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Special Report-Giant U.S. landlords pursue evictions despite CDC ban - Metro US

Special Report-Giant U.S. landlords pursue evictions despite CDC ban

Greyhound Bus driver Marvia Robinson is seen after her overnight shift in Orlando

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) – Marvia Robinson was dead tired from a week of overnight long-haul trips when she nosed her Greyhound bus into the station in deep predawn darkness. Still, the 63-year-old driver kept a friendly lilt in her voice as she said goodbye to the riders filing past her and stepping off the bus.

“Rough night,” she said minutes later, walking toward her Toyota Corolla in the parking lot. “I had to put two off in Tallahassee, for drinking, and then another one in Ocala.” She longed to go home to sleep.

But she had no home to go to. Nineteen days earlier, Invitation Homes Inc, the largest landlord for single-family homes in the United States, had evicted her from the one she lived in.

Last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic brought the nation’s travel economy to a standstill, Robinson’s hours were cut, her pay dwindled – to as little as $65 for one two-week period – and she fell behind on her rent. By January, she owed $4,920.38. So she emailed Invitation Homes to ask if it would accept funds from a county program that gives landlords $4,000 in back rent.

In an email response reviewed by Reuters, Invitation Homes told Robinson the company was not participating in the program “due to the landlord restrictions,” without explaining what that meant. The company then sent Robinson an email with links to information about other government and nonprofit relief programs, as well as payday lenders, food banks, the Coalition for the Homeless and ways to make money by selling hair, plasma and donor eggs. On Jan. 8, the company sent Robinson a note asking for rent and additional fees, signing off with: “We’re in this together, Your Invitation Homes team.”

On Jan. 13, Invitation Homes sued to evict Robinson. Two days later, Robinson filed a handwritten declaration with the Orange County civil court attesting that she qualified for relief under the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national moratorium on evictions. That Sept. 4 order, reinforced by similar state and local measures, is meant to protect people who lost income in the pandemic from losing their homes.

In February, an Orange County judge approved Robinson’s eviction. On March 9, two sheriff’s deputies showed up at Robinson’s taupe two-story rental south of the city, bolted the doors and changed the locks.

Invitation Homes declined to comment on Robinson’s case. A spokeswoman told Reuters the company “preserves our legal rights” once it has “exhausted all other options” to challenge tenants’ CDC declarations.

PERSISTENCE AMID PANDEMIC

As the coronavirus pandemic moves into its second year, Robinson’s case and many others like it reveal that landlords have persisted in pursuing evictions across the United States, despite government measures meant to keep tenants in their homes.

Comprehensive nationwide figures aren’t available. But according to the Princeton University Eviction Lab, 318,091 households have faced eviction proceedings during the pandemic in the 27 cities the research project tracks, including Phoenix, Milwaukee and Dallas. Many more remain vulnerable to eviction and possible homelessness: By May, an estimated 7 million renters across the country will owe $40 billion in back rent, utilities and fees, Moody’s Analytics estimates. Before the pandemic, about 900,000 households were evicted each year.

Most renters live in apartments or houses owned by small-scale “mom-and-pop” landlords, who often rely heavily on their rental income. But based on a review of hundreds of court filings across the country, as well as interviews with tenants, their lawyers and housing advocates, it’s the big, deep-pocketed corporate landlords with property portfolios spanning multiple states that have been the most aggressive in filing eviction cases, even as they have thrived in the pandemic.

Since the pandemic began, large corporate landlords have filed nearly 70,000 eviction cases in just 27 counties in seven states analyzed by the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, a Chicago-based nonprofit that studies the impact of private equity investments on the public.

The data “just scratches the surface,” the group’s executive director, Jim Baker, said. “Giant corporate landlords … are driving the eviction crisis, advancing evictions even after residents have sought relief under the CDC eviction moratorium.”

GOOD TIMES IN BAD TIMES

Many of the big landlords, especially those focused on single-family homes, have benefited as higher-income families have fled to the suburbs for perceived safety and more space during the pandemic. Invitation Homes had its best year ever in 2020, with profits climbing to a record $200 million as occupancy rates neared 100%. Its share price has nearly doubled since March 2020.

