© 2024 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You Count on Us, We Count on You: Donate to WUSF to support free, accessible journalism for yourself and the community.
How investors and large corporations that are buying more single-family homes are putting a pinch on homeowners and renters across the greater Tampa Bay region.

Tampa Bay renters call out 'unlivable conditions' under corporate landlords

Large corporations, like Amherst and Invitation Homes, own thousands of homes across the greater Tampa Bay region. Renters say they’re unresponsive, quick to evict and only care about their bottom line.

Sophie DeMartine regrets her decision to rent from a corporate landlord.

She lives with her husband, Matt Embrey, in a three-bedroom home managed by Main Street Renewal. The company is a subsidiary of Amherst, a multibillion dollar company that owns more than 45,000 single-family homes across 32 U.S. markets.

“I didn’t think it was gonna be this bad – this unresponsive,” she said. “I didn’t actually think an organization like this would treat people this poorly.”

A couple stands at a doorway.
Gabriella Paul
Sophie DeMartine (right) and Matt Embrey walk into their Sarasota home, a rental property owned by Amherst. DeMartine looks in disbelief at their disconnected doorbell that hasn't been operational since they moved in last year.

DeMartine said the home was in a great location at a decent price, so they decided to take their chances despite what she had learned about the corporation.

She had read bad reviews online about Main Street Renewal, including some of the nearly 2,000 complaints to the Better Business Bureau that triggered an investigation into the corporate landlord last year.

Many of the complaints cite “unreasonable delays in response to reported maintenance issues” and “difficulty when contacting the business to follow up,” according to the business profile on the website.

DeMartine said they are still waiting on repairs for a leaking skylight, a growing crack in their living room wall, uneven flooring of the shower tub and water damage in their master bathroom.

A spokesperson for Main Street Renewal said that the company employs over 700 professionals "dedicated to resident experience and a quality home," and that the property management company "endeavors to respond to tenant maintenance requests in a timely manner."

But renters tell a different story and experts warn that maintenance delays, increases in evictions and other issues could become more common as the presence of corporate landlords grows nationally.

The rise of corporate landlords

America’s single-family rental market is growing more corporatized.

One forecast by MetLife Investment Management estimates institutional investors could own up to 40% of single-family homes in the U.S. by 2030.

The largest corporate buyers of single-family homes are often structured as private equity firms, like Blackstone, or real-estate investment trusts, like Invitation Homes, with shares that are publicly traded on Wall Street.

They began swallowing up properties in the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis and have continued to increase their holdings since then. And some corporations have been expanding their rental empires by using non-traditional strategies, like becoming home builders and employing rent-to-own models.

This has been especially true in markets across the Sun Belt region, including in the greater Tampa Bay area.

An analysis of thousands of tax parcel records and business filings by Renz Torres, a researcher at the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center for Housing Studies, revealed that the five largest corporate landlords own an estimated 20,000 single-family homes across the region.

Torres said that their holdings aren’t distributed equally across the Tampa Bay region, including Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk and Hernando counties.

The largest corporations in Tampa Bay’s housing market are buying up single-family homes in different neighborhoods

 The map shows the number of homes owned by each of the five largest single-family rental companies across the following counties: Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas and Polk. Click through the layers in the top left to see where each corporation owns homes, by county and ZIP code.

Data notes: The analysis was completed using 2023 tax parcel data from the Florida Department of Revenue and business registry filings from the Florida Division of Corporations' Sunbiz database.
Source: Renz Torres, University of Florida Shimberg Center for Housing Studies

Todd Bates is a renter in St. Petersburg’s Five Points neighborhood. He has lived in the area for 10 years.

He avoids renting from corporate landlords and he keeps tabs on where they’re buying property.

In 2022, Bates said he noticed a boon in corporate-owned rental listings near him. He started fact-checking his suspicions against online property records, and eventually started tracking his findings in a spreadsheet.

A man stands beside a wooden table and chairs outdoors.
Gabriella Paul
Todd Bates stands in the back porch of his St. Petersburg rental home that he rents from a small landlord. He said he's determined to never rent from a large corporation.

