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Corporate landlords used aggressive tactics to push out more tenants than was known

Housing activists in Swampscott, Mass., on Oct. 14, 2020. A congressional report finds that four corporate landlords acted aggressively to push out tenants during the first year of the pandemic, despite a federal eviction moratorium and billions in emergency rental aid.
Michael Dwyer
/
AP
Housing activists in Swampscott, Mass., on Oct. 14, 2020. A congressional report finds that four corporate landlords acted aggressively to push out tenants during the first year of the pandemic, despite a federal eviction moratorium and billions in emergency rental aid.

Updated July 28, 2022 at 4:36 PM ET

After a year-long investigation, a Congressional subcommittee says four corporate landlords were quick to push out renters during the pandemic, and filed nearly three times as many eviction actions as previously reported — almost 15,000 in all. The findings add data and detail to a growing body of reporting — and mounting complaints — about investor landlords, including concerns that they are fueling skyrocketing rents amid a historic shortage of affordable housing.

"As countless Americans acted admirably to support their communities during the coronavirus crisis, the four landlord companies...evicted aggressively to pad their profits," said House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) in a statement.

He chairs the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which began its investigation after reports that the companies had high eviction filing rates despite a federal eviction moratorium, and often refused to accept emergency rental aid. The companies own properties across 28 states, and the report looked at their actions during the first 16 months of the pandemic.

In a statement, Pretium Partners said, "We have always complied with the CDC moratorium," and that the company voluntarily extended that moratorium beyond its expiration in some cases. Invitation Homes noted that "we have provided help to more than 33,000 residents who were in need of extra time or financial assistance," and helped 10,000 more obtain rental aid. The Siegel Group said it "has at all times been committed to abiding by the letter and the spirit of the law applicable to our operations." Ventron Management did not reply to a request for comment.

A list of strategies to "bluff" people out of their apartments

One company, The Siegel Group, is accused of using deceptive practices to "bluff" people out of their apartments. The report says employees took actions to make tenants think the CDC eviction moratorium was no longer in force, even though it had been kept in place on appeal.

"It looks as if they were using information and even misinformation in order to set people up for evictions," Rep. Clyburn told NPR.

It also describes a list of "harassment" strategies a Siegel executive said could be used to get a tenant in Texas to leave without a formal eviction order. They included having security knock on her door "at least twice a night," replacing her air conditioning unit with one that didn't work, and calling Child Protective Services to visit her. Lawmakers suggest some of these tactics may be unlawful and they've referred the findings to federal and state agencies for further investigation.

The congressional report finds the companies often filed to evict tenants who were only one month behind in rent, and sometimes while they were waiting on emergency rental aid. It says Invitation Homes downplayed the impact of its practices, reporting in March 2021 that just 6% of tenants it filed against actually lost their housing. In fact, lawmakers say that included only those formally evicted by court order, and many more left without waiting for that, bringing the total share to 27%.

"Too often we tend to place the blame on the resident," says Jim Baker, executive director of the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, a nonprofit advocacy group that's also tracked evictions. "But what we saw, and the subcommittee showed, was really a pattern of actions. These large companies were taking multiple steps to sort of force those folks out of their homes."

Last year, Baker's group found that one of the companies in today's report — Pretium — had been filing for eviction much more often in predominantly Black neighborhoods during the pandemic. At the time Pretium called the allegations "baseless" and said its property managers "work with residents and seek to avoid eviction."

Baker says today's report suggests these companies "made an economic calculation that they could raise rents for new residents, rather than enabling current residents to be able to stay in their homes."

These companies may be the "tip of the iceberg"

The report covers the worst part of the pandemic, a period when a federal eviction moratorium was in effect, as well as many local ones. Peter Hepburn, a research fellow with the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, says it's significant that Congress is calling attention to corporate landlord practices during that time, and naming names.

"Those protections were in place in order to safeguard our public health, and they were willfully undermining that effort," he says. "I think that is reprehensible."

He also believes these four companies are only the "tip of the iceberg," and says the report shows the need for more transparency as corporate landlords expand their reach. Last year their share of single-family home purchases jumped to a record quarter of the market.

"These firms are buying up a lot of housing, and they're particularly buying up housing in places that have relatively weak tenant protections, places where eviction is easier, faster and cheaper," Hepburn says. "And I don't think that that is coincidental."

Katie Goldstein directs the housing program at the Center for Popular Democracy, and says evictions are just one of many problems she encounters with corporate landlords. Tenants also complain about a decline in services and repairs, an increase in monthly fees, and a dramatic rise in rents.

Some cities and states have expanded protections for tenants, such as requiring they be provided legal counsel in eviction court. Goldstein's group and others also want federal limits on rent hikes, and the circumstance in which people can be evicted.

"What we really need is for tenants to be able to experience stability, and not have situations where corporate landlords can double or triple the rent, depending on what the market looks like in that area," Goldstein says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.