Invitation Homes ranked fifth among companies seeking evictions in the seven states examined by the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, with 710 cases since the CDC moratorium took effect Sept. 4. Ahead of it were S2 Capital, a Dallas, Texas, investment firm, with 1,160 eviction suits; Ventron Management, with 1,134 cases against tenants in Georgia and Florida and which received $2.6 million under the federal Paycheck Protection Program; private equity firm Pretium Partners, which operates Progress Residential and Front Yard Residential, with 1,074 eviction suits; and Western Wealth Capital, with 1,018.

Invitation Homes, Progress Residential and Ventron Management said that evictions are a last resort and that the Private Equity Stakeholder Project’s data are misleading. Invitation Homes noted that “eviction filings do not equal actual eviction,” and that the “vast majority are resolved with the resident staying in the home and no eviction on their record.” Progress Residential said it and related companies “have not evicted any individual who is covered by a valid CDC declaration,” but they “reserve the right to proceed in accordance with applicable law.” Ventron Management said its eviction filings represent a small number of tenants and that in the majority of cases a resolution is reached.

S2 Capital and Western Wealth Capital did not respond to requests for comment.

Many eviction cases are pending, and some tenants may receive a lifeline from the $50 billion in rent relief approved by Congress. That aid has been slow to trickle out, however, and meantime, just fighting eviction can cost money that tenants lack. In many jurisdictions, even when a case is settled or dismissed, it remains on a tenant’s record, often making it harder to obtain housing in the future.

The CDC did not respond to requests for comment. Late last month, two days before the moratorium was to expire, the agency extended it to June 30. Companies that violate the moratorium are subject to criminal penalties of up to $200,000 per incident – and up to $500,000 if the violation results in a death.

In late March, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission jointly announced that they would be “investigating eviction practices, particularly by major multistate landlords, eviction management services, and private equity firms.”

The agencies said the probe was in response to media reports and complaints from housing advocates and state and federal agencies “that major multistate landlords are forcing people out of their homes despite the government prohibitions or before tenants are aware of their rights … Many of the tenants at risk of eviction are older Americans and people of color, who already experience heightened risks from COVID-19.”

Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, the Federal Trade Commission’s acting chairwoman, told Reuters that there is no comprehensive data measuring the problem, but “bad conduct by large multistate landlords and private equity firms has an enormous impact on renters across the country.”

And eviction isn’t necessarily the end of it. Two weeks after Invitation booted Robinson from her Orlando home, the company sent her a bill for $12,768.82. That included $8,854.30 in past rent, plus late fees, legal costs and a long list of charges to cover expenses typically shouldered by landlords to prepare a rental for new tenants, including landscaping, a battery for the smoke detector, garden mulch, plumbing work, new window blinds, pressure washing and painting.

“If payment in full is not made within 30 days,” the letter accompanying the bill said, “your account will be referred to a collection agency and your credit may be negatively impacted. Thank you for your attention to this matter.” The letter ended: “We wish you well in your future endeavors. Sincerely, Your Invitation Homes Team.”

Robinson now lives out of her car and stays with friends or, when she has the cash, in a hotel. In early April, sitting in an Extended Stay Hotel that cost her $105 for the night, Robinson counted her worries. She had to pay to fix a flat tire. She had mistakenly moved into storage the oxygen tank she needs for her asthma. And she hadn’t been able to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

“It is very embarrassing and painful having to put all my china, furniture and artwork in three storage units,” she said. “And this all happened because the judges are honoring their request for eviction and ignoring the federal ban.”

Orange County Civil Court Judge Brian F. Duckworth, who signed off on Robinson’s eviction, did not respond to requests for comment. Julio Semino, a court support manager, said: “Unfortunately judges cannot comment on specific cases or rulings.”

Judge Duckworth provided no rationale for his decision in the court record. On paper, Robinson met the criteria to qualify for the protection under the CDC moratorium: Her income had been negatively impacted by COVID-19, she made less than $99,000 a year, and she had applied for rent relief.

