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As tenants across Florida lost their jobs and incomes during the coronavirus pandemic, executives at Axiom Realty Partners LLC, whose portfolio includes at least nine apartment buildings throughout the Southeast, applied pressure on some tenants to either pay rent or move out.
One Axiom tenant, who asked that her name not be used for fear of retribution from her landlord, told ProPublica that she fell behind on rent in early April when her 4-year-old’s day care closed because of the pandemic.
She was forced to leave her job at a staffing firm to take care of the child, who has severe autism. She relied on $275 per week in state unemployment benefits to support herself and her two young children, but money was still tight. She hasn’t met the eligibility requirements for an additional $600 per week in federal assistance.
“People think you can just go to work, but I have a special needs child, so I can’t just put her in any open day care,” she said. “It’s not like we don’t want to go back to work. We don’t want to live like this.”
In May, she received a three-day notice to pay what she owed or leave her home.
After doing some research, she discovered that her apartment complex was covered under the federal eviction moratorium as well as Florida’s statewide eviction ban. She decided to stay, but her landlord continued to post notices threatening eviction if she didn’t pay her rent.
“They act like they don’t know what I’m talking about when I tell them that the property is covered,” she said. “I’ve told them that they’re not supposed to be giving notices, but they don’t care.”
Starting July 25, a key component of the federal eviction moratorium is set to expire, allowing landlords that operate federally backed rental properties to give their tenants 30 days’ notice to vacate. After that period, landlords can file for eviction. Axiom has made it clear that it intends to take swift legal action once the protections run out.
“COVID-19 is not an excuse to not pay rent,” the company wrote in a letter sent to the tenant this month. “Please be aware that when the eviction moratorium is lifted, we will not only file an eviction, but we will seek a judgment against you for the full amount of all unpaid rents in a court of law.”
The ban on evictions at federally backed properties that Congress passed in March as part of the CARES Act has played a significant role in shielding the nation’s renters from the risk of losing their homes during the pandemic, a ProPublica analysis of eviction cases filed before and during the pandemic shows.
In the months before the passage of the CARES Act, evictions at federally backed apartment buildings made up more than a third of the eviction cases filed in cities like Atlanta and Houston every month, according to ProPublica estimates. In those two cities alone, that amounted to more than 7,700 households a month.
In the months since the law went into effect, eviction filings at those properties have dropped to less than 200 a month on average, making up about 5% of eviction filings in May and June.
The reach of the federal moratorium varied widely by city. While over 40% of evictions in metro Atlanta before the pandemic were at federally backed apartments, that number was just over 20% in St. Louis and around 10% in Milwaukee.
At the same time, ProPublica found eviction filings were also down significantly, if less dramatically, at apartment complexes not covered by the ban. That suggests that other factors — including expanded unemployment benefits and rental assistance programs, an anemic rental market, and state and local court closures and eviction moratoriums — also played a crucial role in reducing the level of eviction cases filed against tenants during the coronavirus crisis thus far.
“The moratorium was just one component,” said Paula Cino, vice president of construction, development and land use policy at the National Multifamily Housing Council, a group that represents apartment owners. “The financial support of unemployment insurance, stimulus checks and other relief, we think that that was really a lifeline and it was successful in helping many Americans meet their housing needs.”
That financial support has allowed most tenants to make the rent each month, Cino said, pointing to survey data her group collects that shows only a small percentage drop in people able to make rent payments in July compared with a year earlier.
But both expanded unemployment payments and the federal eviction ban are set to wind down at the end of the month, and eviction filings have started to tick up in recent weeks as courts in many jurisdictions are either scheduled to or have already reopened.
That sets the stage for a potential crisis for renters and landlords alike if lawmakers don’t extend measures to support renters as Congress returned to session this week, housing advocates say.
“The next three weeks are going to be critically important,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a tenant advocacy group. “There will be a bill at the end of it, one way or another, and the scope and extent of it will determine if a tsunami of evictions will happen.”
The HEROES Act, congressional Democrats’ opening bid in negotiations this week with Senate Republicans and the White House, includes $100 billion in rent relief, a move that both landlord and tenant advocates support.
Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, and Rep. Jesus Garcia, of Illinois, have also pushed legislation to extend the eviction moratorium for another year and to expand it to cover all properties, not just those backed by the federal government.
“No one should be kicked out of their home during a pandemic,” Garcia said in a statement. “And as existing eviction moratoriums expire it’s more important than ever for Congress to protect renters.”
Apartment operators oppose such a move, saying it could lead tenants to stop paying rent, forcing landlords to lay off staff and miss mortgage payments.
“When someone is provided the opportunity for a 12-month eviction-free period, it promotes the idea that you can consider this a ‘rent holiday,’” Cino said.
When asked about the letter Axiom sent, an executive for the company expressed the point more bluntly.
“For tenants displaced by pandemic, we encourage them to communicate with us and work with them to the extent possible,” Axiom managing member Philip Miller wrote in an email. “For those that are able to pay, choose not to communicate and use the pandemic and protections as an excuse for a rent free holiday, or worse, an opportunity to be disruptive to our community, we eagerly look forward to a return of the rule of law.”
A Shifting Legal Landscape
ProPublica reviewed months of local court records covering cities and counties across more than a dozen states. That includes online records gathered by ProPublica in Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Texas, as well as data provided by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, covering cities including St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cleveland. In 10 cities, we paired the data with digital property maps to examine broad changes in filing patterns during the pandemic.
