TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — U.S. Congress remains focused on housing affordability and homelessness. A July report showed that despite the billions of dollars of rental assistance provided by the federal government to states, counties, and landlords and tenants, some companies chose to evict tenants even as the funding to pay their rent was coming through.
The U.S. Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis released a report detailing how corporate landlords evicted Americans at the “height of the pandemic” even as the tenants showed payments were on their way through the various emergency rental assistance programs created to keep people in their homes as the national economy stuttered.
Four companies were the focus of the subcommittee on July 28, Pretium Partners, Invitation Homes, Ventron Management, and the Siegel Group. From March 15, 2020, just two days after former President Donald Trump declared a national emergency for COVID-19, to July 29, 2021, the four companies filed nearly 15,000 eviction actions, according to Congress.
Not only did they file 14,744 evictions in that time period, which the congressional subcommittee said was three times higher than previously known, they also “engaged in abusive tactics to remove tenants from their homes.” According to the report, none of the companies experienced financial losses during that time period.
“The Select Subcommittee launched an investigation into these companies’ eviction and rental assistance practices in July 2021 following reports indicating that they had filed to evict tenants at high rates despite the existence of federal eviction moratoriums and Congress’ appropriation of more than $46 billion in federal rental assistance,” Congress reported.
The subcommittee said not all of the four “corporate landlords” kept full records or complete data on how they filed evictions from March 2020 to July 2021. Additionally, the report said one company, the Siegel Group, “used harassment tactics and potentially unlawful lockouts to push tenants out of their homes without filing formal eviction actions.”
All of the companies, according to the report, had policies in place that allowed evictions to be filed even while a tenant had applied for rental assistance and awaited the arrival of the financial housing aid. The report said evictions were filed on tenants behind on rent, even when they had applied for assistance, except in cases where they had applied for the help “within the last 30 days,” as in the case of the Siegel Group.
Emergency Rental Assistance infrastructure on the local level had “significant delays” as they were first established, with some residents waiting “more than three months” for help.
Despite the pending rental assistance applications, all four companies examined by Congress did not differentiate on eviction cases, regardless of pending assistance. Siegel was the only company with a reported exemption, just the delay on filings for tenants with an application in the last 30 days before filing.
Pretium and Invitation Homes both “had policies and practices of turning down rental assistance offers as an alternative to eviction filing” because they “deemed rental assistance programs to be insufficiently generous.”
While states did not have to use Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds for rental assistance programs, multiple states did. Florida was among them. Even with funding available, from state, city, or county programs, some of the companies chose not to participate in the rental assistance programs.
Additionally, Congress found in their investigative process that Siegel not only had executives direct staff to use “harassment tactics” to force tenants out, they misused government agencies to do so.
“A Siegel executive also directed subordinates to use harassment tactics to force a tenant to leave, including by placing a pretextual call to child protective services,” Congress reported. The company also “The executive’s recommended strategies also included having security knock ‘on her door at least twice at night,’ and replacing her air conditioning unit with a ‘nonworking AC,'” or “threatening to call ‘animal control'” when the tenant was out.
Security staff at a property in San Antonio, Texas was also directed to “knock” on a tenant’s door twice at night, if not more, as part of a series of actions, described by a Siegel executive to do in order to “make sure you have tried everything possible to get rid of them.”
In a series of messages published by Congress, sent between a Siegel executive and regional managers, not only did the staff carry out the “deceptive strategy” of using court rulings on the eviction moratorium while it was appealed to scare tenants away, they told staff to place the copies of orders out “after 5 p.m.” on Fridays so that residents could not verify information with courts and law enforcement offices.
Congress said Siegel property managers “carried out this directive with evident glee, with one writing to an executive and a regional manager that he ‘love[d] getting to say that this means the eviction may happen sooner than expected and seeing the look on their faces 😊.’ A regional manager similarly reported to executives that his region had been distributing the order and was ‘seeing positive results,’ indicating that people were leaving their homes as a result, which he described as ‘to our advantage.’”
Despite billions of dollar of assistance, and a federal eviction moratorium in effect until July 31, 2021, Congress said almost 1.3 million eviction filings were made in the first 16 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, which put “millions of people at risk of homelessness during a national health and economic crisis.”
The evictions also reportedly came from companies without providing tenants a notice of their legal rights, which had been required by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of the national eviction moratorium.
Ventron’s share of the evictions during the pandemic reportedly came to tenants only behind on one month of rent. Congress found Ventron staff were also told to “build relationships” with local law enforcement in order to “hurry writs” of eviction forward.
Congress said in their report that Invitation Homes reported “record profit” amid the pandemic. Profits increased by more than 30% in 2020 and again in 2021, according to Congress, citing Invitation Homes’ quarterly reports.
Pretium bought “thousands of new properties.” Congress said Pretium bought Front Yard Residential in October 2020, and a collection of homes from Zillow in 2021.
Siegel and Ventron took in millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funds, directly. Siegel reported no decline in revenue “during the most disruptive early period of the pandemic.” Collectively, the two companies took in $4.89 million in Paycheck Protection Program funds. Siegel’s loan for $2.32 million was entirely forgiven by the federal government, while $2.51 million of Ventron’s overall $2.57 million was forgiven.
Still, Congress’ report showed all four companies continued to file evictions amid moratoriums and assistance payouts, regardless of how their businesses performed.
“These companies’ refusal to accept rental assistance offers for tenants that they deemed insufficiently generous plainly did not put the companies at serious risk of financial hardship,” the report reads. “But did put residents at risk of losing their homes during an unprecedented health and economic crisis.”
In response to their findings, the congressional subcommittee said protections for tenants in case of another pandemic or extreme economic crisis should be added to law so Americans wouldn’t lose their homes in the future.