A corporate landlord's takeover spotlights racial inequities and displacement fears in west Louisville
Stacey Young said he got a letter late last year informing him that an out-of-state company had bought the bungalow he’s rented for nearly a decade in west Louisville’s Shawnee neighborhood.
Young immediately had questions about the Texas-based firm:
Would the new owner take care of the property? Would rent go up? Would Young, his wife and their three children get pushed out?
“I’m feeling like I’m walking on eggshells, I don’t know what I’m dealin’ with,” he said.
More than six months later, Young and his family were packing their things.
Young said the property owner sent him an email in June saying he’d need to renew his lease and agree to pay $1,500 for rent – a near $670 increase compared to what he had previously paid – if he wanted to stay.
“I can’t afford that,” Young said. “I’m out.”
The company that bought Young’s house is a subsidiary of Amherst Residential, a private firm based in Austin, Texas that’s building an empire of single-family homes across Jefferson County.
Amherst owns about 1,330 properties in Louisville purchased through at least 31 different subsidiaries — a catalog they’ve paid more than $152 million to build since 2016, according to an analysis of county property records by The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. Nearly all the properties are single-family homes.
The company has acquired more houses in Louisville than any other buyer this year – over 430 – according to our analysis. The majority of Amherst’s acquisitions, about seven in 10, were properties in west Louisville neighborhoods, including Shawnee, Chickasaw, Park Hill and Russell.
Amherst has emerged as the biggest private property owner in the area, where most residents are Black, and people are more likely to rent rather than own their home.
Amherst’s subsidiaries are listed in records under the same address as the company’s Austin headquarters. They have obscure or abbreviated names – like AVRM LLC or BAF 2 LLC, which purchased Young’s home from his previous landlord in Shawnee. Amherst tenants are more familiar with Main Street Renewal. That’s the property management arm that handles maintenance requests, listings and other rental matters for Amherst.
KyCIR spoke with more than a dozen people living in Amherst-owned rental properties. Some complained about bad communication and hidden fees. Nearly all cited property maintenance as a major problem.
We reviewed city records and found that one in 10 Amherst properties has an open property maintenance case for alleged violations ranging from uncut grass and busted doors to standing water, sewer backups and other issues.
No other property owner has more open cases than Amherst, according to city records. And compared to the five private entities that own the most property in Louisville, Amherst has the highest percent of properties with an open case. Second was a nonprofit group with nearly 380 properties, of which 8% had open cases, while no other entity had more than 5% of its properties with an open case.
Records show Amherst’s west Louisville properties account for more than a third of its alleged code violations. But just 17% of Amherst’s housing portfolio is in the area, where the company spent $26.6 million buying more than 300 properties between January and May.
Amherst spokesperson Alexandra Clements said in an emailed statement that the company is providing a vital need in communities amid a “historic under supply of single-family homes and restrictive mortgage lending qualifications.”
The company repairs and renovates homes and rents to people who often don’t qualify for a mortgage loan, Clements said. Main Street Renewal employs a 20-person property management team to service tenants, hires local businesses as subcontractors, and supports residents by helping connect them with financial counseling, emergency food assistance and other resources, she said.
“We deeply care about our residents, the city and the communities we serve,” she said.
Amherst and other investor-backed landlords are transforming neighborhoods across the country as they expand their portfolios of family homes for rent, shrinking opportunities for people to buy homes and reducing affordability by raising rents, said Elora Lee Raymond, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
She said the companies tend to evict more tenants and drive gentrification and displacement – especially in communities of color. Black households have also faced long-lasting barriers to homeownership such as lending discrimination, racist housing policies like redlining and income inequality, which have widened racial wealth gaps.
Many Black communities and households are still dealing with the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis and the rash of foreclosures that cost many U.S. households their homes but hit Black and Latino families, who were more likely than whites to be saddled with high-cost subprime mortgages from lenders, particularly hard.
In 2019, the Urban Institute, a nonprofit policy group, reported that Black ownership rates had dropped "to levels not seen since the 1960s, when private race-based discrimination was legal."
In June, Raymond warned lawmakers at a U.S. House committee hearing about the negative impacts companies like Amherst can have on neighborhoods.
