A Congressional investigation into four corporate landlords has revealed coercion, scare tactics, and deceit designed to force tenants from their homes during the height of the pandemic.
An eviction moratorium was meant to protect vulnerable out-of-work people from ending up on the street during an unprecedented health disaster. But landlords still managed to evict tenants during the moratorium and the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis after hearing that some major landlords were violating CDC regulations.
The investigation focused on Pretium Partners, the Siegel Group, Invitation Homes, and Ventron Management, which are four of the largest corporate landlords in the country. It found that the companies filed a total of 14,744 evictions from March 2020 to July 2021. The report singled out Siegel in particular. “The Select Subcommittee obtained an email showing that a Siegel executive also directed employees to use harassing and unlawful tactics to evict or otherwise push out at least one tenant,” it said.
The email included instructions for property managers in Texas looking to force out tenants. “Have we used a master remote to disable her TV? This can normally be done from outside the unit. How many occupants are there in the unit? If there are too many and some are kids we can call child protective services to come out,” the email said. It also advocated having the tenants' cars towed away, knocking on their door “at least twice a night,” and replacing a working AC unit with a broken one.
At a recent landlord convention, a guest speaker explained to the crowd that pets are considered personal property and subject to repossession if a landlord needs to collect on a debt. The report noted that Siegel also thought this was a good tactic. “Is there an animal in the unit?” An email from a Siegel executive said. “We can tell her that if we knock on her door and she is not there we will assume she has vacated and call animal control to pick up her abandoned pet.”
The report laid out that Siegel and others knew that what they were doing went against the eviction moratorium, but was done in an attempt to trick tenants into leaving their properties of their own free will. They wanted to turn over the units so they could get fresh tenants in, charge new deposits and push out people it saw as problem renters. This was all done during the height of the pandemic.
Siegel instructed its employees to post notices on their properties that would lead tenants to believe that the eviction moratorium was illegal and that the landlords still had the power to evict them. “A Siegel executive specifically directed that the stayed order be brought to a tenant ‘after 5pm’ on a Friday ‘so the courts and constable office are closed and she cannot call to verify anything’ and ‘see if she vacates over the weekend,’” the report said. “The executive followed up with the company’s regional managers to ensure that the deceptive strategy of distributing the order was being followed, writing that ‘properties have been using this order to bluff people out,’ and ‘I hope you all are doing the same.’”
At the same time, these companies each displayed evidence of financial stability: Invitation Homes reported record profits, Pretium invested in significant expansions, Siegel experienced almost no revenue decline, and both Ventron and Siegel each received more than $2 million in forgiven Paycheck Protection Program funds,” a press release from South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, a member of the committee doing the investigation, said.
The other three companies did just as well. “Publicly traded Invitation Homes reported record profits during this period, Pretium acquired thousands of new properties, and both Siegel and Ventron received millions of dollars in direct relief,” the report said. “Siegel’s records also show that the company experienced almost no revenue decline even during the most disruptive early period of the pandemic.”
A lot of people struggled during the pandemic and, according to the report, these corporations made a lot of money. The report noted that the CDC took extreme measures to try to keep people in their homes. “Despite these measures, some large corporate landlords aggressively filed to evict tenants during this crisis even as those companies did not suffer significant financial hardship,” it said.
The report recommended that, in future, watchdogs more aggressively monitor and enforce eviction moratoriums and do a better job of informing the public of their rights. It also said it needed to get aid to people in need faster, which could help prevent an eviction. Finally, it called for further investigation.
The battle between landlords and tenants continues.