Cash-strapped renters nationwide say their landlords tried to skirt COVID-19 eviction moratoriums by changing locks, removing trash containers so waste piled up and – in one case – attempting to unbolt the front door right off an apartment.
They told state attorneys general that they were kicked out of their homes after landlords accused them of violating tenant rules, like smoking cigarettes inside their units or failing to take the hitches off of their mobile homes.
Like Heidi Stach, who lost her job due to the pandemic and fell behind on rent, they assumed they were protected. But Stach says her landlord found an end-run to Wisconsin’s eviction ban: Instead of starting a court process, he sent her a notice to vacate this summer because he was not renewing her lease.
That type of informal or “extrajudicial” eviction is a work-around to the patchwork of emergency state and federal rules created this year to prevent landlords from ejecting tenants into unstable or crowded living arrangements during the health emergency.
What once was a fringe concern has become a quiet scourge across the nation, said Eric Dunn, director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project, feeding housing instability concerns among the millions who have missed rent payments.
“Since the pandemic started, and courts froze their dockets or had moratoriums, we’ve seen a huge spike in tactics from landlords to get people out,” Dunn said, “including changing locks, cutting off utility service, refusing to make repairs, making threats, providing misinformation and any other creative way to accuse someone of a lease violation that fits an exception in the moratorium.”
Tricks and intimidation behind the scenes add to more overt efforts by landlords to legally evict tenants. With statewide bans largely expired and federal protection from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium nearing its final days, tenant advocates like Dunn fear things will only get worse.
USA TODAY reviewed hundreds of complaints about landlords filed through the summer by consumers with attorneys general in seven states, including Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Washington state and Wisconsin.
Landlords, they told the state agencies, hiked rents even as the tenants lost their jobs and missed utility bill payments. They skipped out on basic maintenance and let conditions deteriorate, leaving renters a choice between leaving on their own or living with mold outbreaks or infestations of bed bugs, roaches and maggots.
While the complaints offer a window into the problem, tenants often found their efforts to enlist state help went nowhere since wrongful evictions typically must be fought in court.
Tasha Tavenner said she and her four children camped in the woods after she lost her job, fell behind on rent and then watched as two men tried to pull the door off the front of her apartment.
From elderly residents on Social Security to single mothers struggling with unemployment, some reported that they were pushed into homelessness, where they could not take basic steps to protect themselves from the virus.
That threat was a driving force behind the moratoriums, and a group of epidemiologists found this month that the measures have helped stem COVID-19’s spread, particularly in poorer neighborhoods where court-ordered eviction is more prevalent.
Stach, the mother of a 15-year-old daughter with disabilities, came up short in April on her $850 rent. Her lease was up but she assumed she could renew it. Instead, she came home to the notice to vacate.
“It was devastating. I was confused and crying and felt like I was having a panic attack,” Stach said. “I lost my job and now I had to basically beg someone to let us live somewhere else instead of a homeless shelter.”
Stach complained to Wisconsin’s consumer protection agency, which intervened as a mediator, but did not manage to resolve the dispute. Eventually she located a new apartment, but it’s more expensive and in a different neighborhood of La Crosse, requiring her to transfer her daughter to another school district.
Video: Evictions put already vulnerable Americans in jeopardy amid pandemic
Finding a place to live came with added challenges because Stach has a criminal record tied to past drug use. But, armed with a new job at a cheese manufacturer, she was able to get a lease – with an additional rider that says she will be evicted if she has a drug relapse.
“In the middle of this, it’s a lot to pay for rent plus a new security deposit on such short notice while everyone is freaking out about the pandemic,” Stach said.
Her previous landlord at Reliant Real Estate Services said he couldn’t discuss specific tenants but he said none had faced non-renewals or eviction proceedings since late spring. He added that those with looming lease expirations can negotiate move-out dates or month-to-month extensions.
“Evictions and lease non-renewals are never a desired outcome,” Reliant President Aaron Wickesburg wrote in an email. “We will continue to do whatever we can to help keep our tenants in their homes.”
Eviction bans and moratoriums are full of holes
Eviction moratoriums under the federal CARES Act expired on July 25. Many state bans also ended over the summer, or in the fall. The remaining CDC order, enacted Sept. 4, has a simple goal: prevent evictions for non-payment of rent during the pandemic.
