Kathy and Kim Suszczewicz thought they would gain peace of mind when they moved into a three-bedroom rental home in a neat north Phoenix neighborhood in 2016.
The family was rebuilding from losing their life savings, car and house after Kim was diagnosed with an aggressive blood cancer that required years of treatment and lost his engineering job.
Kathy Suszczewicz is a full-time caregiver to both her husband and their daughter Addie, who has developmental disabilities. Kathy had struggled to find a place to live that was affordable, wheelchair accessible and in their 17-year-old's school district.
Even though the family had to pay a fee to the rental company, now known as Invitation Homes, just to tour the house, it was one of only two homes they could find to match their needs.
"I knew we had to jump on it quick," Suszczewicz, 53, said. "It was a pleasant neighborhood. I didn't think there was too much risk."
But nearly two years after signing the lease, the Suszczewiczes say they regret moving in at all.
Long-delayed repairs, annual rent increases and nearly-impossible-to-reach staff have soured the family on their Wall Street-backed landlord.
Invitation Homes is America's largest owner of single-family rental homes, with nearly 7,500 properties in Arizona alone.
"If anybody is talking about finding a rental, I always say, 'Stay away (from Invitation Homes). Don't even bother with it," Suszczewicz said.
When private-equity investors began snatching up tens of thousands of foreclosure homes at bargain prices after the 2008 housing crash, metro Phoenix was one of the first areas in the country to become a hotbed of corporate home rentals.
Since then, Invitation Homes has been targeted by multiple tenant lawsuits across the country, including a proposed class-action suit filed in California in May over poor maintenance, excessive rental fees and evictions.
Landlord defends itself
Renters in various states — including Arizona — have complained online and to reporters that the company essentially ignores them unless it is seeking their money.
Invitation Homes Chief Operating Officer Charles Young told The Arizona Republic the company works quickly to address tenant needs and has a track record of customer satisfaction.
"We want our residents to be happy," Young said. "... Do we nail it every time? No. But when we don't, we have a process in place to make sure we can get back and resolve it as soon as possible."
The company reported Invitation Homes residents rated maintenance an average of 4.3 out of 5 stars in 50,000 internal surveys completed in 2017 and 2018.
The company has a 96 percent occupancy rate nationally and roughly 70 percent of tenants renew their leases, staying close to three years on average, far exceeding most retention rates in the rental industry, Young said.
Invitation Homes offers a 24/7 maintenance phone line and website, provides in-person home tours and conducts 150-point inspections before move-in as well as preventive maintenance throughout tenancy, Young said.
That's not the experience the Suszczewicz family said they had under the three companies that have held their lease: Colony Starwood Homes rebranded as Starwood Waypoint Homes in 2016 and then merged in 2017 with Invitation Homes.
The Suszczewiczes said communication difficulties and struggles with repairs existed under each company.
Broken toilets, unusable pool
Back in 2016, Kathy Suszczewicz said, she toured the tan stucco home on her own after Colony Starwood Homes unlocked the door remotely. Today, the electric front-door lock randomly locks and unlocks beyond the family's control, she said.
As soon as the family moved in, they discovered a toilet leaking, another toilet inoperable, and the only wheelchair-accessible shower was unable to run hot water.
Suszczewicz fought for a month with the rental company to fix the bathrooms, she said.
"For 30 days, anytime we needed to use the toilet or the tub, we would have to pack (Addie) up in the car with her equipment and take her over to a friend's house about five miles away," Suszczewicz said.
One of the family's biggest hopes for the home had been the pool, even if it cost $95 more per month.
"It's physical therapy for (Addie). And it's the only time I'm going to get out (of the house) as their caregiver," Suszczewicz said.
But there was a problem: The pool filter didn't work.
"There was always this layer of muck down in the bottom," Suszczewicz said.
She said the pool tech told her he'd notified Starwood Waypoint Homes and later Invitation Homes but that they'd declined to spend the money to fix the equipment.
It took a year for the landlord to approve new equipment, she said. After paying more than $1,000 in pool fees in addition to their rent during that time, the family finally got to swim.
"It felt like I was trying to fight for something that I shouldn't have to fight for," Suszczewicz said.
Trying to get help
Communication is one of the main hindrances, Suszczewicz said. None of the three companies that have held the lease provided a dedicated person to contact in case of repairs or emergencies, she said.
Instead, she files maintenance requests online and receives replies from different employees every time, she said.
Although Invitation Homes does operate a maintenance phone number, it is hard to find on the website and the phone recording initially pushes tenants to report issues online.
An Invitation Homes spokesperson said the company is following up with the family to "do everything possible to satisfy them so that they can fully enjoy their home."
The company admitted the plumbing fix was delayed and said maintenance crews addressed multiple pool issues over several months. Its reports indicate the average time to complete maintenance requests for the family was about 10 days, Invitation Homes said.
"We deeply regret any inconvenience they experienced," a representative wrote.
After the bathroom and pool struggles, the Suszczewicz family doesn't bother anymore to ask for repairs.
Suszczewicz began watering front-yard trees by hand after discovering the sprinklers broken. She's concerned about being charged upon move-out.
"If something breaks now, if it's minor, I repair it myself," said Suszczewicz, who expects she won't be reimbursed. "We've replaced (stove parts, pool equipment and other items) out of our own pocket just to avoid that interaction."
With their lease coming up for renewal, the family is torn: Should they uproot the little stability they've achieved and enter a tight rental market or risk continued maintenance issues and the fear of rent increases with Invitation Homes?
"It's something that occupies my mind a lot," Suszczewicz said. "I worry."
Invitation Homes owns about 82,500 single-family properties nationally.
