U.S. eviction bans are ending. That could worsen the spread of coronavirus

By Michelle Conlin

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Last month, as the coronavirus was surging in Houston, recently unemployed hospital secretary Ramzan Boudoin got more bad news: She had six days to vacate her apartment for failing to pay the rent.

A Texas ban on evictions had enabled Boudoin to keep the two-bedroom place she shared with her daughter and granddaughter while she searched for another job. But that moratorium expired on May 18. The landlord took legal action and Boudoin couldn’t come up with $2,997 plus interest to settle the judgment.

So this month Boudoin, 46, packed her family into a 2008 Nissan compact and headed to New Orleans, where she moved in with her mother and her sister’s family. In all, nine people share the packed three-bedroom house. Bedouin said her mother suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, a lung illness that makes her particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 in a city where cases are rising at an alarming pace.

“Every minute, we are worried someone is going to give it to her,” Boudoin said.

As the coronavirus began to shut down large swaths of the U.S. economy in March, spiraling millions of Americans into unemployment, a patchwork of state and federal eviction bans were enacted to keep people in their homes. Now those protections are vanishing. Moratoriums have already expired in 29 states and are about to lapse in others. On Friday, a federal stay, which protects roughly one-third of American renters who live in buildings with mortgages backed by the federal government, will run out unless Congress acts fast.

As many as 28 million people could be evicted in coming months, according to Emily Benfer, a visiting law professor at Wake Forest University who is the co-creator of Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, a national research center on evictions. That’s nearly triple the estimated 10 million Americans who lost their homes during the years after the 2008 mortgage crisis.

Public health and housing experts say such a massive displacement of renters would be unprecedented in modern history. In addition to the hardship that comes with losing one’s home, they say, the evictions could lead to a second-wave public health crisis as the newly homeless are forced into shelters or tight quarters with relatives, increasing the risk of spread of COVID-19.

Evictions have resumed in cities including Houston, Cincinnati, Columbus, Kansas City, Cleveland and St. Louis, according to data compiled by Princeton University at its Eviction Lab. No single, comprehensive source exists to track U.S. evictions nationwide.

In Milwaukee, eviction filings dropped to nearly zero after Wisconsin instituted an emergency 60-day ban on evictions on March 27. But after that order was lifted May 26, evictions surged past their pre-pandemic levels. Milwaukee recorded 1,966 eviction filings in the seven weeks following the ban’s expiration, an 89% increase from 1,038 notices filed in the seven weeks leading up to the moratorium, the Princeton data show.

Dr. Nasia Safdar, an infectious disease physician and the medical director for infection prevention at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, said it’s impossible at this point to establish a scientific correlation between evictions and COVID-19 spread and deaths; diagnosed coronavirus cases are up 150% in Milwaukee, for example, since the eviction moratorium ended.

What is not in doubt among public health experts, she said, is that evictions are dangerous during a pandemic. “A key tenet of prevention in a pandemic is to have the infrastructure that will minimize transmission from person to person,” Safdar said. “Any activity that breaks down that structure … makes containment of a pandemic exceedingly difficult.”

A July 17 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found that in 44 U.S. cities and counties, eviction filings by landlords have almost returned to their usual levels in places where moratoriums have expired, or where bans were never enacted.

That study said evicted tenants are “at greater risk of contracting, spreading and suffering complications from COVID-19” because precariously housed people often are unable to shelter in place, and because they tend to use crowded emergency rooms for their primary medical care.

As evictions rise in some coronavirus hot spots, displaced families are doubling up with relatives or moving into shelters, creating conditions for the virus to spread widely, according to Diane Yentel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Low Income Housing Coalition, the U.S.’s premiere affordable housing policy group.

“In these cases where social distancing is difficult or impossible, the likelihood of them contracting and spreading coronavirus increases exponentially,” Yentel said.

A fragile safety net is adding to the strain. Enhanced $600 weekly unemployment benefits provided by the federal government are set to evaporate next week, at a time when the national unemployment rate is 13.3%.

Landlords say the pandemic is a crisis for them as well. Bob Pinnegar, CEO of the National Apartment Association, says eviction is always a “last resort,” but “the rental housing industry alone cannot bear the financial burden of the pandemic.”

He said nearly half the country’s landlords are mom-and pop operators who have invested in rental property for retirement income.

COVID POSITIVE, AND FACING EVICTION

For weeks, eviction courts across America were shuttered due to COVID-19. Now, over Zoom, conference calls and even in person in some places, proceedings are ramping up again.

In Houston’s Harris County, more than 5,100 eviction cases have been filed since the virus upended the U.S. economy in March, according to data compiled by Houston-based data science firm January Advisors.

That’s still roughly half of pre-pandemic levels. But it’s worrisome to public health advocates given that Harris County has seen confirmed coronavirus cases jump 500% since Texas’s eviction ban was lifted May 18, the Reuters COVID tracker shows.

Swapnil Agarwal is the 39-year-old founder of Nitya Capital, one of the largest landlords in Texas and owner of the Providence at Champions Apartment Homes from which Boudoin was evicted. During the pandemic, the company has filed more than 120 eviction notices against renters in Houston, a Reuters review of court records found. Houston-based Nitya has $2 billion in real estate assets under management, according to its website.

