Aubrey Nicole DePew expected her landlord to work with her.
It was March 2020, and landlords across the country were renegotiating leases. She had just moved into the rental home a couple months prior, and she was offering to buy herself out of the lease by paying three months rent. That was the best offer the 32-year-old circus performer and owner of a live entertainment company could make.
Her property manager Reedy & Co. informed her they wouldn’t accept the offer. In September, it filed for her eviction. In October, she filed for bankruptcy.
From mid-March 2020 — when a virus seemed to stop the earth’s rotation — to the end of that year, local landlord and property management firm Reedy & Co. filed more than 200 evictions, the county’s third-highest mark under a single corporate name. Former tenants described the firm as being aggressive and unbending in its pursuit of evictions and how those evictions haunted their subsequent search for housing.
In February 2022, the Health, Educational and Housing Facility Board for the City of Memphis — a little-known public agency sometimes called the “Health and Ed Board” — granted Reedy & Co. three tax incentives poised to save the company millions of dollars over 20 years. The board grants payment-in-lieu-of-taxes incentives to help investors renovate and maintain low-income apartments throughout the city. In this case, the incentives were meant to subsidize major improvements Reedy is making — and had already made — at three affordable apartment properties in Whitehaven.
While new tenants at the properties spoke highly of the renovations that have been completed, longtime tenants decried the resulting rent spikes, which displaced some of their peers.
Reedy’s current and former tenants, along with a local community development leader, questioned the point of giving Reedy such a subsidy.
“Instead of giving (a tax break) to people who don’t have an interest in keeping people housed, why not redirect that money towards people who do?” said Damon Williams, executive director of the Frayser Community Development Corp.
Health and Ed representatives and a Reedy executive defended the tax break, based largely on the improved living standards it is helping to provide.
A ‘consistent’ evictor
While she spent most of her year without a home in hotels, Arianna Whitlow vividly remembers those six or seven times sleeping in her Kia Forte.
She and her sister would park it at Walmart, a truck stop or their old apartment complex and tried to “not think negative thoughts.”
After all, they had to stay strong for Whitlow’s 6-year-old niece, who they would drop off with other family members on car-sleeping nights.
“(My niece) was always like, ‘Are we going back home?’ And I had to be like, ‘We don’t have a home.’ She wasn’t understanding,” Whitlow said.
The three had lived together in a Reedy-owned apartment complex until the pandemic had cost Whitlow her job and Reedy refused to work with them on rent. Unable to find other housing, they had turned — like so many other Americans during the past year — to extended-stay hotels.
Even after returning to work, Whitlow and her sister couldn’t save any money after paying $500 per week for a room at these hotels. At times, it seemed like an impossible cycle to break. At one point during the year, a doctor informed her the stress had driven her blood pressure dangerously high.
“It was beginning to make me crumble,” Whitlow said.
Once evicted, tenants usually end up in significantly worse housing and frequently become depressed, according to the research of Princeton University sociologist and author of the book “Evicted” Matthew Desmond.
“We know that eviction is a cause, not only a symptom of poverty,” said Emily Lemmerman, a research specialist at the Eviction Lab at Princeton. “It’s an event that drives renters into a spiral.”
When asked about being one of 2020’s top evictors, Reedy vice president of operations Billy Ross said it’s because his company is “consistent.” If a renter hasn’t paid rent by the 15th day of the month — and hasn’t set up a payment arrangement to catch up — the company files for eviction over that one month of missed rent.
Ross said this policy is needed since Shelby County General Sessions Court is four months behind on its eviction hearings. If Reedy were to wait until tenants were two months behind on rent — like some landlords do — it wouldn’t be able to evict them until six months after their final payment. And while the pandemic hit renters hard, Ross said his company has to look out for investors who might have their retirement income tied to these rental properties. Unlike the apartments it is renovating with the tax break, the large majority of the properties the company manages are owned by a third-party.
When asked whether the Health and Ed Board should give tax breaks to companies that are particularly aggressive with evictions, longtime board member Monice Moore-Hagler said she’s never heard evictions discussed at board meetings and hasn’t given the issue any thought.
Fellow board member James Jalenak said the board does consider whether the landlords it subsidizes treat tenants unfairly. When informed of Reedy’s eviction policy, he said he wasn’t sure if it qualified as unfair but it made him question the company’s quality as a landlord.
Longtime Health and Ed Board lawyer Charles Carpenter, though, dismissed evictions as something that would influence the agency’s decisions and defended the practice as necessary.
“It’s like the old adage, ‘One bad apple spoils the barrel,’” Carpenter said. “If tenants are dealing drugs or committing violence … if you don’t get those people out immediately, then it’s a cancer that’s in that complex.”
Ross said less than 3 of every 1,000 evictions Reedy conducts are for something other than nonpayment of rent. When told this, Carpenter still contended that evictions are a vital tool for landlords.
“(Landlords have to pay) debt service, rising costs for maintenance and operations and so forth. The only revenue they have comes in from the rent,” Carpenter said. “So if the tenants don’t pay the rent, everything just starts going in a very adverse direction.”
Carpenter said the board is much more concerned with whether landlords are keeping tenants safe and avoiding code violations.