But the CDC’s rules are full of exemptions and tricky legal definitions, leaving openings for unscrupulous landlords.
The current CDC order, set to expire Dec. 31, specifies that evictions for non-payment of rent can be prevented if renters fill out a form declaring that they make less than $99,000, are trying to make partial payments and would likely be homeless if evicted. Rent still accrues and is due eventually.
The CDC order comes with criminal penalties, but neither the agency nor the U.S. Department of Justice answered questions on whether a single landlord has been prosecuted.
The order also offers five other reasons evictions can move forward: criminal activity, threats to other residents, damage to property, violation of building codes or violation of any other aspect of a lease.
Dunn said landlords can find subtle ways to use those exemptions to evict a non-paying renter, say when adding a satellite dish turns out to be a lease violation, or when a boyfriend stays over more nights than allowed in the guest portion of the lease. Non-renewals of leases that lead to eviction are a gray area in the CDC order.
“If a landlord truly wants to evict someone, you know they can find a reason,” said Andrew Aurand, vice president for research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Aurand and others have lobbied on Capitol Hill for a federal rent assistance program as part of a pandemic relief bill. Tenant groups favor such programs, which would cost as much as $100 billion, over extended eviction moratoriums.
“The real concern is what happens in January if we don’t find a rental solution,” Aurand said, “and the 30 to 40 million people that again will be at risk for eviction.”
Self-help evictions date back centuries
Extrajudicial or “self-help” evictions – in which landlords take matters into their own hands – date back to Roman law. They were part of English common law and then barred by U.S. courts to quell violence. Today, they refer to any method outside the legal court eviction process.
While self-help removals are by their nature impossible to measure, the usual number of court evictions offers a hint of the tsunami some advocates fear could be coming, obscured by the various COVID-19 restrictions.
The National Housing Law Project estimates about 900,000 legal judicial evictions take place in the U.S. each year. Research by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University indicates that, on average across 26 tracked cities, eviction filings have dropped by more than half during the pandemic, but now are steadily increasing.
Tenants facing an extrajudicial situation have few options, especially if all of their belongings are locked away by a landlord or they can’t afford legal representation.
With the help of free legal aid representation, Lena Jefferson of Washington, D.C., took her complaint to court in the fall, filing a wrongful eviction claim against her landlord.
She says her landlord moved her to temporary housing after her apartment flooded, but problems there led her to withhold rent until a better solution was found. Instead, her landlord locked her out.
“I’ve been living in a rooming house,” Jefferson said. “It’s another stress that’s constantly on your mind when you’re moving from place to place.”
In West Palm Beach, Florida, Legal Aid Society attorney Tequisha Myles said her program quadrupled its staffing for eviction prevention work after the pandemic began. Her program represents one couple that was evicted but is now countersuing because the landlord locked them out of a rental house without going through a formal court process.
“The laws are very clear even before the pandemic: Turning off electricity or water or blocking access to the property is prohibited,” Myles said. “I understand that many landlords are struggling and they haven’t been paid, but you have to follow the law.”
Attorney says everyone is ‘getting screwed’
Attorneys in Massachusetts challenged Gov. Charlie Baker’s blanket moratorium on evictions this summer, arguing it was overly broad and unconstitutional, said real estate attorney Richard Vetstein.
“The state ban was the strictest by far,” Vetstein said. “Unlike the CDC moratorium, it applied to every eviction case, including lease expirations, most behavioral issues, for-cause evictions and squatting.”
The case’s named landlord, Marie Baptiste, had a tenant who owed $18,900 for eight months of unpaid rent and was struggling to maintain her finances.
“Everyone’s getting screwed,” Vetstein said, adding that the moratoriums don’t solve cash flow shortages. He called for rental assistance to help tenants.
Vetstein said he’s warned clients to avoid self-help actions no matter how frustrated they become. He said some have turned to “cash for keys” programs where landlords pay non-paying tenants to leave.
Researchers at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, surveyed nearly 1,400 landlords in October. They reported that 38% said they did not expect to receive full rent payments that month. More than a third also said they had added stricter screening for new tenants, such as requiring higher credit scores and higher income.
