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The Midwest Newsroom is a partnership between NPR and member stations to provide investigative journalism and in-depth reporting with a focus on Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

VineBrook Homes owns thousands of Midwest properties and tenants are crying foul

Homes line Rex Avenue on Friday, April 21, 2023, in Breckenridge Hills, Mo.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Homes line Rex Avenue on April 21 in Breckenridge Hills, Mo.

Lee este reporte en español.

Trash bags full of ruined clothes, furniture stained with mold and ruined keepsakes filled the front yard of Carolyn Burton and Jerry Hofee’s former rental home in north St. Louis County. It all had to go in the trash.

Burton and Hofee noticed the sewage leak not long after they moved into the rental home on Roslan Place.

For months, the pair complained to their landlord through emails reviewed by the Midwest Newsroom that sewage pipes leaked in the home’s basement, destroying their belongings, causing the home to smell like sewage and backing up the upstairs toilet and bath.

“I just felt sick all the time,” Burton said.

Sewage and water backs up into Carolyn Burton's bathroom in a Florissant home she previously leased from VineBrook Homes.
Carolyn Burton
Above: Sewage and water backs up into Carolyn Burton's bathroom in a Florissant home she previously leased from VineBrook Homes. Top: Homes line Rex Avenue in April 2023 in Breckenridge Hills, Mo. (Photos by Carolyn Burton and Brian Munoz / St. Louis Public Radio)

There were other problems, too. Burton said electrical outlets throughout the home hissed and smoked throughout the day and vents in the home blew hot air during the summer and cold air in the winter.

Still, Burton said repeated requests to the landlord went unanswered. When help did come, the problems weren’t fixed.

The home on Roslan Place in unincorporated St. Louis County is just one of at least 2,400 properties in the St. Louis region owned by VineBrook Homes, an Ohio-based real estate company that owns more than 27,000 homes nationwide.

The Midwest Newsroom interviewed eight current and former tenants in the St. Louis area — residents with stories similar to Burton’s — and reviewed court filings and Better Business Bureau complaints showing similar tenant issues with VineBrook rentals nationwide.

Complaints include unresolved maintenance issues, unfounded evictions, aggressive rent collection tactics, poor customer service and more.

The Midwest Newsroom identified the properties that VineBrook owns and manages by reviewing the data from counties where the company operates. During this process, we identified nearly 50 different VineBrook-associated limited liability companies throughout the country.

Local property records show the vast majority of properties owned by VineBrook Homes in the region are in north St. Louis County neighborhoods, in census tracts that are predominantly nonwhite and have median household incomes of around $60,000 or less.

Omaha and Kansas City

In Omaha and neighboring Council Bluffs, Iowa, VineBrook Homes has purchased roughly 300 homes since 2019, making it the third-largest property owner in the city. Most of the homes are in North Omaha, a predominantly Black area.

Additionally, in the Kansas City metro area, census data shows that many of the 1,200 homes VineBrook owns are concentrated in neighborhoods like Ruskin Heights and Fairlane. These communities, in the southern part of Kansas City, Missouri, are nonwhite neighborhoods with incomes of $50,000 or less. VineBrook only owns a handful of properties in and around Kansas City, Kansas.

VineBrook Homes declined an interview request from the Midwest Newsroom about the mounting complaints against the company, its pattern of acquiring properties in primarily nonwhite communities and other specific issues.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the company said VineBrook provides safe and affordable homes that “breathe life” into local properties and neighborhoods and meet the growing demand for single-family home living.

“Our team prioritizes customer service,” the statement read. “We are committed to providing a transparent rental process for our residents and are constantly seeking ways to enhance our customer service offering, incorporating new technologies and touchpoints to deliver a high-quality experience.”

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Tenants cry foul

Rosa Edwards learned about VineBrook Homes through an eviction notice.

Edwards lives in a VineBrook rental in north St. Louis County on Avondale Avenue in Northwoods. The company didn’t own the property when she signed her lease. VineBrook owns at least 35 properties in that same census tract.

Tax records show the 73-year-old’s former landlord sold the property to VineBrook Homes in 2021, not long after she moved into the house. Edwards said, unbeknownst to her, she became a VineBrook Homes tenant overnight.