Ross said the 407 units his company is renovating with the tax break would be well cared for and that he prides himself on providing quality, up-to-code housing. Because Reedy doesn’t own most of the properties it manages, its code violations are difficult to track. Unlike former tenants of other local landlords, though, the current and former Reedy tenants MLK50: Justice through Journalism spoke to didn’t complain much about the quality of the rentals.
“That’s one compromise I will not make: I will not work for an owner that is not going to take care of their properties,” Ross said.
Ross also said Reedy has always cooperated with Shelby County’s Emergency Rental Assistance program and advertised it to tenants in an effort to avoid more evictions
However, Whitlow said Reedy refused to work with the program when she tried to participate.
Renovations and rental rate hikes
The point of the tax breaks was to incentivize the $12.5 million worth of renovations Reedy is conducting at the Wilson Townhomes, Shelby Pointe Townhomes and Holmes Pointe apartments, Carpenter said.
“They would not be able to (renovate) at the level they are doing (or have as many) tenant benefits (without the tax break),” Carpenter said.
Ross agreed with this assessment. Otherwise, he said, spending that kind of money on long-disinvested Whitehaven properties would have been too risky.
However, Reedy spent most of the money before the tax breaks were approved. It completed renovations on two of the three complexes in January, one month before the incentives were approved, after spending over a year renovating each.
Unlike the Downtown Memphis Commission and Economic Development Growth Engine for Memphis & Shelby County — the two most-prominent granters of tax breaks locally — the Health and Ed Board doesn’t mind granting tax breaks for work conducted in the year before the approvals. Carpenter argued this practice still subsidizes improvements for renters.
In this case, the renovations themselves have both helped and harmed renters already.
In exchange for new flooring, cabinetry, plumbing and appliances, Reedy is raising rents by about 54% — from between $479 and $575 per month to between $750 and $895 per month. That’s an abnormally large jump, even compared with the fast-rising prices occurring across Shelby County.
One six-year resident of Shelby Pointe — a young warehouse worker who declined to provide his name for fear of retaliation — called the rent increase “outrageous.” Most of the previous residents moved because of it, he said, including an older couple he was fond of who could no longer afford the rent on their fixed income. While he stayed, he said it has been hard to make ends meet since his rent jumped to $850.
Ross disputed that there had been an exodus because of the rent raise. On the contrary, he said he hasn’t heard anybody from Shelby Pointe or Holmes Pointe complain about the rent increase, because the renovations clearly justified it.
“The upgrades that we (did) were so much better than what they were already living in,” Ross said. “So they were just happy that somebody was coming in and taking care of their place.”
Ross said pre-renovation residents still occupied about half of Holmes Pointe and were quite happy with the improvements. However, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism couldn’t find a single resident who had been living there for at least a year, despite talking to a dozen residents.
Ross also said that Reedy would have had to raise rents even more if it hadn’t received the tax break.
“I really don’t think we charge as much as (we could),” he said.
Leaving and then being evicted
Stephanie awoke around 2 a.m. and entered her hallway. She thought she had heard her teenagers moving around, but the reality of the commotion shocked her.
Two men carrying guns and wearing ski masks forced their way into her home, according to Stephanie, who requested her last name be concealed, and a police report. They threatened to kill her and her children if she didn’t help them get money they believed they were owed.
The pair must have had the wrong apartment, said Stephanie, 36. Thankfully, they left without seriously harming anyone.
Within a day or two, Stephanie told her property manager she’d be out of the apartment within a week. The manager assured Stephanie that wouldn’t be a problem, which she had expected. She was on a month-to-month lease and her new landlord, Reedy, had told tenants they’d have to move later that fall anyway so it could renovate.
Reedy filed for an eviction against Stephanie about a month later, according to county court records, and it was finalized four months after that.
When she learned of the eviction, Stephanie realized it might make it harder for her to find a new place but the reality still surprised her.
From September through February, Stephanie said she applied to at least 12 places and was denied at every one, despite meeting income requirements. Even apartment complexes advertising themselves as “second-chance” didn’t want her since her eviction was so recent.
Stephanie’s account wasn’t unique. Mark Maughmer, a local pastor and entrepreneur, said the company also began evicting him after he’d moved, but he was able to get things cleared up before the eviction was finalized.
Ross doubts these mistakes occur with any frequency, saying Reedy’s system should guard against them. He said the company manually alerts its lawyer for each tenant it wants to evict.
Whitlow and her 6-year-old niece have a home now. While bouncing between hotels, she found out about The Collective Blueprint, a local nonprofit that helps young adults attain credentials in high-demand industries such as IT and healthcare. Whitlow completed one of the nonprofit’s programs, and it offered her a job that pays much more than she’s ever made.
DePew, the circus performer, is doing better as well. Because of the bankruptcy, she still can’t get a credit card, but her fiancee has a good credit score and didn’t have a problem renting a home for the two of them. And her company is thriving again with the return of live events.
Earlier this month, Stephanie received a call while grocery shopping in Walmart.
When she realized it was the apartment complex she had applied to that morning, she was dismayed. The apartment manager had told her not to expect approval for a few days, so she thought it was another rejection.
She was wrong — and so glad to be so. After 15 years of living on her own, living with family again had made for a stressful six months. She and her kids were finally going to have their own place again.
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.