Landlord groups have challenged the CDC order’s constitutionality in federal courts in Atlanta, Memphis, and Columbus and Akron, Ohio. So far, federal judges have declined to knock down the order.
National housing groups have been disappointed in a Department of Justice legal brief in the Atlanta case that seemed to encourage landlords to pursue evictions now in anticipation of the moratorium lifting.
“Even where a tenant is entitled to its protections, the Order does not bar a landlord from commencing a state court eviction proceeding, provided that that actual eviction does not occur while the order remains in place,” DOJ lawyers wrote, in language that ended up in a CDC “frequently asked questions” document.
That’s what’s happening in Maryland, where despite a ban on actual evictions, the apartment company owned by White House adviser Jared Kushner has been sending letters to tenants “threatening legal fees and then filing eviction notices in court – a first legal step toward removing tenants,” according to the Washington Post.
Colleen Foley, head of the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, says the county already has a backlog of cases filed by landlords just waiting to boot renters as soon as judges allow it.
However, she said local landlord groups are unified with the legal aid community in calling for government rental assistance.
“It’s a rare moment, for sure,” Foley said. “Everyone understands we all rise and fall together.”
Missouri family ‘camps’ after threats
USA TODAY’s review of complaints filed with various state attorneys general shows landlords across the country attempted to raise rents on financially struggling tenants, and then turned to extreme measures to evict them when they could not pay.
One Missouri renter said she was forced to leave her apartment during the pandemic after the landlord raised rent $35 a month and the monthly dog fee by $5.
Others in the state complained of even steeper hikes, despite job losses and other financial hardships.
“During a pandemic like we’ve never seen before, they’re acting like everything was normal,” said Debbie Carter, who filed a complaint in March after her landlord raised her rent and would not let her go month-to-month on her lease.
In the deep woods near the Ozarks, residents of a shuttered nine-hole golf resort that was converted into apartments say their landlord tripled rents, threatened them with eviction and had them work under the table to repair the derelict units to pay off their debts.
The former timeshare property had been neglected for years, with mold growing on stairs, ceilings and curtains. Residents complained to the state about holes in the walls and floor, where roaches, ants and bed bugs scurried.
Laura Loyd had been living in a two-bedroom unit there for two years when it changed ownership at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, in February. Out of work, she was struggling to make the $575-a-month rent, and asked if she could split it into two installments.
Her landlord instead emailed her a notice to vacate, saying that he had nearly tripled the rent on the 850-square-foot apartment to $1,500 per month, and she had to either pay that amount right away or get out, according to a complaint she filed with the Missouri Attorney General’s Office.
Duplexes dot the property known as LaGrand Lodges, which lines a river and forest, with weeds growing in an old tennis court, an emptied out swimming pool and long-closed restaurant. When it’s cold, utility bills rise to hundreds of dollars per month because of the poor insulation, Loyd said.
She told USA TODAY that she received two more eviction notices. The landlord never formally took her to court but, tired of his scare tactics, she opted to leave.
“It got so bad,” said Loyd, who has since moved to Arkansas. “We couldn’t be there anymore.”
Loyd wasn’t the only tenant of LaGrand Lodges who complained to the attorney general. When neighbor Tasha Tavenner couldn’t pay rent, two men attempted to pull the front door right off its hinges until Tavenner called the police, according to her handwritten complaint.
Tasha Tavenner found a new place to live after camping in the woods for five weeks with her four children.
The single mother of four had been laid off from her job at a resort in nearby Branson when tourism froze up from coronavirus.
With no money coming in amid the threats of rent increases, she tried to work out a deal where she would help fix the deteriorating units, including ripping out carpets and tearing down walls.
At least four other tenants who couldn’t afford to pay also were working as handymen off the books to pay down rent debts, Tavenner said.
In April, she asked for three additional weeks to come up with rent money. White and green mold had gotten so bad that Tavenner said she moved everything but the family’s beds into storage, even keeping their clothes in the car. At one point, she remembers maggots crawling around on the carpet.
She complained in April to the state Attorney General’s Office, which told her that there was nothing that they could do. The agency did not return several calls and emails from USA TODAY seeking comment.