Before she knew it, eviction notices from VineBrook started to appear on her front door.

“We wasn’t behind on anything,” Edwards said. “After that every month they came and stuck eviction notices on our front door.”

Edwards and her daughter struggled to get anyone at VineBrook to explain the eviction notices. She said trying to get anyone at the company on the phone proved difficult, a problem Burton ran into as well.

Both Edwards and Burton said trips to VineBrook’s office in Maryland Heights often were fruitless. They said sometimes the office was closed, and other times the staff weren’t helpful.

A ledger of charges shows Edward’s rent remained the same. The new costs included administration, late fees and new trash and sewer bills that put her behind on what she owed VineBrook.

For the next three years, Edwards struggled as the cost of living in her Avondale home far exceeded the original rent. She staved off eviction time after time, paying VineBrook Homes each time the company threatened to evict her and her daughter.

Now, Edwards said, they want to leave.

“They have done so much to me in the last three years,” Edwards said. “We’re just trying to get out of here.”

Unlike in Cincinnati, VineBrook has yet to run afoul of St. Louis County leaders. A spokesperson for St. Louis County said in an email that complaints about VineBrook are basic or run-of-the-mill in nature and are handled according to its usual practices.

The company is known to the region’s tenant support groups, however.

Legal Services of Eastern Missouri’s housing unit provides free legal assistance to low-income families and individuals facing eviction or rent-related lawsuits.

Susan Alverson, who leads the unit, said she’s received complaints about VineBrook.

“Several tenants have called us, most regarding rent and eviction lawsuits against them,” Alverson said.

Over the past three years, tenants have filed more than 470 complaints against VineBrook Homes through the Better Business Bureau. While this consumer protection organization has no legal power, VineBrook met with the nonprofit toaddress a pattern of complaints filed by tenants.

The Midwest Newsroom asked the Better Business Bureau, through its headquarters and several branch offices, whether VineBrook has addressed the tenant complaints but did not receive a response.”

The Midwest Newsroom also asked the attorney general's offices in both Missouri and Nebraska if they are aware of complaints from renters about VineBrook. The Nebraska attorney general’s office said it “cannot comment on consumer complaints or investigations.” The Missouri attorney general’s office did not respond to the request.

'St. Louis on the Air': Reporter Kavahn Mansouri discusses this story

Nick Silver lived in a VineBrook home with his children until late February 2023. Silver, who is 99% blind, said he found eviction notices on his door during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It's kind of like a scare tactic,” Silver said. “It’s super aggressive.”

Nick Silver stands in front of his former VineBrook Homes rental home.
Kavahn Mansouri
/
Midwest Newsroom
Nick Silver stands in front of his former VineBrook Homes rental on Dammert Avenue in south St. Louis County. Silver says VineBrook mistakenly tried to evict him twice during the COVID-19 pandemic as he awaited rental assistance from Missouri. (Kavahn Mansouri / Midwest Newsroom)

Silver moved into a VineBrook rental property on Dammert Street in unincorporated south St. Louis County shortly before the pandemic began. At the height of the lockdown, his massage therapy business stalled, and he struggled to pay rent to VineBrook Homes.

As a result of late payments, Silver said VineBrook locked him out of the online payment system and maintenance portal for eight months for missing payments during the pandemic.

Even as he applied for help from Missouri’s rental assistance program and repeatedly told VineBrook associates money was on its way, he said the company filed two evictions against him.

Silver said the company later withdrew the eviction filings and admitted it made a mistake in filing the evictions. Still, he said it's a reflection of VineBrook’s customer service.

“They’re hard to communicate with,” Silver said. “When you call them you have to go through layers of people until you get anyone who can do anything.

All the while, his rent continued to increase. Silver’s rent started at $775 in 2020. By the time he moved out of the 5,700-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath home in February 2023, his rent stood at $905 a month.

“You get locked into a lease at $775, and when they renew the lease they can renew it at any price point they want,” Silver said.

