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Saniece Hunter has slept on a futon in her hair salon’s break room ever since she got the red-lettered final eviction notice from the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Florida late last month. Her landlord took her to court after she fell nearly $11,200 behind on her rent payments during the coronavirus pandemic, which temporarily closed the small business she now relies on for shelter.
“I’ve just been praying, and praying, and praying, and asking God, ‘Somebody help me,’” said Hunter, the 45-year-old business owner. “I don’t know what to do. I didn’t even know that they were even able to do this at this time, during the pandemic.”
When the CDC announced its unprecedented eviction moratorium to keep landlords from kicking out non-paying renters last year, the policy was also meant to stem the spread of COVID-19 and spare tenants like Hunter, a cancer survivor with a weakened immune system.
But since the ban took effect September 4, tenants have slipped through the cracks—and some have suffered the consequences.
In part, that’s because the eviction moratorium only covers certain renters; landlords are still able to evict tenants who damage property, for example. But, even for the people it might’ve protected, the policy can be overly burdensome. It relies on tenants to attest that they qualify, and landlords are free to take renters to court so long as they aren’t wrongfully kicked out while the moratorium is in place. That can subject vulnerable people to confusing and overwhelming legal processes.
Hunter, for example, didn’t entirely understand the moratorium or that she had to provide her landlord, a giant rental company called Invitation Homes, with a signed declaration to show she qualified. She said she hadn’t even seen the document before she was taken to court.
“Generally speaking, the moratorium is doing what it was intended to do, which is keep tens of millions of people who might otherwise lose their homes housed during the pandemic,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “But there are significant shortcomings and flaws and loopholes in the order. And there’s an alarming number of evictions happening despite the order being in place.”
Before the order was enacted, 30 million to 40 million Americans were thought to be on the brink of eviction—ailed by the pandemic’s unemployment crisis and the country’s plague of housing insecurity. If the government allowed all of those renters to be removed from their homes, newly homeless people would’ve likely crowded into shelters or the homes of friends and family.
The federal moratorium, put in place to avoid that scenario, was successful at helping some of those tenants stay in their residences over the past several months. The Biden administration extended the policy through the end of March.
But it hasn’t put eviction proceedings at a standstill.
“I don’t know what to do. I didn’t even know that they were even able to do this at this time, during the pandemic.”
Between September 4, when the partial ban took effect, and February 5, corporate landlords managed to file more than 40,000 eviction cases across select counties in just six states—Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee—according to data collected by the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, which scrutinizes the impact of private equity investment in industries like housing, health care, and more.
“Landlords, especially gigantic landlords that are making lots and lots of money, like Invitation Homes, are acting directly contrary to the CDC moratorium, and frankly directly contrary to the health of their residents and the broader public,” Baker said.
It’s unclear what share of the renters in those cases, if any, would’ve qualified for protections under the CDC’s order—or what portion of the lawsuits ultimately resulted in removal. But an eviction notice alone can be daunting. Tenants might leave the home before they’ve had a chance to defend themselves
“When the tenant gets this document, this very scary-looking document, they’re not going to have an attorney to explain to them what it actually means,” said John Pollock, a coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel. “They’re not going to have an attorney to explain to them what they have to do to be protected by the CDC moratorium, because they’re not protected automatically. And if they look at the declaration they have to fill out, it’s kind of complicated.”
The declaration, which a qualifying tenant has to sign under penalty of perjury and provide to their landlord, details a set of guidelines that renters have to meet in order to remain in their homes. Tenants must expect to make less than $99,000 annually. They also have to have made “best efforts” to pay rent and obtain government assistance; experienced big medical bills or a substantial loss of income, hours, and wages; and say they’d likely wind up homeless or crammed into a home “shared by other people” if evicted.
On top of that, a landlord doesn’t have to give tenants the document, or tell them about the moratorium, according to guidance from the CDC. More than 2,000 organizations, including the National Low Income Housing Coalition, have called on the Biden administration to strengthen the moratorium, including by applying it to eviction filings and making it so that landlords have to inform tenants of their rights under the ban.
Since Hunter was not aware of the CDC’s declaration, she said she never signed it. She did, however, sign an affidavit provided by Invitation Homes, which the company describes online as a way to confirm a tenant has “a COVID-19 related financial hardship” that prevents them from paying rent.
Her property manager was sympathetic at first, Hunter said. She was offered a payment plan, but felt it was too much, too quickly for her to afford. Hunter’s landlord also offered to cancel her debts if she vacated the property, but she said that she did not have the money to move and was expected to leave too soon.
Invitation Homes filed an eviction case against her in December, which Hunter was unable to fight.
“How can this even happen?” Hunter said. “How can they move forward in these evictions?”
Later, on the same day that Hunter was told to leave the home, January 25, one of her clients at the salon helped connect her to someone who told her to file an emergency motion to try and stop her removal. But it was denied on February 4, according to court records. Hunter, who didn’t want to stick around and wait for the sheriff’s office to come formally kick her out, had already left the residence.
Hunter’s landlord, Invitation Homes, has filed 536 lawsuits in the six states monitored by the Private Equity Stakeholder Project since September 4—less than other big rental firms including Western Wealth Capital, Ventron Management, and S2 Capital. Invitation Homes’ president and chief executive, Dallas Tanner said in October that the company, which has 80,000 homes for lease, has continued “to collect rents near historical average levels.”
A spokesperson for Invitation Homes said in a statement that the company has been working with residents impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and has offered renters payment options so they can avoid eviction. The spokesperson noted that the company does not comment on individual proceedings but said that eviction filings don’t always end in removal and that the “vast majority of these situations” are resolved without people losing their housing.
“Per the stipulations of the CDC order, we have pursued legal efforts for those residents who have not responded to us despite our repeated attempts to contact them regarding payment options,” the spokesperson said. “While eviction is always our last resort, we will preserve our legal rights, as allowed by the CDC order, once we have exhausted all other options.”
S2 Capital and Western Wealth Capital did not immediately return VICE News’ request for comment.
Like Invitation Homes, Erez Hon chief financial officer at Ventron Management stressed that his company files evictions as an “absolute last resort.” He said that the number of evictions his company has filed—831 since September 4—is low relative to the thousands of units the company manages. The company has several assistance programs to help tenants catch up, too, and will not remove the tenants it’s filed against unless there are “some very extenuating circumstances like a safety risk to other residents.”
“It’s an eviction filing—we’re not going through the entire eviction,” Hon said. “The eviction filing only happens to people who don’t communicate with us and don’t have any attempt to use an array of programs that we provide our residents.”
For Hunter, losing her home during the pandemic was devastating. Currently homeless, she’s now stuck looking for housing with damaged credit and an eviction on her rental record. Her car broke down, so she doesn’t have transportation as she hunts for a place to live. She doesn’t have savings, either.
“In so many ways, this whole situation is heartbreaking,” Hunter said.