In an email statement, Invitation Homes spokeswoman Kristi DesJarlais said the company does not comment on the cases of individual renters. In general, she said, “We reserve the right to challenge CDC declarations in cases where a resident has not paid rent over multiple months nor have they made any arrangements to pay rent, and where we have repeatedly offered such arrangements including mutual termination of lease with no financial obligation on the resident’s part.”

Robinson said Invitation Homes never made her such an offer.

Landlords are able to win evictions because the CDC moratorium is open to interpretation by judges, leaving plenty of room for landlords to argue that a tenant violated the terms of a lease, engaged in criminal activity or didn’t abide by a stipulated payment plan. That’s why eviction filings haven’t stopped and in some cities have actually risen since the CDC’s moratorium, including in Columbus, Ohio; Richmond, Virginia; and Jacksonville, Florida.

Florida, in particular, is a hot spot for pandemic evictions. The state has some of the harshest eviction laws in the United States, giving tenants just five days to pay up or move out and keeping eviction filings on tenants’ public records forever, no matter the outcome of the case.

THE BIG SHORT COMES FULL CIRCLE

Corporate America’s advance into the U.S. rental market began in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis – a cataclysm that resulted from a superheated housing market fueled by shaky mortgages packaged into securities sold to investors. When homeowners began to default on their loans and the market for mortgage-backed securities collapsed, 10 million American homeowners lost their properties in a tidal wave of foreclosures.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs had been a player in the mortgage-backed securities market. At the same time – and unknown to investors – the firm had bet against securitized mortgages. That trade, subsequently dubbed “The Big Short,” ensured that Goldman profited when the market tanked.

Among the Goldman Sachs executives who engineered that bet against the U.S. housing market was Donald Mullen Jr. In 2012, he left Goldman, created Progress Residential and joined a rush by Invitation Homes and other shops to snap up cheap foreclosed homes in bulk. These firms figured that rents in suburbs with good schools would continue to rise, while their own home purchases would buoy the value of their real estate assets. They could then sell bonds backed by rental income to finance even more home purchases.

From the start, the business model was controversial. Affordable housing advocates worried that the firms would lean hard on tenants, minimizing maintenance costs and maximizing rents and fees, to satisfy bondholders.

A 2016 Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta analysis found that Colony Starwood – which would later merge with Invitation Homes – filed eviction notices on more than 30% of its tenants, while Invitation Homes filed notices on nearly 15%. The strongest predictor of whether a tenant got an eviction notice was if the tenant was Black, the Atlanta Fed said.

Invitation Homes said that the data is outdated and “irrelevant,” and that “we are a completely different company than we were at that time.” It said race “has no bearing on any aspect of our business.”

In January 2021, Mullen’s Pretium Partners and private equity firm Ares Management jointly acquired Front Yard Residential and folded it into Progress Residential. The merged entity, with a portfolio of 55,000 rental homes, ranked third among the Private Equity Stakeholder Project’s list of top firms pursuing evictions during the CDC’s moratorium.

Through a spokesperson, Mullen did not respond to requests for comment.

Among those Progress has sued to evict is Lichelle Reynolds, a 50-year-old Black mother of two who had an impeccable rental history – until she moved in December 2019 into a powder blue two-story home with loft ceilings on Lark Song Loop in Riverview, Florida, near Tampa. The neighborhood came with a community pool, tennis courts, pocket parks and a clubhouse.

Reynolds said she took it upon herself to do repairs, like sawing off sagging palm fronds. She kept the house spotless.

But in spring 2020, as the pandemic raged, Reynolds’ hours as a claims manager for an insurer were slashed. She lost more than half her income. By summer, “the wheels had just totally come off,” Reynolds said in an interview in the screened-in lanai at the back of her home, overlooking a small lake.

Reynolds reached out to Progress for help. The company told her it would waive her first $125 late fee – but only once. She then tried to make partial payments of her $1,835 monthly rent, she told Reuters, but was ultimately locked out of the company’s payment portal.

In January, Progress sued Reynolds for eviction, seeking more than $10,000 in unpaid rent, late charges and fees. Reynolds responded by filing a declaration in court that she qualified for protection under the CDC eviction moratorium. Progress challenged Reynolds’ declaration, arguing in a court document that the moratorium “is an unconstitutional attempt to create a general police power for the federal government.”

