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As corporations buy up rentals, more tenants struggle to reach landlords about issues

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Our next story starts with a woman in Hartford, Conn., who has rented her apartment for years. When it started falling into disrepair, her landlord did not respond, and she didn't know where to turn. She's part of a growing nationwide trend of tenants unable to identify their landlords when those landlords are corporations. Connecticut Public Radio's Abigail Brone reports.

ABIGAIL BRONE, BYLINE: Hartford resident Melvina "Bonnie" Keaton has lived in the same apartment for nearly a decade with her two sons. Keaton walks down the hallway, leading from her bedroom to her kitchen.

BONNIE KEATON: I clicked the breakers, but they're not coming on, so we don't know if that's from the water damage or what it is.

BRONE: The living room lights don't work, and the room's only illumination shines in from the bedroom window. She says the problem started around five years ago. The building was foreclosed on and began to fall into disrepair - flooding, damaged medical equipment for her son, Andre, who's nonverbal and has autism.

KEATON: My son was hospitalized. I wasted a lot of things trying to clean up water damage, trying to keep us from freezing. My son medical bed - it does not work.

BRONE: For years, Keaton reached out to whomever she believed to be the property manager, often with no response. It's a common problem when there are many links in the chain between tenants and out-of-state landlords. She fulfilled her monthly money order for rent even when the addressee changed to a new owner she'd never spoken to.

KEATON: No one knows that I'm going through this because no one listening to me.

BRONE: When the neglect resulted in living without heat, Keaton began withholding rent in October 2021. She wasn't sure who she was paying or who to turn to for help after her apartment was purchased by an LLC, or limited liability company, outside of Connecticut. Not all corporate owners are neglectful, but the levels of separation between tenants and corporate landlords makes it difficult to hold those landlords accountable. I followed Keaton's living situation for eight months. In that time, tenants and their advocates across the state have protested against corporate ownership and poor living conditions. Shamus Roller, executive director at the National Housing Law Project, says low-income neighborhoods like Keaton's are targeted for corporate ownership, as shown in studies in Atlanta and Milwaukee.

SHAMUS ROLLER: In the real estate market in general, the rentals in lower-income neighborhoods have tended to be a higher profit margin overall.

BRONE: Housing advocates say corporate landlord ownership saw an uptick following the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts say the number of corporate landlords is hard to quantify because LLC owners can be hard to track. And existing data is incomplete despite national laws requiring landlords to provide a point of contact. Connecticut's Department of Housing is working to differentiate between local and corporate landlords, gathering information on property owners and their locations. Housing commissioner Seila Mosquera-Bruno says the state recognizes the concern.

SEILA MOSQUERA-BRUNO: What we're doing is reaching out to our landlords because this is not just landlords against tenants. This is about all of us working together.

BRONE: With the lengthy chain of command between Bonnie Keaton and her apartment owner, I traced her rental property through land records and annual filings to the secretary of the state and found the LLC was operated by a California mortgage lender, GreenLake Asset Management. Paul Diamond, chief operating officer, says the company has no part in their properties' daily operations.

PAUL DIAMOND: But we have a local property management company that we've engaged, and they know the city. They know the market.

BRONE: That property manager, Park Broad Investments, didn't respond to us. But they did contact Bonnie Keaton in September to start eviction proceedings. In February, Diamond's company sold the property to another out-of-state landlord behind a local LLC. Neither the new property managers nor the New York-based owners responded to a request for comment. Keaton's eviction case bounced around until she wasn't sure who was evicting her. In 2022, a congressional subcommittee discussed corporate ownerships pricing out low- to middle-income renters. Liz Zelnick with nonprofit advocacy group Accountable.US says out-of-state landlords are buying properties everywhere, not just in large cities.

LIZ ZELNICK: And this investment strategy that these corporate landlords are taking on is sort of spreading across the country and making it unaffordable for most Americans.

KEATON: ...While we was in here.

BRONE: Back in Hartford, Keaton's looking for a new apartment and plans to research who owns the building before she signs any lease and recommends other renters do the same.

For NPR News, I'm Abigail Brone.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "STILL TRILL (FEAT. METHOD MAN AND GRAFH)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Abigail Brone