Illegal Eviction Pressure Claims Mount As Tenants Scramble To Learn Their Rights
Patricia Mendoza, who rents half of a duplex in Imperial Beach, California, and who has been unemployed and largely without income since March, hasn't been evicted yet. But the fear of eviction looms large in her life, despite whatever local or state safeguards are in place.
Until March, Mendoza said she had never missed paying her rent of $1,500 a month, even though her monthly income of about $2K always made it difficult to pay for everything else for her and her two daughters, aged 17 and 10. Even so, she said they managed to make ends meet.
"I will pay if I have the money, but I don't have any," Mendoza said. "If we lose this place, my daughters and I don't have anywhere to go."
A survey of 100 civil rights and legal aid attorneys nationwide by the National Housing Law Project in late June found that a vast majority, 91% of respondents, reported illegal evictions in their area. More than half of the respondents (53%) saw tenants being illegally locked out of their homes, and nearly a fifth (18%) saw tenants facing landlord intimidation.
Some landlords have reportedly been aggressive in attempting to collect rent, even in states with moratoriums. Both The Kushner Cos. and Buzzuto Management Co. have had well-documented cases of allegedly pressuring tenants with language they found threatening. Others including Bell Partners and Starwood Capital have faced scrutiny for the tactics they've employed against tenants behind on their rent.
Those companies did not immediately respond to queries for this article, but when Virginia temporarily lifted its eviction ban in early August (since reinstated), Bozzuto asserted that it wasn't acting against tenants contrary to local law.
"We continue to follow guidelines set forth by the jurisdictions where we operate, and we will continue working with our residents who have been impacted by COVID-19," Bozzuto Management Co. Managing Director of Operations JoLynn Scotch told Bisnow by email. She said the company may proceed with evictions where appropriate.
For her part, Mendoza used to transport patients to healthcare facilities for nonemergency treatment, such as cancer patients. It was a job she was able to hold despite suffering from periodic bouts of asthma. On March 26, she lost that job, and unemployment payments didn't start coming until June 2, and even that wasn't enough to cover her expenses.
As soon as she was behind on her rent, she said, her property manager started needling her about it.
"I had a harassing property manager. She wanted to know when I was going to pay, or if not, a move-out date," Mendoza said. "At the beginning, she was writing really nasty emails, demanding payment."
Mendoza credits assistance by an organization called Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment for helping her communicate with the property manager, especially by helping her write letters in response, asserting her right to stay in her apartment under the eviction moratorium in place in California.
"If it wasn't for ACCE, I would have never known what a moratorium was," she said. "I would have never known that as a renter, I have rights."
Despite eviction moratoriums, the practice of pressuring tenants to leave illegally continued across the country over the summer. Though there have been upticks in evictions in places where it is now possible, according to Princeton's Eviction Lab, the eviction tsunami hasn't happened yet. But the fear of eviction, formal or informal, has spurred tenants and tenant activists into a flurry of activity designed to resist evictions.
In jurisdictions where formal procedures for evictions are up and running again, often remotely, 88% of the National Housing Law Project's respondents expressed concern about the fairness of remote hearings. Many tenants lack the technology to access the hearings, and there are inconsistent protocols for submitting evidence remotely or no protocols at all.
There is also anecdotal evidence that other landlords are either proceeding informally with evictions or at least putting pressure on tenants to pay up or move out. Some landlords, even those with their own pressing financial worries, have offered forbearance to tenants, with the details of future payments to be worked out later.
In Boston in July, for instance, affordable housing giant WinnCompanies extended its self-imposed moratorium on tenant evictions for nonpayment of rent until the end of 2020. Other landlords are reportedly working informally with tenants to come to some kind of agreement.
When it comes to evictions, the history of tenant-landlord relations has rarely favored tenants. A study by the Kansas City Eviction Project, which analyzed about 106,000 eviction filings in Jackson County, Missouri, from 2006 to 2016, found that 99% of judgments favor landlords. Also, landlords have legal representation about 85% of the time, while tenants have it less than 2% of the time.
Of the 106,000 total, about 71.9% resulted in a judgment, with the rest dismissed before judgment, probably because tenants paid back rent or because they left their apartments ahead of a formal judgment. About 70% of the judgments were default, because in those cases the tenant didn't show up in court.