“The loss of homeownership opportunities and rising cost of owner-occupied housing creates lasting harm to the new generation of homeowners and to racial and ethnic minorities historically barred from homeownership,” she said during the hearing.
Raymond urged policymakers to mandate rent controls, eviction reforms and strengthen tenant protections.
In Louisville, city officials know — and aren’t surprised — that investor-backed companies like Amherst are buying homes here and across the county.
It’s disheartening, said Marilyn Harris, the director of the Louisville Metro Office of Housing and Community Development.
But she said there’s not much the city can do to stop the companies from buying homes.
Jessica Wethington, a spokesperson for Mayor Greg Fischer, said pretty much the same – that the local government can’t interfere with the private market. In Cincinnati, Ohio, a government agency outbid private investors to buy nearly 200 homes that the city plans to renovate and rent to tenants at affordable prices. But Wethington said no plans like that are brewing in Louisville.
Advocates and council members want to enact policies that increase rental market transparency and protect tenants but worry that any legislative proposals dealing with landlord and tenant relations would be limited by the state’s existing Uniform Landlord Tenant Act.
The act bans local governments from enacting any other ordinance that relates directly to "landlord and tenant relationships" and an array of housing policies.
Meanwhile, housing experts see no signs that companies like Amherst will slow their expansion into cities like Louisville.
And without action from policymakers, tenants and neighborhoods are left bearing the brunt of the burgeoning industry’s impact.
Property maintenance issues
Young, 48, moved to west Louisville as a teenager. He works as a line cook, and his wife is a bookkeeper at a public school. He said they had a tough time with Amherst’s property management arm, Main Street Renewal, before they moved.
He’s not an email guy. But he said he could rarely get the property manager on the phone; they only discussed maintenance requests and other issues via text or email. Days would pass before he’d get a response. When issues were fixed, Young said the work was often shoddy. Some problems never got handled.
An Amherst spokesperson said the company worked with Young to resolve several issues — including a leaky roof and clogged drains.
Young said the roof started leaking again. And after the drains were cleared, he was surprised to see a $100 charge added to his monthly rent bill. After that, Young said, he often decided to let maintenance issues go unfixed out of fear the landlord would charge him for the work.
Or he rolled up his sleeves.
In April of this year, Louisville Metro code enforcement officers opened a property maintenance case on Young’s home for a busted gutter, overgrown bushes, an overflowing trash can, a broken-down car in the driveway and high grass, according to records.
The inspector noted that Young assured he’d clean up the trash and take care of other issues. Young didn’t remember the trash issue when KyCIR interviewed him, but he said he got rid of the broken car – and instead of waiting for the company to remedy the issue, he and his teenage son got to work clearing the brush. He worried that he’d get stuck with a bill if the violation escalated to a citation and fee.
“I’m sure they’ll try to put that back on me,” he said.
After code enforcement officers levied a $600 citation against the property last month, Young said Amherst tried to tack it onto his monthly bill. He’s moved from the house now, but still worries he’ll have to fight the fine.
The property maintenance case on Young’s former rental home is still open, according to city records. It’s one of more than 130 open cases at Amherst-owned properties that city code enforcement officers are currently investigating. Over a third of those cases are in zip codes encompassing or including parts of west Louisville.
Caitlin Bowling, a spokesperson for the Louisville Metro Department of Codes and Regulations, said the city “is taking action.”
‘’We have 130 open cases, which by definition is taking action,” she said in an emailed statement.
The Louisville Metro property maintenance code states that the property owner is responsible for ensuring properties adhere to local ordinances, and occupants are responsible for keeping their space “clean, sanitary and safe.”
An Amherst spokesperson said the company works with every tenant to promptly resolve maintenance issues, but it’s up to tenants to ensure their home is in line with property regulations — and any violation is a tenant’s responsibility.
KyCIR talked with several tenants who live in homes with open property maintenance cases. We saw busted gutters, broken windows, and the scars of recent fires. Tenants talked about mice, mold and trouble getting the grass and hedges cut. Several of them said that their previous landlords would handle most of the landscaping work, but that Amherst tried to push the responsibility on them or that they were confused about who was supposed to do the work.
