American households will remain locked out of the traditional homebuying market.

“It was an unfortunate byproduct of the housing bubble,” said the same former executive. “I believe it created a permanent rental class out there that will continue to drive demand for these properties in the future.”

On stage in Scottsdale, the rental industry executives echoed this idea. Esteverena cited a study finding that two-thirds of the millennial generation is “not mortgage-ready” despite entering its traditional homeownership years.

It’s a great opportunity, Esteverena said, “provided we treat our residents like gold.”

FirstKey stands out for how it uses evictions in Shelby County, home to Memphis.

The company has filed for eviction at an annual rate of 21 times per 100 homes since 2015, the highest rate among the region’s large property managers and above the overall average in the Memphis area of 11 evictions per 100 rental homes. The discrepancy can’t be explained by where FirstKey has properties: Its rate of filing for evictions is far above average in 17 out of 18 Zip codes where it has at least 20 homes, according to The Post’s analysis.

To conduct the evictions analysis, The Post analyzed more than 83,000 eviction cases in Memphis courts since 2015, including 27,500 identified in single-family rentals. The single-family evictions pertained to 19,000 properties because several homes have been subject to multiple evictions. Data was gathered from courts and from the RealtyTrac foreclosure database.

The Post also witnessed dozens of eviction hearings in court, filed public records requests to learn additional details, researched property records and obtained current leases, as well as talked with dozens of renters, public officials and industry experts, along with past and current company executives.

One way that FirstKey’s use of evictions stood out was frequently filing against the same tenant. Marrena Shorter has been hit with 11 eviction filings in four years — so often, she noted, that the private process server knows her by name. She always pays up, even the late fees and court costs. But she struggles to pay on time. She works as a hospital cook. She has a disabled son at home. Her rent is almost $1,200 a month, she said — about $370 of it from the Memphis Housing Authority, which has paid Cerberus entities more than $5.3 million in low-income rental assistance over the past two years, according to housing authority records obtained by The Post.

Chris Clothier, a partner at Memphis Invest, a real estate firm in Memphis, says he takes a different approach. He says he views an eviction filing as a last resort, preferring to work with struggling tenants, especially because the added costs of court — paid by the tenant — do nothing to alleviate the burden, Clothier said. His company handles 3,500 rental homes in the Memphis area for mostly individual investors, yet it files evictions at less than one-third the rate as FirstKey.

Clothier and others in Memphis and elsewhere say one key factor behind FirstKey’s elevated eviction rate could be that it’s managing more than 20,000 homes scattered in 23 markets across the nation. The scale of corporate rental-home ownership makes it difficult to maintain the traditional relationship between local landlord and local tenant, which is largely — but not solely — a financial relationship.

Cerberus explained on its corporate website that FirstKey provides “a competitive edge to operate our single-family rental strategy in a scalable and efficient manner.” Eviction filings are part of that. But at the local level, eviction filings are also threats to upend lives and displace families — steps smaller landlords seem less likely to take.

“When you have a structured portfolio,” explained the former FirstKey executive, “you have to be mindful that you can’t be making deals with each individual tenant.”

The concern is not limited to Memphis. Large corporate landlords of rental homes were found to be 8 percent more likely to file for eviction than small landlords in the Atlanta area, according to a 2016 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

But FirstKey’s eviction filing rate is higher, too, than for Memphis rental homes owned by other institutional investors.

Eviction filings do not necessarily lead to tenants getting tossed out, a final outcome that is rarely recorded in the county’s court records. The initial filing is most often used against renters who eventually come up with the money — what’s known in the business as “pay and stay.”

But the legal process is often intimidating. An eviction filing shows up on background checks. Tenants with eviction filings are often reluctant to report problems to their landlord.

“The eviction filing immediately changes the power balance,” said Daniel Pasciuti, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University who has studied how landlords wield evictions.

In Memphis, as in many other cities, renters rarely bring an attorney to eviction court. The landlord almost always has one. And the judgments against tenants pile up with speed.

“It turns the courts into a glorified collections agency,” said Brewer, the public interest attorney.