Agarwal said his firm evicted Boudoin because she was behind on her rent and “we realized that there was no intention to pay,” an allegation she disputes. He said Nitya has gone to great lengths to keep tenants in place and has provided $4 million in rent assistance to those who lost their jobs.

Meanwhile in Milwaukee, Mariah Smith was served an eviction notice on July 1. A shipping clerk for an aircraft parts maker, she lost her job in May. Smith said she hasn’t been able to pay her rent because she never received her $1,200 federal stimulus check and is still waiting to receive unemployment benefits.

Her fortunes have only gotten worse. Smith, 25, last week was diagnosed with coronavirus after experiencing chills, body aches and a sore throat. She said just walking leaves her winded.

On Thursday, she faces a court hearing on her eviction. Nick Homan, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, agreed to help. He said he’s handling around 25 eviction cases a week now, more than double his typical load.

After Reuters contacted Smith’s landlord — a limited liability company named LPT 46 — an attorney representing the firm, Marvin Bynum II, said the company just learned of Smith’s COVID diagnosis. “The landlord is hopeful that Ms. Smith recovers soon, and is confident the parties can swiftly reach a mutually amicable resolution,” Bynum said.

Homan said he’ll see what happens Thursday, but the larger issue remains.

“There’s nobody in any position of authority to stop eviction right now,” Homan said. “I don’t see anybody making decisions on public health. I only see landlords making decisions about their finances.”

(Reporting by Michelle Conlin; Editing by Tom Lasseter and Marla Dickerson)

U.S. Congress approves sweeping military housing overhaul

By Joshua Schneyer and M.B. Pell

(Reuters) – The U.S. Congress on Tuesday approved the largest overhaul to the American military’s housing program in more than two decades, vowing to end slum-like living conditions and hold private landlords and defense officials accountable for them.

The reforms, included in the yearly National Defense Authorization Act, aim to protect some 200,000 military families living on U.S. bases from health hazards including mold, lead, asbestos and pest infestations. The problems have been detailed by Reuters since last year in a series of investigations, Ambushed at Home.

To read the stories, click: https://reut.rs/2PuMyoG

The congressional action was prompted by the Reuters reports and a growing chorus of complaints from military families who joined forces to decry substandard living conditions.

In all, Congress approved more than $300 million in 2020 funding for the measures, including provisions to combat landlord fraud and protect families against retaliation for reporting hazards.

“This would not have happened if the military had not turned its eye away from managing these contracts,” Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine said in a phone interview. After visiting bases, Kaine introduced requirements that housing managers check homes whenever a tenant moves in or out to protect residents from hazards or onerous move-out fees.

The housing measures are part of a larger defense bill that passed the Senate 86-8 after having cleared the House of Representatives. The bill now goes to President Donald Trump, who is expected to approve it.

Since the 1990s, 98% of the family housing on U.S. bases has been privatized and is now managed by corporate landlords in 50-year partnership agreements with the military. But the arrangements suffered from poor oversight, Congress concluded.

In reports this year, Reuters detailed how one major landlord, Balfour Beatty Communities, obtained millions of dollars in bonus payments after falsifying maintenance records. Earlier reports revealed children were sickened by lead and mold, and showed how base residents across the United States were deprived of basic tenant protections granted to civilians.

The new legislation follows congressional hearings since February, during which lawmakers criticized military leaders and top executives from housing providers including Corvias Group, Hunt Military Communities, Lincoln Military Housing and Balfour Beatty. The companies and the military branches have apologized and pledged to fix the issues.

The new legislation requires the U.S. Department of Defense to expand housing oversight and appoint a Chief Housing Officer to track progress. The military must create a tenant bill of rights, boost housing inspections and standards, and adopt a dispute resolution process in which tenants can withhold rent from landlords when unsafe conditions persist.

The measure also protects whistleblowers from reprisals, and forces private landlords to pay relocation and medical costs for families exposed to housing hazards. It bars base landlords from charging any home rental fees in excess of service members’ federal housing stipend, and suspends a program that saddled some families with inaccurate utility bills.

The new legislation requires federal audits and independent inspections, and gives tenants access to maintenance work-order records and details about past findings of hazards at their homes. The measures also require a public database for housing complaints and annual reports on the housing managed by each landlord. The military must now disclose whether the landlords are granted incentive fees, which will be withheld if the companies fail to remedy hazards.

U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an Oklahoma Republican, credited people like Janna Driver, one of the military family advocates who testified at the hearings, for drawing attention to the squalid living conditions. Last year, Reuters reported how Driver lived in a leaky, moldy house at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma operated by Balfour Beatty Communities.

Such experiences, Inhofe said in an interview, “will come to a screeching halt.”

(Reporting by Joshua Schneyer and M.B. Pell in New York. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

U.S. senator wants criminal investigation of military base landlords

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) speaks during U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh's U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

(Reuters) – U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal called on Thursday for a criminal fraud investigation of private landlords who operate housing on U.S. military bases, following Reuters reports that showed how thousands of U.S. military families were subjected to serious health and safety hazards in on-base housing.

Blumenthal was speaking at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee called to discuss how to hold the military and contractors accountable for substandard living conditions on some bases.

The U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines unveiled a proposed tenant bill of rights on Wednesday that would hand more power to military families facing housing hazards.

(Reporting by Michael Pell; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Phil Berlowitz)