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Investigative News

Rent paid, still evicted: The COVID-era rise of no-fault evictions

Sonsharae-03_21_2022_JA__DSC8265
Joe Amon
/
Connecticut Public
Sonsharae Owens, 27, starts her morning early on Feb. 22 after finishing her night shift with a temp agency. Owens lives in a hotel after being threatened with a no-fault eviction. She still picks up her 14-year-old sister Zah-Myiah for a ride to school and her father, Gerald, 55, for a ride to rehab from her mother’s home in Hartford, as she’s done every weekday for over six months.

This is the first article in a two-part series: "Rent Paid, Still Evicted." Today we explore the uptick in no-fault evictions and the impact on renters. Then, we explore solutions. On Friday at 9 a.m., listen to CT Public's Where We Live as we dive into this topic further.

Last fall, Sonsharae Owens was living in a duplex in Hartford's Frog Hollow neighborhood with her family and doing what she loves most: helping her community. She ran the nearby community garden, lived a vegan lifestyle and started a mutual aid drive to get food and diapers to families in need.

Now this 27-year-old community activist lives in a crowded hotel in an industrial park off the highway with her boyfriend and two dogs. Her diet now is canned food and McDonald’s, she’s stopped running the community garden and has scaled back the mutual aid program.

The $90 a night she and her boyfriend must pay the hotel to stay is a constant struggle — but she says it’s her only option to keep a roof over her head.

“Oct. 1 was the end of my lease. An.d [my landlord said], ’If you guys don’t leave by Oct 1, I’m going to file for an eviction,’” Owens said. “The threat of the eviction, it just made me so anxious.”

This threat came shortly after Owens said she complained about the substandard housing conditions she was paying $900 a month to live in, including having no hot water and rodents everywhere. Rather than fixing the issues, the landlord wanted her out.

“And so I just left,” she recalled.

Owens’ story is not unique.

The type of eviction Owens was threatened with is often called a “no-fault eviction.” Many evictions are filed for missed rent or being a nuisance, but these kinds of evictions typically happen because the lease has expired or the landlord wants the unit back to live in.

And during the pandemic, many more households were served with a no-fault eviction filing, according to an analysis by Connecticut Public Radio. Before the pandemic, one out of every four people in housing court faced one of these evictions. Now it’s one in two.

What's driving the uptick in no-fault eviction filings?

If you ask legal aid attorneys representing low-income renters what’s driving the uptick in no-fault evictions, they’ll tell you that a hot housing market and a loophole in a pandemic-era executive order restricting evictions are to blame.

A now-expired executive order signed by Gov. Ned Lamont required landlords to apply to the state’s rental assistance program, Unite CT, before filing to evict someone for missed rent. The goal was to pause evictions for non-payment of rent as the state doled out the $400 million in federal pandemic rental aid it received.

That program had several barriers. Both housing and landlord advocates have criticized the program for its complicated application process, long payout time frame and, in some cases, not covering all the arrearage.

“Landlords, through their attorneys, believed that if they did a [no-fault expired lease] lapse of time eviction ... they could avoid participating in the Unite CT program,” said Catharine Freeman, a lawyer with Connecticut Legal Services who represents tenants facing evictions in housing court in Waterbury. “To me, it seemed like a strategic way to deal quickly with trying to have tenants out.”

Landlords don’t necessarily disagree.

Bob DeCosmo, president of the Connecticut Property Owners Alliance and the tenant-screening company TenantTracks, said evicting someone because their lease is up is much easier than having to prove the real reason in court. Landlords weren’t interested in collecting back rent through Unite CT if there were other concerns, he said.

“Why would you go in and look to collect back rent on someone that’s causing a nuisance in your building? You just want them out,” DeCosmo said. “Your obligation is to protect the safety of the other residents, because the good tenants will move quicker than you can get an eviction on a bad tenant."

“No-fault evictions — the lapse of time evictions — [are] an essential tool you have if a tenant is being disruptive in a property,” DeCosmo said. ”And other tenants are not always willing to come forward and testify against a tenant that lives in the same building. They rely on the owner to take the matter and dispose of the tenant."

That shouldn’t come at the expense of stripping the tenant from being able to defend themselves against such accusations, said Erin Kemple, the executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, a nonprofit that fights against housing discrimination.

“Landlords would want you to believe that because it’s about property rights, then due process should take a back seat. I think it should actually be the opposite, because you’re taking away someone’s place to live,” she said, “because you are impacting not just this person’s life today, but possibly their ability to get housing in the future. That is the reason why there should be more process, rather than less process.”

While state law forbids landlords from retaliating with an eviction against tenants who complain about their living conditions or protected civil rights, Kemple said that allowing landlords to evict without having cause creates a gaping loophole.

“So I say to someone, ‘I can't believe that you’re charging more rent because I just had a baby.’ And the landlord says, ‘OK, then I’m going to evict you because you complained.’ The problem is, how do you prove that in court, right?” Kemple said. “If the landlord brings a case for no cause, and you go into court and say, ‘I’m being evicted because I asserted my fair housing rights or my rights as a tenant,’ the landlord says, ‘No, I’m not evicting you for that. See, it says right here I’m evicting for no cause.’”

All this during a tough housing market.

Rents across the state are up 15% year-over-year. And far fewer units are available for rent, according to data tracked by the state comptroller’s office.

“What we’re hearing is that the reason landlords are evicting for no cause is because they believe that they can get more rent. And I think that’s the majority of what’s going on,” said Kemple.

Hogwash, says DeCosmo, a longtime landlord himself.

“When the tenant moves out, you’re in there, you’re changing carpets, replacing cabinets, flooring, painting, locks, repairs, [it costs] thousands of dollars,” said DeCosmo, whose tenant-screening company operates out of Waterbury. “People don’t get up and say, ‘I’m going to evict someone today,’ because the margins are so close.”

