Navy veteran Amy Feng poses for a family Easter photo with her husband, Navy reservist De Qiang, and their two children. The family lives in a house in Lancaster, California, with an air conditioner that doesn't work. Temperatures inside their home hit 104 degrees on a recent evening. Credit: Courtesy of Amy Feng

Tenants who rent homes from one of America’s largest corporate landlords are asking the company to stop increasing their rent and address what they say is endemic neglect of the properties.

An online petition, launched by the advocacy group Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, has garnered 1,400 signatures. In the petition, the community organizing group for low-income people asks Fred Tuomi, CEO of Colony Starwood Homes, to “immediately institute a moratorium on all rent increases for your properties, to have a collective meeting with your tenants and to discuss their shared issues.”

The company controls 35,000 single-family homes and recently announced it was purchasing 3,000 more. It was founded in 2012 by Tom Barrack, one of President Donald Trump’s oldest and closest friends. Barrack quit the company last month, a day after a Reveal exposé detailed slum-like conditions and rising rents in the company’s properties, which are marketed under the trade name Waypoint. We found tenants struggling without heat and coping with leaky roofs. Residents faced peeling tile, a collapsing ceiling and even a snake infestation.

“Corporations are buying up whole neighborhoods. It’s just a whole new ballgame,” said Merika Reagan, 42, a professional dog walker who pays Colony about $1,800 a month in rent on a two-bedroom home in East Oakland.

“They have no care in the world about helping the tenants as well as themselves,” she said. “They only care about helping themselves and getting richer.”

A spokesman for Colony did not respond to a request for comment. Last month, the company sent us a statement saying, “Colony Starwood Homes plays an important role in providing high-quality and affordable rental housing for thousands of Americans.”

In its latest quarterly report to shareholders, Colony bragged about the size of its rent increases, especially in California and Arizona.

Last year, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment staged a sit-in in the company’s Sacramento office after Reagan received a notice saying her rent would go up by $355 a month. The firm responded to the sit-in by reducing the rent increase to $55.

Tenant advocates say the story illustrates the need to change California housing law so that rent control can be extended to singlefamily homes.

Anya Svanoe, an organizer with the alliance, said a lot has changed since the state Legislature barred local governments from extending tenant protections to single-family homes through the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act in 1995.

“It’s not just momandpop landlords, it’s these huge Wall Street companies,” Svanoe said. “This about making sure people who build our roads and take care of our children can stay in the state.”

But it seems unlikely that such reforms will be passed anytime soon. In April, a bill to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Act was proclaimed dead for the year amid opposition from real estate interests.

In an interview with Reveal, Tom Bannon, chief executive officer of the California Apartment Association, said he understood concerns about the rise of corporate landlords, but argued that allowing rent control to cover those properties would stifle growth and give landlords further incentive to skimp on maintenance.

What’s really needed, he argued, is more development to bring the number of available housing units in line with the number of jobs.

“If we don’t fix this and we don’t come to grips with it, California’s economic vitality – all the good weather, the pleasantness and our creativity all goes for naught, because people won’t be able to afford to live here,” he said.

Meantime, inside Colony’s California properties, tenants continue to worry and sweat.

In Lancaster, in the high desert outside Los Angeles, Navy veteran Amy Feng has been raising her two children in a house with an air conditioner that won’t work.

Inside her stucco ranch-style home, the temperatures hit 104 degrees on a recent evening. 

“We kind of go with the flow,” Feng said. “But we have children and we have pets. And when you start endangering our children and our pets, that’s kind of where we have a problem. You know, like my animals should not be laying there on the floor overheating. This is ridiculous.”

Four months ago, Colony upped the family’s rent by $75 a month. The lease requires Amy and her husband, De Qiang, a Navy reservist, to pay until next February. But the Feng family isn’t living there now.

“We are in a hotel now since the house was unlivable,” she wrote in an email Monday. “No end in sight as of now.”

Aaron Glantz can be reached at aglantz@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Aaron_Glantz.

Aaron Glantz was a senior reporter at Reveal. He is the author of "Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream." Glantz produces journalism with impact. His work has sparked more than a dozen congressional hearings, numerous laws and criminal probes by the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Pentagon and Federal Trade Commission. A two-time Peabody Award winner, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, multiple Emmy Award nominee and former John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University, Glantz has had his work has appear in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, NBC Nightly News, Good Morning America and PBS NewsHour. His previous books include "The War Comes Home" and "How America Lost Iraq."