“I'm just a regular guy who was just curious as to what was going on out there,” he said. “And I think the total that I found – just in the time that I looked – was around 600 properties.”

Bates said tracking the corporate ownership of hundreds of homes was an imperfect science that usually began with “some LLC with a weird name.”

Invisible giants

That’s because large corporations, like Amherst and Invitation Homes, rarely list properties in their name.

Instead, they create hundreds of shell companies with names like “SWAY 2014 BORROWER LLC” and “JEFF 1 LLC,” making it difficult to trace back to the parent companies.

Amherst describes it's process on it's website:

“Technology is integrated throughout our vertically integrated firm to feed back business intelligence that guides our decision-making so that we can preserve more value for owners and residents – whether they are institutional investors or families looking to rent a home.”

Amherst and Invitation Homes are among the rental housing giants that have taken to building their own homes, too.

Large corporations are behind the wave of new build-to-rent communities across the greater Tampa Bay region

The map indicates dozens of build-to-rent communities across the greater Tampa Bay region that are owned by a large corporations and were built in the last five years. Build-to-rent communities are neighborhoods solely comprised of single-family homes for rent.

Data notes: The analysis was completed using 2023 tax parcel data from the Florida Department of Revenue and business registry filings from the Florida Division of Corporations' Sunbiz database. Build-to-rent communities were inferred from the tax parcel data by geographically clustered single-family housing that built in or after 2018 and owned by a large corporation. Due to missing or incomplete data, the map may not capture every build-to-rent community in the region.
Source: Renz Torres, University of Florida Shimberg Center for Housing Studies

Renting from corporate landlords feels like doing business with invisible giants – large, faceless companies – that are intentionally disorganized and hard to reach directly, according to renters across the greater Tampa Bay region.

That’s been part of the frustration for Clearwater renter Tevhan Jones.

“It’s like a factory line for housing – and it’s not a very well planned or thought out one,” he said.

Jones moved into a house with a mold infestation that has gone unfixed for months.

He said it’s been impossible to reach higher-ups at Invitation Homes despite the “unlivable conditions” of the home.

An official from Invitation Homes took issue with Jones' characterization of the company. In a written statement, a spokesperson said that the company invests in providing prompt, professional service to residents, including the timely turnaround of all maintenance requests.

"We are proud of the service we provide and believe our residents overwhelmingly appreciate our efforts, as evidenced by our 97% occupancy rate, 78% renewal rate, combined Google and Yelp rating of 4.35, A+ rating with the BBB, and residents who stay an average of three years with us," according to the statement.

Invitation Homes has a customer rating of 2.2, according to the business profile on Yelp. And while the company does have an A+ rating on the Better Business Bureau, the rating doesn't include the 1,371 customers complaints in its calculations, according to the website.

Invitation Homes also updates residents on the status of requests through its ProCare program, a third-party software company, and sends maintenance professionals to the rental homes twice a year for "proactive maintenance visits," according to a company spokesperson.

Unlivable conditions

Jones said he lives in a home with two roommates without a working shower. They started renting in September.

“The day that my friends signed the lease and we move in here – we go to use the shower, and it starts leaking water out of the walls…They sent us, one of their staff members out, he cut a hole in the wall and found mold,” Jones said.

Jones said they treated the mold promptly, but the pipes were corroded and both bathrooms had to be gutted.

Nearly a year later, the home still looks like a construction zone.

The flooring is stripped and plastic sheets hang where walls should be. The bathroom sinks are detached and sit in their backyard. There’s one working toilet and no working showers.

“We can’t come home and feel comfortable. This created a lot of stress, a lot of tensions…we’re all, like, in line to use one toilet now,” Jones said.

The corporate landlord has faced similar accusations of poor maintenance practices from renters in other markets. Invitation Homes has also been the subject of class-action lawsuits across the country for price gouging and unjust late fees.

At the end of last year, Jones and his roommates were fed up. So, they withheld rent in an attempt to force the repairs.

Instead, they ended up with a swift eviction notice.

