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.

‘THEY DON’T CARE’

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 unmowed lawns, but they also have included major issues 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 local 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.

‘A BAD OUTCOME’

“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 their rental homes were satisfactory, good or great.

Yet its number of evictions 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.

‘CAN’T LIVE WITH MOLD’

Cerberus has bought 20,730 homes since 2015, 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.

Meanwhile, Cerberus-owned rental homes were cited 190 times for property code violations in Memphis, according to Post analysis.

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.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.