On the day Cassandra Brown was in court, none of the FirstKey tenants had legal representation. None of them asked for an explanation of the many fees that added hundreds of dollars to their bills.

Recently, FirstKey made it even tougher for renters with new leases by slashing the time they had to pay their monthly bills before they face a 10 percent late fee, from 10 days down to five.

As renters were called to stand before a judge in Memphis, several sounded unsure about their rights. One tenant begged for a little more time to pay her rent. Judge Deborah Henderson tried to reassure her.

“And on the first setting, you can request a continuance,” Henderson said.

“Yes, ma’am. I just need one day, just for tomorrow,” she said. “I’ll pay it in full tomorrow.”

“Well,” Henderson said, “we’ll continue it for a week for you.”

Another tenant came in waving a $400 cashier’s check and promised to have another $2,000 in a few more days.

“I don’t think evictions are going to get better until they understand their rights as well as their obligations,” Henderson said later in her chambers.

Cerberus-owned rental homes were cited 190 times for property code violations in Memphis through October of this year, according to The Post’s analysis of 22,500 code enforcement cases drawn from city data.

Even accounting for Cerberus’s large number of homes, its properties posted higher rates of code violations than the average single-family rental in 10 out of 15 Memphis-area Zip codes this year, according to The Post’s analysis of city data. Cerberus had notably lower rates in just three Zip codes.

The data examined by The Post aligns with findings from the Memphis Blight Elimination Steering Team, a mix of public agencies, nonprofits and businesses hoping to revitalize the city. The group realized no one was tracking problems with occupied properties. So earlier this year, it put out its first top-10 list of violators. CSMA BLT LLC — the legal owner of most of Cerberus’s rental homes in Memphis — was No. 1, with 46 violations.

“They are one of the reasons why we’re advocating for some enhancements to our residential code enforcements,” said Knecht, the city public works director.

One change would be a new registry to force out-of-state companies to provide a local contact name and number for rental homes.

“It’s just become a nightmare,” said Patrice Robinson, a Memphis City Council member. “If I have a code violation, you can’t even find a person to get on the phone.”

Even minor problems can be neighborhood irritants, residents say.

“It’s the broken windows theory,” said Lynda Whalen, chairwoman of the Southeast Memphis Neighborhood Partnership. “I’ve got streets near me that will never be the same because investors are not engaged.”

Even a seemingly large problem appeared to escape notice by FirstKey, the company that Cerberus created — in the words of a corporate news release — with the intention of setting “the standard of excellence” for rental home management. 

In December 2017, a Cerberus-owned house on Maulden Drive — one mile from Graceland — burned down. Six months later, the husk of a house was cited for attracting mice. Last month, the city ordered the house to be torn down. But two weeks later, in December, the house still looked as though it had caught fire only days before — its roof caved in, windows broken out, furniture strewn across the lawn. After being asked about the house again by The Post, FirstKey sent out a crew to board it up. FirstKey said it plans to sell the property to a home builder.

Some unresolved code violations end up in a local environmental court — a special division aimed at dealing with nuisance properties. That’s where Cerberus-run CSMA BLT LLC was called in early December. Christopher Neely, who had rented a house on Chatwood Street from FirstKey, said he had problems with water leaks that led to mold and cockroaches. Neely, who has had a kidney transplant, said he broke his lease and moved out.

“I can’t live with mold,” he said.

FirstKey said it is working to fix the problems.

Another former FirstKey tenant, Kelly Jones, sued the company earlier this year over the conditions of her rental home that she said included holes in her flooring, an air-conditioning unit that didn’t work and toilets that didn’t flush. Her breaking point came when she said she discovered rats under her kitchen sink.

Jones’s case was settled before trial in early December, with FirstKey paying Jones “over $5,000 but under $10,000,” her attorney said. FirstKey said its workers saw no evidence of rodent infestation.

Many of FirstKey’s operations are centralized at its headquarters outside Atlanta. Memphis has only a branch office. The lack of a local presence has probably hurt FirstKey, said Jim Reedy of Reedy & Company, a Memphis firm that had helped operate about 1,000 homes in the area before it was sold to Cerberus in a 2015 package deal.

“I think they’ve found it a little harder to manage than others,” Reedy said.

