- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2022

Landlords nationwide are booting out more tenants who haven’t paid their monthly rent since the COVID-19 pandemic started, but legal challenges are slowing them down in some places.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium on evictions ended July 31. But lawsuits continue to flood state and local courts as property managers seek to pay their bills and lodgers complain of price-gouging in rent increases.

The past two years of the pandemic saw the largest drop in eviction filings on record when the federal government intervened to prevent landlords from dislodging tenants, according to the Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which tracked 31 cities in six states.

While those areas typically see 865,000 evictions a year, the lab said only 434,304 cases were filed last year.

The number of evictions is ticking up again as landlords push renters to pay back what they owe on monthly payments stretching back up to two years.

In those 31 cities representing a fraction of all U.S. renters, the lab reports that 7,973 people have been evicted in the past week alone.

“Trends on evictions vary city to city and state to state, but they are trending upwards in general and in many places are overpassing pre-pandemic averages,” said Juan Pablo Garnham, a member of the Eviction Lab’s media team.

New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit against real estate law firm Balsamo on Wednesday, accusing the Brooklyn-based attorneys of suing to evict nonpaying renters without any “meaningful reviews” of their cases.

“This lawsuit is the first step in righting the wrongs done by unscrupulous landlords and their lawyers and reversing the negative impacts of their negligence on our communities,” Ms. James, a Democrat, said in a statement.

St. Louis media outlet KMOV reported that tenant Anthony Glasby has sued the Lewis and Clark apartments for allegedly forcing him out illegally over unpaid back rent — payments he said he was starting to make after catching COVID-19 in December.

“You cannot be evicted in Missouri without judicial process,” Rob Swearingen, an attorney at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, told the news station.

But John J. Vecchione, a lawyer with the nonpartisan New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA), said some states made it harder for landlords by imposing longer moratoriums than the CDC required.

That has put added pressure on property owners to choose between evictions and raising their rents to cope with the lost revenues.

“The longer a moratorium goes on, the more economic disruption happens until it’s lifted,” Mr. Vecchione said. “I think that’s just logic.”

The attorney said his legal advocacy group filed three lawsuits representing more than 20 landlords to overturn the CDC moratorium before the Supreme Court struck it down on Aug. 26.

“The federal eviction moratorium was illegal and had the bad consequences of not allowing the housing market to function,” Mr. Vecchione said.

But while U.S. eviction moratoriums have ended, many landlords are still struggling to compensate for the billions of dollars in unpaid rent.

Iowa landlord Asa Mossman, the lead plaintiff in NCLA’s lawsuit Mossman vs. CDC, said it would cost his small business more in legal fees to collect the unpaid rent than he would get for his trouble.

“I haven’t received any compensation, but I got a symbolic court judgment against one tenant for a small amount of money that I have no hope of collecting,” Mr. Mossman said.

And the Cedar Rapids-based owner of 11 affordable-rent properties said he worries government officials may change the law again if the pandemic flares back up.

That would make things even harder on the low-income market, he said.

“It’s become extremely difficult for people to find housing in lower price ranges because rents have gone up, there’s more scrutiny of tenants and supplies have gone down,” Mr. Mossman said.

Tracy Mills, a landlord in Charleston, South Carolina, said he will never recover $50,000 in unpaid rent from the tenant he evicted from a single-family home in July after 18 months of missed payments.

“The tenant had plenty of money, but chose to ride the moratorium and not pay up,” Mr. Mills said. “We tried everything we could to work something out without an eviction, but they wouldn’t apply for any rental assistance to stay.”

Mr. Mills, who manages six affordable housing properties in South Carolina, said it’s the only eviction he’s had in the past 20 years.

“We’re still trying to recover from it, putting the house on Airbnb as a short-term rental, but they start you off at low rates. Eventually, I think we’ll crawl out, but it’s frustrating,” he said.

Some financial experts said that the affordable housing market will suffer more in states and cities that hinder evictions.

“If landlords are not allowed to enforce contracts and evict those who shirk their obligations, they will have no choice but to pass on the costs to paying tenants or to sell off their properties, possibly reducing the availability of rental housing overall,” said John Berlau, director of finance policy at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Economist Victor Claar, who teaches at Florida Gulf Coast University, said the ongoing rise in U.S. home prices means most landlords are not price-gouging by raising their rents.

And since soaring home prices have driven more Americans into the affordable rental market, the pressure on landlords to evict nonpaying tenants is growing.

“Landlords have bills to pay and sometimes those bills are mortgage bills on their rental properties,” Mr. Claar said. “There’s no moratorium on those.”

Bryan Cannon, a North Carolina-based financial planner at Cannon Advisors, said it could help if more tenants apply for local, state and national rental assistance funds.

“It should not necessarily fall on the backs of landlords to subsidize rents to renters who do not pay,” Mr. Cannon said. “However, there should be some safeguards established to help egregious landlords who gouge their renters by dramatically escalating their rents to essentially force their tenants out.”

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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