This story was published in partnership with the Tampa Bay Times.
Latoyia Lorraine is about to lose the one thing that has kept her family safe during a pandemic: her home.
“We’re a family that’s doing everything right — at least up to now,” Lorraine said, her voice cracking with emotion. “I am not a person who doesn’t like to pay their bills.”
The mother of two in Orlando, Florida, said her hours as a customer service representative for Blue Cross Blue Shield were cut back in April because she didn’t have a computer for the first several weeks when she was asked to work from home. She said her partner of 20 years lost his job as a cook at Hard Rock Cafe and TGI Fridays.
Lorraine, who is Black, said she owes $1,900 for rent in May and June. She said her landlord recently taped a note to the door that said her lease would not be renewed once it expires in August, and her family must leave the property or face eviction. Lorraine doesn’t know where to go for help.
Black and brown Americans — the very people who are more likely to succumb to coronavirus or lose their jobs because of it — are disproportionately on the brink of also losing the four walls that public health officials have repeatedly told everyone to hide behind, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of more than 8,000 eviction filings.
“You can’t shelter-in-place if you don’t have a place to shelter,” said Aaron Carr, founder and executive director of Housing Rights Initiative, a nonprofit in New York City. “It has always been true that housing is health care, but this crisis has shown how urgently action is needed to prevent mass evictions, which in turn will lead to mass homelessness, and then to mass COVID infection and mortality.”
The federal eviction moratorium lifts on Saturday, and expanded unemployment benefits expire July 31. The Senate is expected to take up a new stimulus bill this week, but it’s not yet clear whether it will extend the eviction moratorium or additional unemployment benefits.
Thousands of eviction cases have been filed since late March, particularly in Florida and Georgia, where coronavirus cases are spiking, court records show. Most of the eviction filings there are happening in minority and low-income neighborhoods, according to Public Integrity’s analysis.
“It’s deeply troubling,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing. “We’ve known for some time that there is a tremendous risk of extremely low-income renters being harmed by this crisis and being evicted, and we’ve known that such evictions would have a disproportionate impact on Black and brown and extremely low-income and historically marginalized people.”
During the spread of COVID-19, eviction filings have slowed, but they haven’t stopped, court records show. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump on March 27, includes a moratorium on certain evictions until July 25. The law protects people from eviction if they live in properties funded by federally backed mortgages — about a third of the nation’s renters — and people with housing vouchers.
Unless Congress acts on a new stimulus bill, it may be too late for many of the nation’s renters.
Widespread pattern, longstanding racism
Even before COVID-19, the United States was in the grips of an affordable housing crisis. For years, wages have been stagnant while the cost of living and rent prices have soared, said Anne Kat Alexander, a project leader with Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.
Before coronavirus, there were only four affordable homes available for every 10 of the lowest income renters. When residents are evicted, other low-income tenants are lined up to take their place. And that won’t change because of the pandemic.
“It’s so easy to just churn through tenants,” Alexander said, adding that very few tenants can afford to hire a lawyer, while most landlords have legal representation. “The deck is stacked against tenants currently.”
Black families are disproportionately affected by the housing shortage because they are twice as likely as white families to rent their homes, Yentel said. According to the Census Bureau, 59 percent of Black-occupied housing units are rented as compared with 28 percent of non-Hispanic white-occupied housing units.
Low-income housing tends to be clustered in Black and brown neighborhoods, because centuries of discriminatory laws kept Blacks out of white communities by restricting where Black people could get a mortgage, and covenants that prohibited owners from selling or renting homes to non-whites.
Courts and lawmakers have banned most of those practices, but a lingering system of de facto segregation persists because of newer, “even more insidious” laws that don’t specifically mention race, said William Emmons, lead economist with the Center for Household Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
For example, zoning laws that require large, single-family homes on big lots price out Black and brown families because they have less wealth. Also, wealthy and whiter neighborhoods lead to better resourced schools, giving students an advantage to attend college and attain higher-paying careers.
