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Out-of-state landlords are on the rise in CT. Here’s why that concerns renters

Melvina “Bonnie” Keaton stands next to her son Andre, who is autistic. The flooring is lifted and peeling from regular water damage. Andre, ignoring mom, tries to resume his afternoon nap.
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
Melvina “Bonnie” Keaton watches over her napping son Andre who is non-verbal and autistic. Water coming into the room has damaged Andre’s medical equipment, the walls and flooring.

Hartford resident Melvina “Bonnie” Keaton has lived in the same North End apartment on Bedford Street for nearly a decade with her two sons.

The living room lights don’t work and the room’s only illumination shines in from the bedroom window.

In 2022, Bonnie photographed a hole that opened up in the ceiling of Andre’s room. Water coming through the whole endangered electrical cords needed for his medical bed.
Provided
/
Melvina Keaton
In 2022, Bonnie photographed a hole that opened up in the ceiling of Andre’s room.

She says the problems started around five years ago. The building was foreclosed on and began to fall into disrepair, with water flooding her apartment and damaging medical equipment for her son, Andre, who’s nonverbal and autistic.

“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,” Keaton said. “My son was hospitalized. I wasted a lot of things trying to clean up water damage, trying to keep us from freezing. My son['s] medical bed, it does not work.”

Keaton’s experience struggling to get in touch with building management reflects the recent rise of corporate landlords that are based outside of Connecticut. Advocates and state officials say it’s a growing problem – and often results in renters feeling helpless.

Over the last few years, Keaton says she’s reached out to whatever contact she believed to be the property manager or superintendent, often with no response.

“No one knows that I'm going through this because no one[‘s] listening to me,” Keaton said.

Keaton withheld rent starting in October 2021. She wasn’t sure who she was paying or who to turn to for help, because her apartment was one of a batch of buildings on Bedford Street purchased by an LLC, or limited liability company, outside of Connecticut.

A growing trend 

Andre is autistic and non-verbal. Connecticut law offers additional protections to renters who are disabled or the caregiver of a disabled person, but those protections are not always enough.
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
Andre is autistic and non-verbal. Connecticut law offers additional protections to renters who are disabled or the caregiver of a disabled person, but those protections are not always enough.

Over the last six months, tenants at several apartment buildings in the state rallied around the issue of new, corporate ownership. Civil rights attorney Cynthia Jennings spoke in September at a protest calling out companies outside the region that are raising rents.

“People from out of town and out of state are moving into our communities and taking over properties that are not accessible to the people who live here and pay taxes,” Jennings said.

Anecdotally, housing advocates say corporate landlord ownership has increased nationwide since the 2008 housing market crash, and in Connecticut since the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts say the number of corporate landlords is hard to quantify because LLC owners can be hard to track.

Bonnie struggled to keep track of who owned her building as it changed hands between new owners and management companies. At times she was unsure of who her rent checks were even meant to be going to.
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
Bonnie struggled to keep track of who owned her building as it changed hands between new owners and management companies. At times she was unsure of who her rent checks were even meant to be going to.

The state is running into problems with programs set up to help tenants with rent because of property owners who are out of the area, said Seila Mosquera-Bruno, commissioner for the Connecticut Department of Housing.

“It’s really difficult,” Mosquera-Bruno said. “Through the rent relief, we received several calls from tenants that were being evicted because somebody bought the buildings, in many instances. The difficulty is that when somebody comes and buys the property they form LLCs. And then you can’t find the owner and they’re overseas, out of state.”

The state is trying to find a way to differentiate between local and corporate landlords by generating a database, Mosquera-Bruno said.

For now, state lawmakers are considering a bill that would require out-of-town landlords in Connecticut to register with an address and phone number.

Tracing ownership

Bonnie has had trouble with electrical failings throughout the apartment. As a result, her kitchen is lit by this single desk lamp attached to a cabinet.
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
Bonnie has had trouble with electrical failings throughout the apartment. As a result, her kitchen is lit by this single desk lamp attached to a cabinet.

Since the database isn’t up and running yet, Connecticut Public traced Keaton’s rental property through Hartford land records, as well as annual filings to the Secretary of the State, and found the LLC was operated by a California mortgage lender – GreenLake Asset Management.

GreenLake was the lender to the former owner of Keaton’s apartment. When that owner defaulted on the loan, the lender took it back.

Paul Diamond, GreenLake’s chief operating officer, said the company has no part in their properties’ daily operations.

“That’s why you hire experts. People who know what they're good at doing,” Diamond said.

At the time, Diamond said a local property management firm was handling Hartford tenants like Keaton, a common practice for out-of-state owners. That property manager didn’t respond to Connecticut Public’s request for comment. But Diamond said he doesn’t think out-of-state landlords are the problem.

“We have a local property management company that we've engaged and they know the city. They know the market,” Diamond said.

That management company did finally contact Keaton in September – to start eviction proceedings – after she went public about her situation.

But 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.

Lower-income neighborhoods vulnerable 

Bonnie’s eviction notice came as she was already looking to move out of the apartment. But doing so proved difficult. The fact that she was technically housed, but that the property had been deemed “unmanageable” caused her to fall through the cracks of many programs that might have normally been able to help her financially.
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
Bonnie’s eviction notice came as she was already looking to move out of the apartment. But doing so proved difficult. The fact that she was technically housed, but that the property had been deemed “unmanageable” caused her to fall through the cracks of many programs that might have normally been able to help her financially.

Low-income neighborhoods are home to vulnerable tenants like Keaton, and are often targeted for corporate ownership, said Sarah White, an attorney at Connecticut Fair Housing Center. The neighborhoods are areas with large rent gaps, meaning current rent is relatively low compared to what investors think they can charge.

“The way we'll hold them accountable is by passing tenant protections that apply to everybody,” White said.

The issue isn’t unique to Connecticut, but plays out nationwide, as White saw at a recent California conference.

“There are always local variations to what we're experiencing. We didn't always have the same landlords, but the stories really are the same,” White said.

Back in Hartford’s North End neighborhood, Keaton is looking for a new apartment while her eviction proceedings are pending. She plans to research who exactly owns the building before she signs any lease.

“I would just prefer to have just a person, a landlord, an individual,” Keaton said.

Someone local she can reach out to, instead of a landlord based out of town.

Abigail is Connecticut Public's housing reporter, covering statewide housing developments and issues, with an emphasis on Fairfield County communities. She received her master's from Columbia University in 2020 and graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2019. Abigail previously covered statewide transportation and the city of Norwalk for Hearst Connecticut Media. She loves all things Disney and cats.