Shavon Bibbs rented an Amherst-owned home on North 42nd Street that is the subject of a property code violation case that’s been open since late January — more than two weeks after it was bought by Amherst’s subsidiary, BAF 2 LLC. The reason: an unkempt yard and because the home isn’t listed in the city’s rental registry.
In March, records show a city code enforcement officer noted that Bibbs had cleaned up the property and the fine would be waived “because the owner is putting the fines on the tenant.”
Those aren’t the only issues Bibbs said she’s had with the company. She said she got fed up with Amherst shortly after the company bought the home because its property management company failed to communicate how to set up rent payments or report maintenance requests.
Soon after, her toilet wouldn’t stop running and her water bill climbed to nearly $1,000 a month, she said.
Earlier this summer, Bibbs started looking for a new landlord.
“I’m ready to be done with them,” she said.
A few blocks away, on North 43rd Street, Alyssa Woods’s Amherst-owned rental home stands out from the others on the block in Shawnee with neat yards and clean windows.
City records show code enforcement officers opened a property maintenance case there last month because the house had overgrown grass and weeds in the front and back yard that needed cutting. Woods said she’s had trouble getting that done since an Amherst subsidiary bought the home in January.
Her gutter is also rusted, sagging and leaking. Bullet holes dot the front siding. Woods said water seeps through the walls. She worries about her kids getting sick from what she said is mold on the floor.
“It’s not livable,” Woods said.
Amherst didn't respond to questions about Bibbs and Woods's property maintenance issues or complaints.
But Clements, the Amherst spokesperson, said the company plans to invest $55,000 per home on renovations in the coming years. Already, she said the company has invested more than $30 million to repair and renovate homes “with durable flooring, new roofs and siding, stainless steel appliances and other high-quality amenities.”
Josh Poe, a tenant organizer with the Louisville-based Root Cause Research Center, said city officials should more rigorously enforce the property maintenance code at properties owned by corporate landlords.
“They’re not being aggressive enough,” he said.
Property maintenance is a key issue for District 5 Council Member Donna Purvis, a Democrat whose west Louisville district covers or includes parts of the Chickasaw, Shawnee, Portland and Russell neighborhoods.
She hears frequent complaints from constituents about properties with junked cars, overgrown yards, or busted windows.
Purvis and several other Metro Council Democrats are sponsoring a proposed amendment to the city’s rental registry ordinance introduced in June that would require random code enforcement inspections at rental properties. The proposal is currently tabled in the council’s Public Works committee, which meets every other Tuesday.
Currently, the city doesn’t start property maintenance inspections unless someone files a complaint.
When KyCIR interviewed Purvis, she said she didn’t know much about Amherst or the company’s Louisville expansion. But she bemoaned the company’s track record of property maintenance issues and expansion across the city, especially in west Louisville.
“How did we let this happen?” she said.
Yet Purvis, like other Metro officials interviewed by KyCIR, said there’s not much the local government can do to stop the companies from buying up property.
“This is an enterprising and free capital world,” she said.
'1 million houses'
Amherst is part of a broader trend.
Other big investor-backed firms — like Blackstone, Tricon, and American Homes 4 Rent — are also buying thousands of family homes across the country, renting them out, and promising investors a return on the rent revenue over time with interest.
A subsidiary of Blackstone, Home Partners of America, owns 30 homes in Louisville, according to online property records. The company’s rent-to-own program “enables families that would otherwise be locked out of traditional single-family housing to access homes they love,” a Blackstone spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
He didn’t speak to some of the criticism that investor-backed landlords like Blackstone and Amherst have faced.
The companies’ access to investor cash is akin to a low-interest loan they can use to dominate tight housing markets by outbidding would-be homebuyers with favorable cash offers and buying more houses, said Desiree Fields, an associate professor of Geography and Global Metropolitan Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
“It is a type of financial engineering that is available to a particular type of actor in the financial world…because of the scale of assets that they control,” she said.
Fields said this relatively new industry can be traced to the 2008 housing crisis: With many of the people who lost their homes then pushed into the rental market, investors saw opportunities to profit. Black and Latino people were hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis.
Amherst’s office in Austin is just a few miles from company CEO Sean Dobson’s sprawling, country club mansion that’s valued at more than $4 million, according to property records.