Homes line Rex Avenue on Friday, April 21, 2023, in Breckenridge Hills, Mo.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
VineBrook Homes owns several properties that line Rex Avenue, pictured last month, in Breckenridge Hills. (Brian Munoz / St. Louis Public Radio)

'Red hot' market for investors

Chris Roeseler, a realtor who specializes in investment property sales in St. Louis, has assisted VineBrook Homes with a handful of transactions. He called the investor market in St. Louis over the past few years “red hot.”

Roeseler said VineBrook and similar companies seek “turnkey” homes, where the property needs little maintenance beyond cosmetics and can be ready to rent quickly. He said the company brings needed investment into north county.

“They’re knowledgeable and they’re not playing games,” Roeseler said. “They don’t try to beat around the bush.”

Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at real estate brokerage firm Redfin, said COVID-19 created a boom in investor purchases of single-family rentals. Low interest rates and increased demand for rentals became an opportunity for investors, she said.

Roeseler said he saw what Fairweather described play out in St. Louis, and noted that investor interest in north county skyrocketed during the same period.

He said an abundance of homes that needed little work and a growing demand for homes from renters made the area prime real estate. Most of the houses he sold were either vacant or sold by homeowners who inherited the properties.

Investor home purchases have since cooled, falling by almost half nationally since February of last year, according to Redfin.

VineBrook is funded by investors and managed by the real estate firm NexPoint Capital, a Dallas-based private equity firm, according to SEC filings. Dana Sprong, a real estate developer from Massachusetts, founded the company in 2007 in Ohio and later expanded to nearby states.

According to VineBrook’s annual report, the company believes it is “the largest single family rental operator specializing in workforce housing in the country.” Workforce housing refers to homes that cost less than $1,400 a month.

Since 2019, VineBrook has acquired homes in the Midwest and South at a staggering pace through mass purchases of real estate portfolios and individual purchases from homeowners.

According to VineBrook’s SEC filings, in September 2021, the company owned 15,787 homes, a number that has since ballooned to more than 27,000 homes across 20 states.

Nearly 4,000 of VineBrook Home’s rentals are located in the St. Louis, Kansas City and Omaha metro areas. The company lists its many available rentals on its website, filtered by different markets. St. Louis is the company’s third-largest market in the country.

In SEC filings, VineBrook officials describe a strategy of purchasing single-family homes for the rental market. In fact, fewer than 4.5% of the company’s holdings are multifamily units like duplexes, villas, townhouses, courtyards or condominiums.

Cincinnati v. VineBrook

Complaints similar to those the Midwest Newsroom has heard about in other states have landed VineBrook Homes in court in Cincinnati. VineBrook owns more than 3,300 homes there, a portfolio that represents the company’s biggest presence in the country.

The City of Cincinnati filed suit against VineBrook Homes in 2021 due to the company owing more than $600,000 in unpaid water bills and civil fees. VineBrook settled with the city, admitting no wrongdoing and vowing to fix issues at its properties.

However, the city filed suit again in January 2023, for allegedly breaching the settlement agreement, and accused the company of “repeatedly violating” the settlement agreement, as well as the Ohio Landlord Tenant Act and the Cincinnati Municipal Code.

The city also requested a Hamilton County judge appoint a receiver to manage VineBrook’s properties until its building and health code issues are resolved.

“We have no tolerance for investors who come into Cincinnati, let properties degrade, and exploit tenants," said Mayor Aftab Pureval in a press release. "VineBrook’s neglectful behavior has caused significant harm to renters, and the City of Cincinnati will fight back with everything we have to protect our residents."

VineBrook asked for a dismissal of the lawsuit, alleging the City of Cincinnati unfairly targeted the company.

“There is nothing illegal about buying homes at a price mutually agreed upon by buyer and seller, providing safe and affordable housing to low and middle-income families, operating across state lines, turning a profit, or owning rental properties through LLCs,” the request to dismiss read. “If this were the case, then the City would need to litigate against all landlords in Cincinnati.”

“When you’re targeting Black and Brown neighborhoods and we already have this incredible wealth gap in these neighborhoods, the very people who need the opportunity to start to build wealth are being blocked out.”
Laura Brunner, CEO of the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority

The company’s business activities also drew the attention of the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. In a letter to VineBrook, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio said VineBrook’s “rapid expansion” and “systematic neglect” of properties has severely affected local families in Cincinnati.