“We now are living in a world where there’s even more economic stratification than there was before, and that has taken the place of legalized racial discrimination,” Emmons said. “A lot of these things are so deeply rooted historically and so difficult to unravel.”
Housing advocates are pushing for solutions to help low-income renters find homes and continue to afford rent even after the pandemic ends. Those include expanding rental assistance programs, increasing the stock of rental homes and making essential repairs to the nation’s aging public housing complexes.
Most evictions occurring in minority, low-income areas
Public Integrity analyzed 8,089 eviction cases filed between March 27 and July 10 available in a database managed by Thomson Reuters Westlaw, a court tracking service. Westlaw does not have universal court coverage and the filings are not evenly distributed. About two-thirds come from Florida and Georgia.
Still, the pattern is clear. Landlords are filing eviction cases in poor, non-white neighborhoods across the jurisdictions Public Integrity examined:
- Nearly two-thirds of the eviction cases were against tenants living in census tracts with a minority population above that of the national average of 39 percent.
- Nearly half of the eviction cases were filed against tenants living in census tracts with a median household income that was below $42,000, the bottom quarter of all tracts nationally.
- About 37 percent of the eviction cases were filed against tenants living in census tracts with both an above-average proportion of non-white people and median household income in the lowest-income quartile. Only about 14 percent of Americans live in such a tract.
Evictions are difficult to track because no national system compiles cases filed by landlords. The Eviction Lab at Princeton University recently released a real-time eviction tracker for 11 cities, which shows eviction filings are increasing in places that have weaker tenant protections.
More than a hundred eviction cases
Florida’s eviction ban was set to expire July 1, but just hours before, Gov. Ron DeSantis extended it until Aug. 1. During the moratorium, however, landlords could file eviction paperwork in court. Thousands of cases were sitting in courthouses, ready to be processed once the ban lifted.
Tzadik Management, a Miami-based real estate and property management company that says it has managed more than 19,000 units in over 20 states, filed more than 100 eviction cases included in Public Integrity’s analysis, the most of any Florida landlord in courts tracked by Westlaw that categorize eviction filings. Those evictions were overwhelmingly against tenants in poor communities of color.
Ciara Kallie, a Black 21-year-old living in Tzadik Brookside apartment complex in Orlando, a property managed by Tzadik Management, received a fraction of her normal paycheck in March.
Kallie, a psychology major at nearby Seminole State College, said she told Tzadik that her employer, Sprint, had cut back her hours when the novel coronavirus began to rip through Florida. Still, Tzadik Management demanded that she pay up or move out.
“I didn’t have money to give to them,” Kallie said. “I had to survive and eat food.”
Kallie is one of thousands of tenants across the country whom Public Integrity’s analysis identified as having eviction cases pending against them in the midst of a public health crisis.
And like Kallie, almost three-quarters of the residents facing eviction live in neighborhoods with higher-than-average minority populations or in low-income areas, according to the analysis.
Kallie’s apartment complex is in a census tract that fits the pattern. The median household income is about $28,300, and more than 80 percent of residents are minorities.
Messages left for Tzadik Management were not returned. The lawyer who filed Kallie’s eviction cases did not respond to a request for comment.
As Tzadik pressed her for the rent, Kallie begged family members for help and paid what she could. She still owes $1,334.68, according to court records.
On March 31, Tzadik Management filed eviction paperwork. Kallie said she was never notified.
By chance, Kallie said her mother called her March 31 asking her to return home to Jacksonville to care for her ailing grandmother. The next day, she turned in her apartment keys and moved back home, without knowing about the eviction case pending against her. It’s unclear whether Tzadik will drop its case against her since she no longer lives there. Her grandmother died in early July.
Kallie’s now working full time at her Sprint job. But coronavirus cases are spiking in Florida and she’s afraid her hours will be cut again.