Dobson made billions from the mortgage industry in the years leading up to and just after the 2008 housing crisis. He turned to single-family home rentals in 2011, according to a 2019 profile in Fortune Magazine.
Amherst Residential was founded in 2012 and last year reported owning or leasing more than 43,000 homes in 28 cities across the country, according to a 2021 company report. Their goal is one million homes, according to the profile.
“I have $5 billion to $6 billion from outside investors knocking on the door,” he told Fortune. “In the end, we’ll get to 1 million houses.”
Investor-backed companies like Amherst hold an incalculable advantage in the nation’s competitive housing market with access to lots of cash and technology that helps them review hundreds of home listings daily, Fields said.
“It’s the way the housing market is going,” she said. “It’s unequal and people just can’t compete against these companies.”
Paula Barmore, president of the Greater Louisville Association of Realtors, has been selling homes in Louisville for more than 20 years.
A decade ago, she said there could be up to 10,000 homes for sale in the city at any given time. Today, there are only about 1,500.
So, she takes notice when a company like Amherst made hundreds of real estate transactions in the first half of the year.
“They’re changing the landscape of our neighborhoods,” she said.
“We need to think about what we can do”
Young wasn’t surprised when KyCIR told him that Amherst has more parcels of land in west Louisville than any private owner.
He said Mirage Properties, the company that sold his house to Amherst, was synonymous with renting in west Louisville. Records show Amherst bought nearly every house it owns in the area from Mirage. Young knows family and friends who rented from Mirage and now live in Amherst properties.
“They’re all over the place over here,” he said.
West Louisville is the type of community where investor-backed equity companies, like Amherst, can do a lot of harm, said Raymond, the Georgia Tech professor. As the housing stock shrinks, so do opportunities for people to buy homes — which is widely considered an essential element of wealth building.
As the companies buy up properties and rent them out, they extract equity from neighborhoods that need it most, said Tony Curtis, the executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition.
Without action from lawmakers, the threat of displacement and inequity only grows as investor-backed companies expand, he said.
“It’s a huge issue,” Curtis said. “They’re taking housing off the market, and the opportunities to build wealth are being snatched away.”
Amherst’s investment in west Louisville also comes as a flurry of projects and investments focused on the area are sparking concerns about gentrification and displacement, including the establishment of a controversial tax increment finance district poised to pump millions of dollars into the West End for yet-to-be-determined economic development efforts.
Wethington, the mayor’s spokesperson, said the city is trying to increase access to homeownership and help close wealth gaps with programs that help people pay for down payments or make home improvements.
She also touted $116 million budgeted for affordable housing and noted that the city’s land development code is under review.
Those measures are attempts at “addressing some of the impacts on the housing market and on the well-being of our residents and our neighborhoods created by these investor buyers,” she said.
Jecorey Arthur, a District 4 Democrat representing sections of west Louisville and downtown, has ideas for legislation that would support renters. Some of his ideas include banning landlords from evicting tenants for matters that aren’t clear lease violations and giving tenants the first option to purchase properties that landlords want to sell.
“When you lose local ownership, you lose local control,” said Arthur, whose district includes the western reaches of downtown into the Russell neighborhood.
Arthur acknowledges that some of his ideas could face opposition or even legal challenges if implemented. But he said it’s time for the council to step up.
“Instead of talking about what we cannot do, let’s look at what we can do,” he said.
Young has lived in west Louisville since he was a teenager and knows the area well. He is frustrated that he had to move, but he said the rent increase Amherst wanted wasn’t worth it.
Now, he’s focused on the opportunity ahead. Maybe this will motivate him to expedite his plans to build up his credit, save up some money and try to buy a home, he said.
Right now, Young, his wife and children are staying with family while he finds something more permanent. He’d like to move to a quieter block in a neighborhood with fewer safety issues than where he lived.
But as Young leaves, he can’t help but worry about what will happen to neighborhoods like Shawnee as outside-investor-backed firms like Amherst buy more and more homes.
He wonders what will happen to the people who live there and how many more will get priced out.
“It just puts some people in tough situations,” he said. “For some folks, this is all we have.”