On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at the behest of the Trump administration, announced a nationwide moratorium on rental evictions. The directive, which will be framed as a matter of public health, will be published on Friday in the Federal Register, CBS reports.
The moratorium will only apply to renters below certain income thresholds ($99K/year for individuals, $198K for couples). The moratorium doesn't attempt to cancel renter debt to landlords, nor will it offer rental assistance to renters or landlords. It specifically allows evictions for reasons other than nonpayment of rent.
In California, the state legislature passed a bill on Monday night that halts evictions for tenants who didn't pay their rent between March 1 and Aug. 31 because of a financial hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The measure also halts evictions for tenants through Jan. 31, but only if they pay at least 25% of the rent owed between now and then.
Tenant activists have been calling for a renters' strike, which hasn't gotten much traction, but other efforts as various as the patchwork of state and local eviction moratoriums themselves are ongoing. They include direct assistance to renters like Patricia Mendoza, but also wider reaches.
In one case, the Los Angeles Tenants Union rallied tenant organizers to physically prevent a tenant's possessions from being taken away by a van, and then put them back in the apartment from which the tenant had been evicted, The Real Deal reports. The thinking was that a tenant can't fight an eviction if he or she has already been evicted.
There is a push among tenant-oriented organizations for further rent relief and other measures at the state and local levels. The CARES Rent Relief Program in Pennsylvania allocated $150M for rental assistance and $25M for mortgage assistance, Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania Executive Director Phyllis Chamberlain said, and while that was as good as far as it went, the program is too limited to prevent a wave of possible evictions now that the state moratorium is over.
"The end of the moratorium is going to be disastrous for low-income renters," Chamberlain said. "The CARES program has helped, but there are problems with it that we hope the General Assembly can fix, especially the cap of $750 a month that a tenant can receive. Above that, and the landlord was supposed to forgive the rest. That hasn't been nearly enough."
Activists are also pushing for better enforcement of existing moratoriums. Some state enforcement seems to have slowed down evictions, formal or informal, though it varies by state.
"Most evictions and lease terminations in Minnesota are still suspended," said HOME Line Executive Director Eric Hauge, a statewide tenant hotline based in Minneapolis. "The office of the attorney general is tasked with enforcement of the order, and they have fielded more than 1,000 complaints, most of them about landlords who don't know exactly what the rules are, who are trying to collect rent or give notice to vacate."
Some professional management companies understand the rules, and are playing by them, Hauge said. In the case of smaller landlords, however, if there is a complaint, most of the time all it takes is a call from the attorney general's office to get the landlord to back off.
"The eviction moratoriums have been stopgaps," Urban Institute Senior Research Associate Samantha Batko said. "People are being evicted."
The Urban Institute estimates that nationwide, it would cost $16B a month to directly support tenants at risk of eviction, which would indirectly aid the landlords who depend on rental payments.
Pinpointing the places most in need of rental assistance can be tricky, however. Toward that end, the organization created a tool using Census Bureau data to help municipalities allocate more effectively whatever rental assistance they can muster.
"The tool we created identifies neighborhoods that have a high share of low-income renters, or who are unemployed or have a high cost burden, or who are members of ethnic minorities who have been systemically excluded from economic or housing opportunities," Batko said.
The interactive map estimates the relative risks of eviction and homelessness in census tracts based on neighborhood conditions and demographics, incorporating instability risk factors before the pandemic as well as the pandemic’s economic impacts, she said.
The tool also emphasizes an approach to delivering rental assistance that promotes equity, accounting for the historic and systemic exclusion of Black, indigenous and Latinx renters from housing and economic opportunities, and the greater health and economic impacts they face from COVID-19, Batko said.
The prospect of evictions isn't just an urban problem, Executive Director of the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky Adrienne Bush said, though it tends to be more visible in places with large concentrations of renters in larger properties.
"Small cities and rural areas are being affected as well," she said. "In some places, such as Hopkinsville, Kentucky, about half of households rent, including single-family houses and duplexes and manufactured homes."
"We need massive federal intervention," Bush said. "But until that happens we are connecting tenants to legal aid, and trying to get rent relief to landlords."