A former FirstKey maintenance worker said the company struggled in some markets to keep pace with homes added to its rental rolls.

“We were not prepared for the workload,” said the former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the company.

Cassandra and Terry Brown moved into their brick house on Tammwood Drive in 2005.

It was on a quiet street. It had a big yard. It seemed like the perfect place to raise their two young boys.

Terry Brown’s parents bought them the house that year for $100,000 and obtained an adjustable-rate mortgage. They all agreed that Cassandra and Terry Brown would make the monthly payments. The mortgage started out around $675 a month, plus $150 in taxes.

Cassandra Brown had a job as a scheduler at the local children’s hospital. Her husband had a union job at the Wonder Bread factory downtown.

Two years later, their mortgage rate shot up — along with the monthly payments.

Wonder Bread struggled. Its corporate parent said it needed union concessions. Brown was among the workers who saw his pay cut, which only delayed the eventual corporate demise.

It was all starting to come apart — and not just for the Browns.

Their mortgage, packaged into a mortgage-backed security trust called SURF 2005-AB3, ended up being mentioned in a Federal Housing Finance Agency lawsuit against Bank of America, alleging violations of securities law and fraud. It was settled for $9.3 billion in 2014.

But it didn’t matter to the Browns. They couldn’t afford their skyrocketing mortgage payments. They fell into default. Their house was sold on the courthouse steps in October 2009 to a local investor for less than $29,000. That investor sold to another group, which then sold to Cerberus.

At Sean Hannity’s properties in low-income areas, an aggressive approach to rent collection has lasting consequences for former tenants like Shemekia Fluellen. (Video: Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post, Photo: John Parks/The Washington Post)

In 2009, the same year the Browns lost their home, Memphis sued Wells Fargo, accusing it of targeting African American neighborhoods with deceptive and pricey mortgage loans. The case was settled for $432.5 million in 2012.

Brewer, the public interest lawyer, helped file that lawsuit against Wells Fargo. He still has the maps on his law office’s walls showing how those troublesome loans clustered in certain parts of Memphis. He was stunned when he was shown a Post map analyzing rental home evictions. There was almost complete overlap, he said.

“It’s like a slap in the face and then a backhand,” Brewer said.

Today, the Browns pay $965 a month in rent to FirstKey. That’s more than they were paying each month when they owned the house in 2005, and when they lost it in 2009. They were undone by a single year when their adjustable-rate mortgage spiked and added $700 to their monthly payment. Still, it’s different being a renter. They are not building equity. Their legal ties to the house are weaker. A homeowner usually has at least three months before foreclosure. The grace period for renters is shorter, often just a month.

In September, the Browns were late on rent. The 10 percent late fee kicked in. They called to see whether they could pay the balance before going to court. Terry Brown said he was told no. FirstKey already planned to file for eviction. He didn’t understand but felt powerless.

FirstKey filed what is known as a forcible entry and detainer warrant on Oct. 1. A process server delivered legal papers to the Browns’ 19-year-old son at home. Court was set for Oct. 17. The family would be two months behind on rent by then.

Their case took 98 seconds. A judgment against them was entered. They had 10 business days to pay in full. Cassandra Brown returned to her job at the hospital. She called Terry Brown, who was out of town on his new job as a trucker.

On Oct. 31, the last day before FirstKey could force eviction, Terry Brown rushed over to FirstKey’s office with a money order for nearly $2,500: two months of rent plus more than $600 in fees. The added costs meant they fell only further behind, Cassandra Brown said. November rent was due the next day. There was no way they could come up with it. FirstKey filed for eviction at month’s end. Third time this year.

“You’re scrambling as they back you into a corner,” Terry Brown said.

Recently, Terry Brown stood in the kitchen of his rental house, a home he used to think of as his own, where the dishwasher didn’t work and the wiring to a light was broken, problems he was afraid to bring up with FirstKey.

“You don’t want to push them,” he said. “You never know.”

He still thought about owning this house. He imagined how he would care for it. Paint the exterior wood trim. Replace the dishwasher. Repair the fence.

“I wonder if they would sell the house back,” he said.