The data shows that, as the coronavirus began to spread through the nation this spring, it set off a series of seismic shifts in an uneven eviction landscape long-shaped by a combination of housing affordability, local landlord-tenant law and the capacity of the nation’s courts to relentlessly churn through hundreds of thousands of cases each month.
Even before the CARES Act eviction ban took effect, eviction filings began to drop rapidly around the country as courts closed and state and local governments put in place measures to halt the eviction process. Filings bottomed out in April but began to pick up again in May and June, court records show.
But as suits increased, it wasn’t the same landlords that were coming to court as before the pandemic, the data shows. Nor were they filing the same volume of cases.
Bulk filings by large apartment complex operators — whose cases once dominated court dockets in cities like Atlanta, Houston and Memphis, Tennessee — made up a much smaller share of eviction cases than usual in those states since the pandemic began, ProPublica found.
In January and February, ProPublica identified more than a thousand buildings where landlords had filed five or more evictions on average each month. Such bulk filings affected an average of about 12,000 households during those months. In May and June, that number fell to around 100 properties and affected less than 1,200 tenants a month on average.
Meanwhile, instances in which a landlord filed only once at a property over a two-month period shrunk as well, but at a much slower rate. They made up almost a third of cases reviewed by ProPublica before the pandemic, but in May and June, they made up more than half.
Our analysis can’t capture the entire universe of properties covered by the federal eviction ban or all the less-formal methods landlords might employ to remove tenants from their homes. There’s no publicly available data on federally backed single-family homes, for example, so it’s impossible to know how many evictions at those properties may be in violation of the ban. There’s also no way to track informal tactics, like those used by Axiom, that may pressure tenants to leave their covered properties without filing cases in court.
Experts said a number of factors might explain the shifting landscape of evictions during the crisis.
For one, even in the absence of a federal ban, landlords can’t evict tenants if the courts aren’t scheduling hearings or the sheriffs aren’t carrying out judicial orders, decreasing the efficacy of what was once a reliable threat for getting late tenants to pay up.
“Wherever you make evictions cheap and really fast through the courts, you make it easier to use as a tool for landlords to extract rent,” said Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers University-Newark and a research fellow at Princeton’s Eviction Lab. With many courts across the country not holding hearings, the timeline for removing a tenant has drastically lengthened, making filing less appealing.
But even if a landlord did succeed in getting a tenant to leave, there’s no guarantee that they’ll find another one to replace them in an economy where unemployment is at 11%, and even higher among the lower-income tenants who might replace tenants most at risk of eviction.
Facing fewer options when tenants fall behind, landlords may be more likely to seek out solutions like accepting partial rent payments and connecting tenants with rental assistance programs in order to recoup some revenue, even if that means — in states like Georgia — forgoing the right to evict.
“There’s a tendency in those kinds of conditions to stabilize,” the National Multifamily Housing Council’s Cino said. “And that’s driving apartment firms to work with existing residences.”
Some Landlords Keep Evicting — Where They Can
While many apartment operators clearly decided that it was better to work things out with their tenants outside of the courts in recent months, not all reached the same conclusion. For their tenants who fall short on rent payments, the federal eviction ban may be the only thing standing between them and an eviction notice over the coming weeks.
Among the large landlords that have continued to file high numbers of evictions through the pandemic is Ventron Management LLC, a Florida-based company that operates thousands of units at apartment complexes in Florida and Georgia, including more than a dozen in the Atlanta area.
Ventron — which the Atlanta Journal-Constitution singled out as one of the most aggressive eviction filers in the area in 2016 for filing more than one eviction case for every two units it operated that year — has filed over 400 evictions at its properties in metro Atlanta since April.
It’s a drop from the more than 700 the company filed there between January and February, driven in part by a dramatic decrease in filings at the federally backed Park at East Ponce complex. Renters there received more than 100 notices this winter. They didn’t receive any in May or June.
But any reprieve for renters at the complex may be up if the federal moratorium expires. Ventron, which was also approved for $2 million to $5 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans from the Small Business Administration this year, is hiring.
A position the company posted on LinkedIn two weeks ago calls for an Atlanta-area “Evictions Paralegal” to help in the company’s collections department.
Ventron Management’s Chief Financial Officer Erez Hon told ProPublica that the job would be “focused on helping connect our residents to the financial assistance and support programs they need to stay in their homes.”
“Eviction is the absolute last resort for us,” Hon wrote in response to questions about Ventron’s eviction practices, saying that his company follows through the entire eviction process on less than 2% of its units. He says his company works hard to connect tenants with financial assistance to keep them in their homes, including after filing eviction cases in court.
“If, and only if, a resident will not communicate with us or work with us to find a solution, then we will file an eviction,” he said.
The paralegal job description doesn’t mention anything about helping tenants stay in their homes. But it does hint at the scale of the task the company sees ahead.
The ideal candidate will “[work] with third party eviction company to bulk file company dispossessory warrants (400+).”
About the data: ProPublica collected eviction filings from court websites and from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. In several jurisdictions where defendant addresses were available, we geocoded the court cases and matched them to properties using digital map files. We also matched records of properties known to be covered by the CARES Act eviction moratorium to the same digital map files and cross-referenced them with eviction filings. We inspected the results at random to ensure that the vast majority of matches were accurate in order to produce the estimates in this story.