With kids ages 2, 8, 12 and 15, Tavenner decided that she couldn’t take it anymore. They left in early May, she said, and ended up camping together in the woods for five weeks until they could find a new place to stay.
“I wasn’t even two months late on my rent,” Tavenner said. “They started harassing me on a daily basis. It was scary. It got really ugly.”
Tony LaGrand, who was the landlord at the time but no longer owns the property, planned to renovate the former timeshare and turn it back into nightly rentals. He had just turned 24 when he purchased the units in February. It was his first time as a landlord, he said.
He went months without any rent from tenants, he said, even though he says many were collecting unemployment checks. LaGrand did not deny attempting to raise rents or file evictions, but he said he did not break any rules and tried first to ask the tenants who could not pay to leave on their own.
LaGrand, who lost the property to foreclosure, says he’s now more than $1.6 million in debt.
“The place was falling apart,” LaGrand said. “I didn’t have any rent coming in, and people wouldn’t pay. It was a really messed up situation. I spent my entire life savings on this project.”
Banner against renters eviction reading, “No job, no rent,” is displayed on a controlled rent building in Washington, D.C.A cigarette leads to eviction in Ohio
Across the country, landlords evicted their tenants over unapproved guests, pets and other alleged violations to various apartment rules. One blind man in Ohio lived on the streets following a dispute with his landlords over smoking cigarettes inside the unit.
Yet most consumers who spoke with USA TODAY said that their attorneys general were ultimately unable to help. State regulators can act as mediators in disputes, but challenges to evictions are often only successful in court.
In Ohio, David Whipple complained to the attorney general after the Wellness Village affordable housing complex for seniors in Canton sent him a notice of eviction in February, a month before the national moratorium began.
The facility claimed to have found ashes from cigarettes in the bathroom, and workers said they could smell smoke near the unit. It accused Whipple of violating its rules. Whipple’s complaint also alleges he was charged late fees for rent for several months even though he paid his $651 rent on time.
When reached by USA TODAY, Whipple acknowledged he had smoked a cigarette because he was nervous about an upcoming eye surgery. But the 64-year-old, who is blind, said staff at the senior living complex continued to accuse him of breaking the rules.
Following the notice of eviction in February, the virus put the process on hold for several months. When the CARES Act relief bill was signed in March, it included an eviction moratorium for 120 days on public housing, housing choice vouchers and FHA-insured multifamily properties.
But by the time that moratorium expired in July, Whipple was in court, where the judge ruled against him. By August, he was out.
“They kicked out a senior citizen during COVID-19 like they didn’t have a care in the world,” Whipple said. “I didn’t deserve what they did to me.”
A representative, who answered the phone at Wellness Village and identified herself as a manager but declined to give her name, said the property followed the necessary guidance from the court system.
“We had to wait until we had permission from the courts, and when we did, we moved forward,” the property manager said. She declined further comment.
Whipple’s complaint was among nearly 200 filed with the attorney general in Ohio related to issues with landlords and COVID-19. Whipple said he ultimately got no help from the agency.
When Kansas Fecher of western Ohio could not pay her April rent after being laid off due to the virus, she told the landlord that as soon as her unemployment check came in, she could get caught up. The landlord instead gave her four days to get out, according to the complaint.
Another Ohio renter complained that the property owner illegally changed the locks on her and other tenants residing in the home, while removing the city trash container so waste piled up.
At a mobile home park in Lancaster, residents said the landlord threatened to evict them for rule violations, including failing to take the hitches off their trailers. Most of the tenants are too old to take the hitches off their own trailers, and the manager of the park knows this, the complaint states.
In Ohio, the attorney general’s consumer protection division does not have jurisdiction over landlord and tenant complaints. The office says it tries to work with people as a courtesy, but renters who complained say they received little help to ward off aggressive landlords.
With no family to turn to, Whipple said he was forced into homelessness. He’s shuffled among five houses of friends and other people trying to help him.
“I’m just in a bad situation,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”
Nick Penzenstadler and Josh Salman are reporters on the USA TODAY investigations team. Nick can be reached email@example.com or @npenzenstadler, or on Signal at (720) 507-5273. Josh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @joshsalman, or (941) 361-4967.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Landlords use intimidation, tricks to push renters out amid pandemic