Kathleen Hernandez, her fiancée, and her family moved into their dream home in Las Vegas in June 2020. The nightmare started a month later.

“The downstairs bathroom overflowed, twice,” Hernandez says. She adds that she noticed the foul-smelling water rushing onto her front yard a few weeks later. It was water from the sewer. Toilet paper could be seen coming out of the pipe.”

Although she claims that her landlord is Progress Residential LLC. Pretium Partners LLC is listed as the property’s owner. Hernandez didn’t know this. She says, “It’s no wonder I didn’t know who to call.”

She says that the problem of flowing wastewater isn’t solved. It comes and goes. “We try to avoid the use of the downstairs bathroom.”

She says that she has never fallen behind on rent, even though the rent increased last June when she renewed her lease. There are many broken things in the house: the dishwasher isn’t working, the upstairs shower doesn’t work and the disposal doesn’t work. We won’t be responsible if it breaks. Hernandez claims that the landlord is responsible to fix larger items. However, the lease states that Hernandez is not interested in the problem.

NPR received an email from Progress Residential confirming that Hernandez’s request was being addressed. “Repeated, timely visits were made at Ms. Hernandez’s house to address maintenance problems that required persistent work.”

Hernandez said that Progress’s comment was not surprising. “Last time they called us, it took weeks for them to send someone to fix the problem. They sent another landscaping company, this time it was a broken pipe and flooding problem.

Hernandez is a member the Renters Rising National Tenant Association. This alliance includes people who live in corporate-owned property.

Hernandez, six other renters, and a U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs hearing on Tuesday shared their stories. People spoke out about living in “hazardous conditions”, “flooded basements”, “constant rent rises,” and “eviction threats” from landlords who are skilled at “exploiting legal loopholes.”

Joel Griffith disagrees. Joel Griffith is a Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity. This think tank is located in Washington, D.C.

He writes that renters have many options for renting a home.

He says that renters have full legal protections from wrongful eviction and unsafe living conditions. “Landlords who make it difficult to expel tenants who are threatening the quality of their neighbor’s lives is one of the greatest concerns.”

As a follow-up to Tuesday’s session, Grifftih will be testifying before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs on Thursday.

Corporate landlords extract value from their buildings

Ellen Davidson, a housing lawyer with the Legal Aid Society of New York City, is a renter and 66% of households in New York City are occupied by tenants. Davidson states that large corporations use LLCs (or the limited liability company) to protect themselves from liability.

She says that tenants are often retaliated against when they complain to their landlords about repairs.

She says, “The government should be focusing on building, developing and finding safe, decent, affordable housing.”

Davidson claims that corporate landlords can take the value of a building. She says, “You raise rents and you cut costs as severe as possible. This usually means deferred maintenance or neglect, making buildings more hazardous, code violations, not dealing directly with heat problems, or making buildings more dangerous.”

Housing advocates are concerned about the recent deadly fire in Bronx, New York, that claimed 17 lives and injured many others. Many believe that the partially government-funded realty deals allow some landlords to enrich themselves while not paying enough attention to making sure these housing units remain safe.

According to Commissioner Daniel Nigro of New York Fire Department, the Bronx fire was started by a defective portable space heater that had been installed in an apartment. It spread because of failing safety doors.

Mamadou Wague and his wife, along with their eight children, lived in the apartment that was the first to catch fire. They are West African immigrants, just like most of the other residents. NPR’s Wague said that the family used portable heaters as the apartment was too cold to sleep in.

The country is experiencing a housing shortage. This includes affordable housing both for rent and home ownership. The National Association of Realtors states that there is only one affordable listing for every 65 households, and this shortage is driving up the prices. In recent years, Senator Sherrod Brown (D.OH), who is the chairman of the Senate panel on housing, hosted a series listening sessions. He called Fannie Mae (the largest government-funded housing financier) and Freddie Mac in 2020. Brown wrote to Hugh Frater to express concern about large private equity firms purchasing affordable housing properties in large quantities to make profit. He wrote that “more and more wealthy, deep pocketed investors are buying up homes that serve as the basis for families’ lives.” They see these buildings as an annual return on equity.

Renters fight for their rights

Joseph Donahue is a lawyer at the Donahue Law Firm, Annapolis. He is co-counsel in a lawsuit against Arbor Realty Trust Inc., and its subsidiaries, filed last summer in the U.S. District Court for Maryland.

Arbor Realty Trust is the owner of Victoria Station and Bedford, a multifamily residential complex in Langley Park. This densely populated area in Hyattsville, Md., is home to Arbor Realty Trust. Arbor Realty Trust filed an amended complaint last month. According to the complaint Arbor owns approximately 139 multifamily properties with 17,000 apartments in 12 states.

He says, “If the government is going lend money to these large corporations that are in many cases publicly traded, then they must guarantee that the conditions are safe.”

Donahue asserts that corporate landlords are not responsible.

Ross Companies manages the Bedford and Victoria Station complexes. NPR made several calls to Ross and left messages for his public relations office in Bethesda. NPR got no response.

NPR reached out to Victoria Station and Bedford apartments as well for comments on Juan Cuellar’s Tuesday testimony about unsafe living conditions. The company declined to comment.

Donahue states that the government does not fully grasp how this industry exploits people, then raises their rents year after years.

The complaint claims violations of the Fair Housing Act, which includes intentional discrimination based upon race and nationality.

According to DSNews (an online housing group), more than 3.7million households lost their homes due to foreclosure during the 2008 Great Recession.

Donahue explains that this is when corporate landlords and private equity companies began buying foreclosed homes with tax breaks. Donahue says that there are people who live in these properties and are fumigating the properties. They’re purchasing space heaters, just like the Bronx’s. Their heat isn’t working. Because the owners aren’t doing it, they are maintaining and updating the properties.

Sometimes, moving is not an option

Juan Cuellar is one example. Cuellar is a handyman and house painter. He often fumigates in his apartment and repairs. Cuellar has been living in Bedford Victoria Station for over ten years with his wife, 18-year old son, and three grandchildren. Cuellar is part of the tenant committee of his building. He supports the class action lawsuit even though he is not a participant.

He says, “We must win in court. We deserve better housing conditions.”

He said to senators, in his native Spanish, that the floor was buckling and that heat is not available. “The A.C. units don’t work, the fridge doesn’t work.”

Cuellar stated that his rent has increased and that he now must pay water fees. CASA, a non-profit immigrant advocacy group based in Hyattsville is a plaintiff in the case and has been working for tenants to secure rent assistance. Arbor received about a million dollars of rental assistance through the Prince George’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

Cuellar stated that most of the tenants and residents in the area are Central American immigrants.

Cuellar explains, “I moved to this area in 1997.” “I love the area. My wife can walk to Latino shops and she doesn’t have to drive.

He says it wouldn’t be simple to move.

He says, “We are low-income people that don’t have enough money to move.”