In the Phoenix area, the average rent for a home owned by the company is $1,260 a month, about $200 more than the region's average apartment rent. Invitation Homes raised rents an average of $132 a month on its Phoenix-area rentals since the end of 2016, according to the company's SEC filings.
Among the reasons critics say Invitation Homes and other corporate, single-family landlords hike fees and fail to provide adequate service is because of the weight of Wall Street, according to reports by Americans for Financial Reform and other non-profit consumer advocates.
Mom-and-pop rental operations seek profits, of course, but investor-backed corporations face even more pressure to boost revenue through rent increases and keep costs low for repairs and employees so that quarterly earnings are positive.
The prospective California class-action lawsuit notes that since the recession a decade ago, when some 9 million families nationwide lost their homes, private-equity firms have gobbled up huge numbers of rentals.
"The residential rental industry has recently undergone a massive transformation and consolidation out of the hands of small and family landlord businesses (who had direct ties to and relationships with their tenants), and into the large arms of private equity, hedge fund, and other Wall Street giants whose allegiances run solely to their investors," the lawsuit states.
Invitation Homes helped revive distressed neighborhoods after the Great Recession by purchasing foreclosures, investing an average of $22,000 in upgrades per home and attracting new taxpaying families to communities, executive Young said.
The company doesn't cut corners to please Wall Street, he said.
"We're absolutely in this business for the long haul," he said. "It's always in our best interest to do right by the residents. That allows us to renew leases, keep turnover low and add to the long-term growth of the business. We only win if our customers are happy."
Invitation Homes encouraged The Republic to call two of its Arizona tenants who the company said had a "more representative" experience. One tenant hung up when a reporter contacted them; another did not return calls.
Upset current and former tenants have set up Facebook pages to share stories.
Invitation Homes said it believes the allegations in the California lawsuit "are without merit and we intend to vigorously defend the company."
Fighting black mold
The Suszczewiczes aren't the only tenants in Maricopa County to say they had difficulty with Invitation Homes.
Courtney and Dan Vance and their children, now 5 and 7, moved into a four-bedroom property in Gilbert last June, right before Invitation Homes and Starwood Waypoint Homes merged.
"They look like nice homes to rent. But you lift the lid, and it's not so pretty," Courtney Vance, 38, said.
The first weekend, the air-conditioning stopped working.
No one answered their call to an emergency phone line, and the following Monday a company representative in Chicago told them the indoor temperature wasn't hot enough to require a repair, Vance said.
She said the kids couldn't sleep because of the heat, and one of the children had a history of febrile seizures, which can be caused by high body temperature.
The Vances ended up paying an HVAC company to fix the air-conditioning and were not reimbursed by Invitation Homes, Courtney said.
A few months later, the dishwasher broke.
Invitation Homes replaced it, Vance said, but then the new one started leaking.
After she reported the leak, the company waited nearly a week to send a plumber. By then, the kitchen island had absorbed the water, she recalled.
"I told them it smelled really musty," Vance said. "They tried to say it's not a big deal."
A month later, the smell was so bad that she and her husband took a flashlight to the underside of the island. They found black mold.
Despite photos the couple sent to Invitation Homes, the company did not act for weeks, Vance said.
"When it's in somebody else's hands, you're very powerless," she said.
She said she felt like her calls and emails were going into a "black hole."
Once Invitation Homes hired a mold remediator, the contractor decided the whole island needed to be removed.
The spore levels were "dangerously high" and the family shouldn't be in the house, a mold-testing company hired by the family told them, Vance said.
For nearly two months, the kitchen was torn apart.
The Vances accuse Invitation Homes and the contractor of failing to safeguard them from the mold during remediation and said they are considering legal options.
The contractor left contaminated scraps on their patio, didn't patch a torn plastic barrier and didn't run air purifiers continuously, Vance said.
The family couldn't cook and had symptoms of mold exposure such as coughing, runny eyes, bloody noses, ear issues and headaches, she said. They left the house and stayed with relatives in Utah and in a hotel for several weeks.
Even after remediation, Invitation Homes representatives insisted on calling the black spots "discoloration" instead of mold, Vance remembered.
"That's like when your paint doesn't match," she said. "This is mold. It's a problem."
The company did agree to return the family's security deposit but would not reimburse the full costs of living outside the home, Vance said.
Ironically, the family's residency with Invitation Homes ended much like it started.
The week before moving out this summer, the air-conditioning broke again, Vance recalled.
She said she couldn't believe it when she spotted an Invitation Homes rental advertisement later that described the home as "recently renovated" with no mention of mold.
An Invitation Homes spokesperson said the company "is committed to serving all residents with genuine care" and is in touch with the family about their medical complaints.
The company acknowledged some work orders took longer to complete for the Vances than was preferable but said the average time to complete a range of maintenance requests at the house — including plumbing, landscape, electrical, garage and appliances — was 7.5 days.
The Vances have since moved out and found a local landlord.
They said their experience renting from individual homeowners vs. Invitation Homes has been as different as night and day.
"If you need something taken care of, you send a simple text and it's taken care of immediately," Vance said. "Or heaven forbid you would have to fix something on your own. They would take it off the rent or compensate you."
"It's so much easier to communicate," she added. "You actually know who your landlord is."
Help for renters
The Arizona Housing Department recommends renters who have problems with their landlord hire an attorney because "disputes that arise between landlord and tenants are generally considered private matters."
Renters rights are outlined in the Arizona Residential Landlord and Tenant Act, last updated in May. It includes 47 pages of rules for leases, rent increases and disputes.
But no state agency currently enforces the act, the state housing department said.
Community Legal Services is one resource for renters. The non-profit group provides free legal help to low-income tenants, though its resources are limited. There are also self-help materials on its website for tenants who want to represent themselves.
Arizona housing advocates recommend renters read leases carefully and look for any extra fees, late charges and the costs to break a lease early before signing.