“Your company had failed to respond to the tenant’s multiple maintenance requests, leaving them without heat for several weeks in the dead of winter,” Brown wrote. “Another tenant contacted my office reporting that VineBrook was attempting to evict them for nonpayment of rent, even though the rent had been paid. Unfortunately, these tenants’ experiences were not unique.”

Laura Brunner is CEO of the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, a development agency based in Cincinnati. She agreed that tenants of VineBrook Homes in Cincinnati face rising rent, hidden fees and fast evictions.

“There’s always a market for higher rents. If this tenant can’t pay, someone else will follow,” Brunner said. “So we’ve got renters paying too much, subject to eviction in what I would call substandard properties.”

Brunner said VineBrook and real estate investment companies like it tend to target low- to moderate-income neighborhoods, many of which are predominantly Black and Brown.

“When you’re targeting Black and Brown neighborhoods and we already have this incredible wealth gap in these neighborhoods, the very people who need the opportunity to start to build wealth are being blocked out,” Brunner said, describing the business practice as “predatory.”

Manne Cook, an Omaha urban planner with the nonprofit neighborhood revitalization project Spark CDI, said the same issues are true in Omaha. He said investment companies like VineBrook are changing the character of Omaha’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.

What you’re seeing is displacement — that’s the change you’re seeing,” Cook said. “The houses are being purchased from families that have been there for decades — which is good for them — but the prices on those homes are going up for minimal investment and then they’re being rented for prices people in the area can’t afford.”

Carolyn Burton, 64, speaks about her experience with VineBrook Homes on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, at her home in unincorporated St. Louis County.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Carolyn Burton, 64, speaks about her experience with VineBrook Homes last January at her new home in unincorporated north St. Louis County. (Brian Munoz / St. Louis Public Radio)

Wronged and regretful

In St. Louis, Carolyn Burton and her former partner were eventually evicted from their VineBrook rental on Roslan Place. Burton called it a blessing in disguise.

“At that point, I wanted to just cut my losses and get out — and that’s basically what I did,” Burton said. “I felt totally helpless, totally drained, totally scared.”

Burton is among hundreds of St. Louis tenants VineBrook has filed evictions against. According to court records, since the company arrived in Missouri in 2019, it has filed more than 800 legal actions against its tenants.

Some tenants interviewed by the Midwest Newsroom sought help from nonprofit groups in the St. Louis area that represent tenants threatened with eviction.

Burton said the pair fell further behind on rent due to the death of a close relative, and by that time many of the home’s issues still weren’t resolved. She said she decided it was better to be evicted than to carry on in a home where she no longer felt safe.

“They promised me a clean, safe, sanitized place to live, and I did not have that,” Burton said.

A former landlord helped Burton find a new house after months of sleeping on friends' couches

She countersued VineBrook in hopes of getting her deposit back and ridding her legal history of an eviction, but the suit was unsuccessful. And while Burton said she’s happy to be free of VineBrook, she said she still feels wronged by the company.

“VineBrook is putting people out every day, and half of the time they don’t even answer the phone,” she said. “You can leave a message or go by their office — sometimes they’re there — sometimes they’re not. But when they’re evicting you, they keep in touch.”

Do you have a story to share about VineBrook Homes? Please email kmansouri@kcur.org.

Steve Vockrodt contributed reporting, and Daniel Wheaton analyzed data for this article.

The Midwest Newsroom is an in-depth and investigative journalism collaboration including KCUR, St. Louis Public Radio, Iowa Public Radio, Nebraska Public Media and NPR.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the size of Nick Silver’s former home on 729 Dammert Ave. The home is 780 square feet. The property is 5,700 square feet, according to St. Louis County property data.

Kavahn Mansouri is the Investigative Reporter for the NPR Midwest Newsroom based in St. Louis.
Daniel Wheaton is the data journalist for the Midwest Newsroom, a collaboration between public radio stations in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri. Wheaton is based at Nebraska Public Media in Lincoln, Nebraska and can be reached at dwheaton@nebraskapublicmedia.org