Congress could provide some relief. Democratic lawmakers Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., introduced a bill in May that would provide financial assistance to millions of Americans struggling to pay their rent.
“Renters, especially low-income and Black and brown renters, need relief now,” Brown said in a statement to Public Integrity.
Their bill passed the House as part of the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (the HEROES Act), but it’s pending in the Senate.
“With so many families struggling as a result of the pandemic, we are now on the precipice of an eviction and homelessness crisis like we’ve never seen in our lifetimes,” Waters said on the floor of the House in late June.
Housing advocates across the country have been pushing for rentrelief for months. So has the apartment industry.
‘Big, bad landlord’
Some tenants Public Integrity interviewed were hesitant to discuss their situations publicly. In one case, a woman said she was a mother of two children who lost her job because of COVID-19. The management company for her apartment complex in Florida told her it had filed an eviction case against her, but she declined to comment further.
In Fulton County, Georgia, which includes much of Atlanta, landlords filed nearly 1,700 eviction cases between March 27 and July 10, according to Public Integrity’s analysis.
Anani Kossigan, a Black resident just outside Atlanta, buys broken cars to repair and sell. But in March and April, the virus shuttered all the auto auctions where he buys cars. He had no income.
We can’t do this work without your support.
Kossigan said he told his landlord, Embarcadero Club Apartments, about losing his livelihood because of the virus, but they filed eviction paperwork against him on April 17.
He said he paid his rent in May only because of the $1,200 stimulus check the Treasury Department sent to U.S. workers. Later, he asked friends and family members for money and paid Embarcadero the remainder he owed. He was allowed to stay in his apartment.
Embarcadero filed 57 eviction cases against tenants, including Kossigan, during the period analyzed by Public Integrity. The Fulton County sheriff’s department temporarily stopped serving eviction notices because of the pandemic but started again May 26.
Embarcadero Club Apartments, which was not covered by the federal eviction moratorium, is one of 23 properties owned by Florida-based Ventron Management LLC. Two Ventron executives spent more than an hour on the phone with a reporter venting their frustration about how much work they put into helping residents apply for jobs and financial assistance before filing to evict them.
“So go ahead and write that we’re the big, bad landlord because I will tell my story in some way,” said Ventron’s vice president Lorena Pal, who sounded, at times, on the brink of tears. “I have evidence of how much we have done for our people and how many of them just don’t want to help themselves. We have literally saved people’s apartments.”
The company, she said, has waived late fees and court costs and absorbed thousands of dollars in missed rent payments for its residents. But, she said, when residents don’t respond to their offers of help, Ventron files to evict.
“No one is talking about how we still have to pay our mortgage, our taxes, our maintenance people,” Pal said. “What’s going to happen to all of our employees? Why is no one talking about that?”
A ‘tsunami of evictions’
For months, housing advocates such as Jamos “Jay” Mobley have been warning about a likely “tsunami of evictions” once moratoriums lift.
Mobley, the senior housing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association, said low-income renters in Orlando, many of whom rely on tourist jobs at hotels, theme parks and restaurants, have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 economic crash.
Mobley said his office trained every lawyer on staff about landlord-tenant statutes to prepare for an onslaught of calls for help when Florida’s moratorium on evictions lifts.
When Mobley talks to tenants seeking help, he often has bad news: “The hardest counsel we give is the one we give most often: ‘If you don’t have money to pay, you will be put out of the place.’ I tell them, ‘You’re going to be homeless next week.’”
Eviction filings will leave a mark on tenants’ credit records that will make it harder for them to find housing in the future, Mobley said. Often, apartment managers reject tenant applications that turn up a past eviction.
Pal, the vice president of Ventron Management, said as much about her tenants.
“We take residents that no one else takes,” Pal said. “This is going to push them into horrible housing. No one is going to take them.”
Read more in Health
New red flags about the severity of the coronavirus outbreak come after Trump focused on upsides in televised briefing