Tenants behind on rent in pandemic face harassment, eviction

BALTIMORE (AP) - Jeremy Rooks is working the evening shift at a fast food restaurant in Georgia so as not to be on the street after dark. He has to go somewhere at night: He and his wife are homeless after the extended stay motel they have lived in since Thanksgiving drove them out in April when they couldn't pay their rent.
They should have been protected because the state's Supreme Court effectively stopped evictions due to the coronavirus pandemic. But Rooks said the owner had still sent a man posing as a sheriff's agent and armed with a gun to throw the couple out a few days after the rent was due.
The pandemic has closed the housing courts and prompted most states and federal agencies to take measures to protect tenants from eviction. But not everyone is insured and a number of landlords - some of them want to pay their mortgages themselves - turn to threats and harassment to drive out tenants.
“Every day they tried to get us out of there. It was basically a game for them, ”said Rooks, who was unable to rent his motel in Marietta, Georgia after his employer paid him too late and his wife was released in the pandemic. "One of us always had to stay in a room because they wouldn't repeat the keys for us."
Clearance threatens to exacerbate a problem that colored people like Rooks plagued long before the pandemic, when landlords in the United States filed approximately 300,000 clearance requests each month.
The data and analysis real estate company Amherst assumes that 28 million tenants or approximately 22.5% of all households are at risk of eviction. Tenant lawyers expect this number to increase significantly if no protection is put in place, and expect many of those affected to be African-American and female-led households, both of which are historically displaced.
According to Christie Marra, director of the Virginia Poverty Law Center's Housing Attorney, numerous cases have been heard in Virginia since the 18 May evacuation proceedings resumed. In addition, 2,200 cases with one of the highest clearance rates in the country are scheduled in Richmond in late June and early July.
Rachel Garland, a lawyer with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, said her group had seen an increase in calls from tenants who lost their jobs due to the blockage and fear of eviction. Philadelphia had the fourth highest clearance rate in the country.
"Even if they cannot currently be distributed, landlords send threatening emails, text messages, ask for rent, and threaten to lock out tenants in closed courts," said Garland.
Alieza Durana from Princeton University's Eviction Lab said affected tenants are at high risk of depression and suicide due to the stress, along with increasing levels of debt and homelessness. In addition, judgments and debt collection measures against tenants are reported to credit bureaus, which affects their years of access to housing.
Jose Ortiz, deputy director of Essex / Newark Legal Services, which also includes New Jersey's largest city, said he had heard complaints from tenants who were asked to exchange sex for rent, and cases where landlords had threatened to do so To inform immigration authorities about tenants living in the country without legal permission if they do not pay their rent.
"You are not working. They don't have the income to pay their bills, and they're afraid of what will happen if the ban is lifted, ”said Ortiz. "Are they being driven out? Will there be an insane rush to the courthouse to drive these tenants away? "
Tenants also complain that landlords lock them out and shut down utilities.
Dawn McBride was unable to fully pay her April rent for her townhouse in Millersville, Maryland, and said that she had started receiving texts from her landlord suggesting that she find work at Walmart or Costco. She said the landlord then tried to get her to sign a deferral agreement, but she wouldn't let it read in full. Ultimately, she was given a 30-day notice because her lease was month to month, a strategy that landlords are increasingly using.
"Honestly, it's very stressful for me and my children," said McBride, who has lost her job as an animal handler. "And you know, I just think," Where are we going? "
Some tenants who are about to vacate have turned the tables on the landlords and are organizing rental strikes. From New York to Chicago to San Francisco, tenants are joining forces and asking landlords to negotiate with the aim of fully renting until the pandemic ends.
Many like Diana Hou, who lost her job in a political campaign and organized a rental strike with her half-dozen roommates in her Brooklyn building. are pushing for legislation at state and federal level to enable rent and mortgage relief.
“Many of us are concerned about their prospects of securing housing without income and with an impending debt for unpaid rent. For most of the house, the inability to secure housing would mean homelessness in the middle of a pandemic, ”said Hou.
Jay Martin, managing director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, which represents 4,000 builders in New York, said he did not tolerate rent strikes, but sympathized with the plight of the tenants.
"Tenants need a bailout," Martin said, adding that the landlords are supporting federal proposals that would cover the back rent and future payments. Without these measures, he predicted a drop in property and real estate taxes that would burden government and city budgets.
The federal government's $ 2.2 trillion coronavirus bailout package includes eviction moratoriums for most people living in government-subsidized homes and homes covered by government-backed mortgages. A second $ 3 trillion coronavirus facilitation law passed in May by the U.S. would provide about $ 175 billion for rent and mortgage payments, but has almost no chance in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate to be passed.
State and local legislators across the country are also intervening with support and proposals to avert a wave of evictions.
New Jersey law passed a $ 100 million rent relief law while Governor Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania signed a law that provided $ 175 million of the corona virus bailout package for rent and mortgage relief. Boston has provided $ 8 million in rental assistance, Baltimore has provided $ 13 million in coronavirus support to launch a rental assistance program, and Philadelphia has provided $ 10 million to help approximately 13,000 people rent their homes .
Other proposals would include long-term payment plans for those who cannot afford to rent and programs such as mediation before bringing cases to an apartment judge.
"We have to do something," said Helen Gym, a member of the Philadelphia Council, whose bill would prevent evictions up to two months after the state emergency regulation was repealed.
"In a city where 18,000 people are displaced annually, we cannot continue to work as usual," she said. "It's just not sustainable."

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