With the help of a lawyer, Reynolds was able to get the court to agree to a stay on the eviction and then get the case dismissed altogether in April. She still owes the company $13,000.

A Progress Residential spokesperson blamed the court filing on an outside lawyer whom “Progress no longer works with” and said the company didn’t approve or review it. “We do not challenge valid declarations related to the eviction moratorium,” the spokesperson said. “We have worked with the resident in question to obtain meaningful rental assistance and they are still in the home.”

The spokesperson added: “Progress Residential complies with all applicable laws and regulations and continually engages with residents on matters affecting them.”

BULK BUYS

The divergent economic realities of COVID-19 America have sent the nation’s housing market down two paths.

On one, families whose jobs and wealth have been largely unaffected have helped spark a home-buying frenzy as many have sought pandemic compounds with home offices and roomy basements for homeschooling. In cities across the country, median prices have spiked 17% in the past year as inventory has shrunk to record lows.

Another factor lifting prices: big landlords buying in bulk, according to John Burns Real Estate Consulting, an independent research firm that studies the housing market.

In the fourth quarter of 2020, for example, Invitation Homes bought 273 homes in Dallas and 54 in Phoenix. The company says it will spend $1 billion this year to buy more homes. Progress Residential’s parent, Mullen’s Pretium Partners, agreed in January to a $700 million joint venture with the Canadian Public Sector Pension Investment Board to buy more homes. These bulk purchases, housing advocates say, crowd out first-time homebuyers by depleting the inventory of affordable homes.

At the same time, the pandemic threw 22 million Americans into unemployment. Suddenly, money was tight. One in five tenants are behind on their rent, according to the administration of President Joe Biden.

Jesse Ohlau, an Invitation Homes tenant in Brandon, Florida, couldn’t afford his rent after he was forced to close his auto repair shop last November. Until then, he said, he always paid on time and in full.

He said he called Invitation Homes to offer partial payment, but the company refused. A few weeks later, he hit a pothole while on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and was thrown across the freeway. The accident left him in intensive care for two weeks with two punctured lungs, 20 broken bones and a brain injury.

By the time he returned to his rental in December, suffering blackouts and unable to remember his voicemail PIN, Invitation Homes had sued him for eviction. With help from a friend, Ohlau filled out the CDC declaration, stating in a letter to the court: “Please accept my apologies. I have been under great duress with my business … this being the first time in seven years I’ve been late on my rent.”

Ohlau met the moratorium’s income requirements, but Invitation Homes challenged his declaration in court, stating: “Plaintiff has reason to believe that Defendant(s) do not meet the qualifications of a ‘covered person.’ ” It did not provide evidence on which it based that belief.

The case is pending.

Ohlau isn’t optimistic. “They want to see their money,” Ohlau said, standing in the driveway of his home. “They don’t care about you, and they don’t care about me.”

DesJarlais, the Invitation Homes spokeswoman, reiterated that the company does not comment on specific cases.

RENT HIKE

When Robinson, the bus driver, learned that sheriff’s deputies were on their way to her home in Orlando, she used her last $200 to hire three men standing in a store parking lot to move most of her belongings into storage. She says she stayed up all night cleaning the house and waxing the floors.

Several days after Robinson moved out, a family of seven in a maroon minivan pulled up to see the house. It was now listed for $1,915 a month – 5.5% more than the $1,814 under Robinson’s lease.

Outside, grime stained the house’s white trim, and the leaf-strewn lawn showed bald spots. The floor of the screened porch was chipped. The back door had a broken hinge. The family looked over each of the rooms, talking among themselves. They declined to say whether they were going to sign a lease, but the next day, the listing was removed.

The same day, Robinson packed as many of her belongings as she could fit into her Corolla and drove to Maryland to store them at her daughter’s rental.

She continues to work overnight shifts, and her hours and pay are rebounding. But she worries that debt collectors will come after her for the $12,768.82 bill Invitation Homes sent her. She remains homeless.

(Edited by Tom Lasseter and John Blanton)

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