Billion-dollar landlords: Rental home giant once led by Trump ally is under fire

David vs Goliath legal battles: Tenants confront corporate giant

By Amy Viteri - Investigative Reporter, Brian Ross, Andrea Torres - Digital Reporter/Producer, Cindy Galli, Cho Park, Pete Madden

MARGATE, Fla. - Brielle, who was born healthy, now suffers from persistent asthma. The 2-year-old girl's parents, Bruce A. Nicholson and Lisa Daspit, believe the bright yellow bungalow with white trim they once thought to be the perfect home to live in Margate is to blame for her condition. 

Less than a year into their lease, the parents noticed a crack in the ceiling above their living room. They called Waypoint Homes several times, but their requests for help went unanswered. As their frustration grew, so did the crack -- until finally the ceiling caved in, they said. 

They would later learn Waypoint Homes was an affiliate of Starwood Waypoint, an Arizona-based company that owns tens of thousands of other single-family rental homes throughout the United States. They weren't the only tenants who were accusing the company of being absentee landlords prioritizing profits over people. 

"Every morning and every night she has to take a breathing treatment," Nicholson said about his daughter's condition, which requires constant supervision. "No 2-year-old should have to do that."

Their landlord was Tom Barrack, the then-company's billionaire co-chairman, a close friend and political ally of President Donald Trump. Barrack directed the company to buy bundles of foreclosed homes after the housing market collapsed in 2008 and rather than reselling them, the company rented them to tenants. 

"It's about continuity of income and a new asset class that in the American Dream will continue to love living at home," Barrack said in a speech at the University of Chicago in 2012. "Not necessarily owning a home."

It was a business model Barrack once touted as nothing less than a redefinition of the American Dream. Barrack has since sold his stake in the company, but the strategy he pioneered continues to spread, as Waypoint finalized its merger with another large company, Invitation Homes, to consolidate ownership of more than 80,000 properties. They are the largest owner of single-family rental homes in the country. 

With homeownership rates hovering near historic lows and the newly merged company owning a significant share of the middle-income rental market in several large cities, critics say renting from corporate landlords is increasingly becoming the only viable option for thousands of young families who might have once become homeowners.

Nicholson and Daspit filed a lawsuit earlier this year against the corporate giant. Court records show the company denied any wrong doing. But the parents said there is plenty of evidence that the toxic mold was also in their kitchen and it caused their daughter's respiratory condition. 

"You could smell it. You could see it. You could feel it," Daspit said. 

As their daughter continues to struggle with her health, other Florida residents have ongoing lawsuits. Starwood Waypoint lists 9,403 homes in their South Florida single-family rental portfolio. It's one of their largest markets. 

Felix Tur and Viviana Pedroso accused Waypoint Homes of unsafely installing a garage door and drywall at one of their homes in southwest Miami-Dade County. They allege that door later fell cutting off part of a tenants' finger. Waypoint Homes claims they didn't have a record of prior issues with the door. 

Simon Mashian and his family moved from New Mexico to South Florida last year. They found what they thought was a nice three-bedroom home on Zillow. It was a Waypoint Homes listing. The troubles began the moment the family of four moved in. He said the house wasn't clean and there were many maintenance issues. 

"We had mold in our master bedroom closet -- just black mold coming from the ceiling," Mashian said. 

A Waypoint Homes representative said they addressed a leak and replaced the drywall, but Mashian has pictures that he says show otherwise. Despite the complaints, Charles Young, Starwood Waypoint's chief operating officer, said they provide high quality homes and high quality service. 

"The vast majority of our residents are very satisfied," Young said, while pointing to the company's 99.8 percent customer satisfaction figure. 

Nicholson and Daspit said they are living paycheck to paycheck while caring for Brielle. They had to leave all of their possessions behind at the house, because of the toxic mold. They said only their clothes escaped the mold. 

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