Jones said now they are learning just how difficult it is to go up against Tampa Bay’s largest corporate landlord in court.

Quick to evict

Corporate landlords deviate from small landlords in their use of eviction filings, according to Henry Gomory, a researcher with Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.

In a study of rental properties and eviction filings in Boston, Gomory found large landlords are two to three times more likely to evict than small landlords.

"These corporate actors — they're acting more perniciously, and more aggressively and more harmful towards tenants," Gomory said. "But they're really following the dictates of a for-profit rental market."

The data also shows large landlords often use the eviction process as “a means of rent collection and tenant discipline,” but are less likely to follow through with execution of the eviction, or actually removing renters from the property.

In Jones’ case, they recently received a settlement offer out of court that would dismiss the eviction case without adjusting future rent costs or promising to complete overdue repairs.

If accepted, the settlement would also prohibit Jones and his roommates from making “negative or disparaging statements” in any “broadcast channels, including… internet postings, newspaper articles, letters, interviews or press releases,” according to a copy of the settlement shared with WUSF.

Jones said they don’t plan to comply.

“Personally, the only way I would ever consider signing this…would be if they took our unlivable conditions as an urgent matter,” Jones wrote in a text message.

The bottom line

Other renters said they don’t feel wronged by their corporate landlords, but they would still prefer a more personal experience.

Read more: Experts say midsize investors play an important role in the rental housing market

Renters Jamie and Nathan live in a gated Sarasota community with their two kids. They prefer to go by their first names for privacy reasons not related to this story.

Their home is owned by Pathlight Management, the exclusive property management division of real-estate giant Home Partners of America.

Jamie has some frustrations, like the lack of personalized care from management and the need to communicate primarily through a tenant portal.

In response, a spokesperson for Pathlight Property Management said that the company takes pride in serving its residents and pointed to a resource available to those who want to reach management directly.

The company assigns a dedicated customer service agent, or "resident partner," to every renter," according to the spokesperson.

"We apologize for any difficulty the resident encountered in reaching their dedicated Resident Partner and we look forward to reaching out to ensure they know about the full extent of resources available to them,” according to the spokesperson.

Home Partners of America has also made headlines in recent years over criticism involving the parent company’s rent-to-own housing model.

Rent-to-own homes are concentrated in Tampa suburbs

The map shows the location, by ZIP code, of single-family homes owned by rent-to-own companies across the greater Tampa Bay region, using 2023 data. 

Data notes: The analysis was completed using 2023 tax parcel data from the Florida Department of Revenue and business registry filings from the Florida Division of Corporations' Sunbiz database. Parent companies using a rent-to-own business model in the greater Tampa Bay region include Home Partners of America, Divvy Homes, Dream Homes, Landis, and Trio.
Source: Renz Torres, University of Florida Shimberg Center for Housing Studies

“I think they have so many properties that they lose sight that there are actual families living here that just want a safe, affordable home to live in,” Jamie said. “And it just becomes another asset that, you know, helps fund other people,” she said.

Jamie said it feels like the burden of home upkeep is put on the renters. Her husband, Nathan, estimates they spend an additional $500 per month on maintenance tasks, like pool service, irrigation and lawn work.

That’s on top of the base rent of $3,000, which Jamie said they consider affordable these days.

A woman looks at her phone.
Gabriella Paul
Jamie reviews her online tenant portal while sitting at her kitchen table. She said management requires most communication to go through the app.

“Struggle – would be a good description of renting in Sarasota,” Jamie said.

She said they’ve seen rents for single-family homes nearly double in the seven years they’ve lived in Sarasota. At the same time, Jamie said she’s noticed more rental properties managed by mega corporations.

“When we first moved here, when you look at all the standard websites for houses for rent, there wasn’t a lot of these big management companies,” she said. “And now that’s basically all you find.”

The way she sees it, large corporations are buying single-family properties to rent them back to the working families who would prefer to buy.

Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a  Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.

I tell stories about living paycheck to paycheck for public radio at WUSF News. I’m also a corps member of Report For America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.