The Private Equity Stakeholder Project collected records from large metropolitan courts in Arizona, Texas, Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia this month to determine which landlords might’ve gone ahead with cases in the days after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced its sweeping anti-eviction order, receiving nationwide media coverage and aggrieved reactions from industry groups. The moratorium took effect Sept. 4 and will protect scores of qualifying, non-paying tenants from eviction through the rest of the year.
The nonprofit organization, which has scrutinized the growing role of private equity in health care, housing, and other industries, found that some of the biggest institutional names in real estate—while managing thousands of homes and billions of dollars in assets—pursued more eviction filings in the weeks that followed the ban when compared to the month prior.
“The fact that so many large landlords have continued to file evictions is both surprising and disappointing, given that the CDC put in place the moratorium to limit the spread of COVID-19,” Baker said. “By continuing to move forward with eviction cases, landlords are literally threatening the health of their residents.”
Invitation Homes, the nation’s largest operator of single-family rental units, has filed to evict 65 tenants since Sept. 2, data from the Private Equity Stakeholder Project show. Meanwhile, Mid-America Apartment Communities, a real estate investment trust that owns or has ownership interest in nearly 102,000 homes, filed 52 cases, according to the project, while the Carlyle Group, which manages $221 billion in assets across multiple industries, filed 21. And Starwood Capital Group, which is largely focused on real estate and manages more than $60 billion in assets, filed five cases in the weeks after the moratorium was announced.
“Invitation Homes is in the business of housing families, so eviction is never a course we want to pursue. We have been doing what the CDC order directs since early in the pandemic — working with our residents facing COVID-related financial hardships and offering a variety of payment options so they can stay in their homes,” a spokesperson for Invitation Homes said in an emailed statement. “As always, we will continue to follow all government directives.”
It’s not clear from the data whether tenants of the corporate landlords presented the declaration necessary to prevent eviction for non-payment of rent or whether they qualified for protection at all. The cause for eviction is not listed, and not every tenant that’s filed against is ultimately removed from their homes.
Landlords are still free under the CDC’s order to file against tenants who damage their property or violate another portion of their lease.
To be shielded from eviction under the CDC’s order, non-paying tenants currently have to pledge under penalty of perjury that, after a substantial loss of income, they sought government rental assistance, attempted to make timely partial payments, expected to make less than $99,000 this year as a single adult, and would become homeless as a result of their eviction, if not forced into a crowded property with friends or family.
Some courts have still allowed landlords to pursue new cases despite the CDC’s order thanks to varying legal interpretations of the ban, since filing for eviction is just one step in a legal process that may ultimately end in a tenant’s removal. Others are demanding that landlords file affidavits pledging compliance with the eviction moratorium before a case can move forward.
Still, one housing law expert recently told VICE News that any filings over non-payment are contrary to the intent of the moratorium.
“At the end of the day, the order says what it says: Landlords can’t take any action to remove somebody from property or cause a removal,” Eric Dunn, director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project, told VICE News earlier this month. “If courts are allowing eviction cases to proceed, that’s contrary to the order.”
And, so far, the moratorium has helped many renters temporarily avoid removal. New eviction filings had declined in at least 16 cities by mid-September, according to CityLab.
Representatives for Starwood Capital and Mid-America Apartment Communities did not immediately return VICE News’ requests for comment. The Carlyle Group declined to comment.
The CDC’s broad eviction moratorium was imposed to avoid having evicted tenants crowd into shelters or the homes of friends or family, exacerbating the risk of spreading COVID-19. The moratorium means renters who meet a specific set of criteria can stay in their homes for the rest of the year.
And it comes with stiff penalties for rule-breakers: Individual landlords who violate the order can face $100,00 in fines, one year in jail, or both, with the fine ratcheting up to $250,000 if a person dies as a result of the eviction. The fine for an organization is $200,000 “per event,” and $500,000 if a tenant dies.
The order doesn’t forgive a tenant’s obligation to pay rent, however, and critics have argued it merely stalls millions of evictions until 2021 since it provides no new financial aid. Landlords can still charge late fees on missed rent, too, so tenants might soon face gargantuan, unpayable bills unless Congress can pass another stimulus package.
Organizations representing property owners have also demanded rent relief, rather than a moratorium, since smaller landlords could face foreclosure and destitution without the ability to make their bills. The National Apartment Association, for its part, joined a landlord-led lawsuit against the government’s ban earlier this month.