But research from Matthew Desmond, who leads the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, shows that the profit margins for most landlords are large, especially in poor neighborhoods.

In Waterbury, a high-poverty neighborhood attorney Catharine Freeman works in that had one of the highest evictions rates in the country, a growing number of renters face no-fault eviction.

She thinks the influx of newcomers to Connecticut's housing market is partially responsible. Concern has been growing among some housing advocates that Wall Street–backed housing investors are buying up a growing share of the housing stock and driving up housing costs.

“I think that there are new landlords coming into the market, and they want to capitalize on getting what we would say is the ‘best profile tenant’ that they could get,” Freeman said. “One way of getting the ideal tenant is getting the old tenant out.”

Burned by a no-fault eviction filing

Margaret looks for housing.jpg
Camila Vallejo
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Connecticut Public
Facing a no-fault eviction after complaining about her housing conditions, Margaret reviews places available to rent on her phone. The tough housing market and the pending eviction filing on her record is making it difficult.

Few options available in the hot housing market means someone threatened with an eviction often can’t find anything quick enough. State law requires that landlords give tenants just three days’ notice that they want them out before they can file an eviction complaint in court.

Having an eviction on file only makes the housing search that much harder.

“A lot of our clients haven’t been able to move, they just are kind of in place,” Freeman said. “I’ve actually had opposing counsel tell me that they’ve counseled their own clients to say if you have an applicant for housing to not even entertain them if they have any type of legal action pending in court. The doors are closed to them as soon as it’s discovered that they have a pending eviction.”

Margaret is one of those tenants getting doors closed on her. She’s asked us to use a different name because she fears retaliation from her landlord, who has a pending no-fault eviction against her.

After this single mother of three complained about her housing conditions — a constant flooding basement and a broken refrigerator — she said her landlord filed an eviction against her on the basis that her lease had expired.

“I pay my rent, I never missed a rent payment and I’ve taken care of her property very well,” she said.

She begged her landlord not to file an eviction. She was trying to find another place for her family to move, but she just needed more time.

If owners are looking me up, they’re going to see an eviction pending. It’s messing up everything. [It's] making it harder to get me out of here.
Margaret, tenant facing eviction because her lease has expired

“I said to her, ‘If owners are looking me up, they’re going to see an eviction pending. It’s messing up everything. And you’re making it harder to get me out of here,’” Margaret said.

Eviction complaints and other related filings can live on the Connecticut Judicial Branch website for years. The branch removes complaints that are withdrawn by the landlord or dismissed by the court between 11 months and a year after. Cases that go to trial and are judged on the merits remain online for three years, even if the tenant wins.

Tenant-screening companies like the one that DeCosmo runs pay the branch to get this data. Those who purchase this data must sign a user agreement promising, among other things, not to disclose criminal records that have been erased or sealed and to use the most updated information on the status of the case.

While eviction filings do not have similar requirements, DeCosmo said TenantTracks does not disclose to landlords running a background check on prospective tenants any outstanding eviction complaints or cases where the tenant is not found at fault.

“The only evictions that we show as a consumer reporting agency is judgments for plaintiff — because you don’t want somebody that may have gone to court and then won the case. And using that, it would be prejudicial to show that eviction,” he said. “It’s my belief that the vast majority of tenant-screening companies do not show records for evictions that went in favor of the defendant, or cases that were withdrawn.”

In a statement, the Judicial Branch said that it “does not have the authority to police the use of data by bulk purchasers” and that the officials there do not believe they have ever reprimanded any tenant-screening company for using the data inappropriately.

“There's sort of a popular understanding that even a filing or victory for the tenant or the withdrawal by the landlord is sort of an eviction on someone’s record,” said Giovanna Shay, the litigation and advocacy director at Greater Hartford Legal Aid, a nonprofit whose attorneys represent low-income residents in situations like Margaret’s.

The Connecticut Fair Housing Center that Kemple leads is currently suing the nation’s largest tenant-tracking company, CoreLogic Rental Property Solutions, for what they believe is inappropriately disclosing a shoplifting arrest that was ultimately withdrawn to a landlord. That landlord then declined to allow that prospective tenant to move into their property.

CoreLogic declined CT Public’s request to be interviewed about how it uses housing court records to help landlords screen prospective tenants.

Not homeless enough for help

The state does have a safety net for some facing homelessness. A referral to those support programs starts by calling 2-1-1, which the state pays United Way to operate.

Data shows that the number of calls from people seeking “low-cost housing” has more than doubled since the pandemic began.

In February 2020 — the month before the pandemic touched down in Connecticut — there were 3,117 calls to the hotline from people searching for affordable housing compared to 7,820 this past February.

Freeman, the legal aid attorney in Waterbury, said that services available through 2-1-1 are limited because someone must be evicted or already homeless to get help.

“Unfortunately, people can’t even get those services until they actually go through an eviction and have an execution against them,” she said. “So they’re really running against the clock to figure out where to go and what to do.”

Back in Hartford, Owens says she regularly calls 2-1-1 for help.

Hotel dwellers and the untold others like her who have taken up residence in similar dwellings are not considered homeless by the state and are therefore not prioritized for the state’s vastly oversubscribed housing assistance programs.

So when Owens calls, they tell her if she moves to a shelter, she can then be put in line for subsidized affordable housing.

“I don’t want to live in a shelter. I can’t bring my dogs to the shelter. And I’m not getting rid of my dogs,” she said.

So she’ll soon be going on her seventh month at the hotel — which is costing her more than $2,000 a month. It’s an arrangement she’s far from happy with.

“It’s the most miserable situation I’ve ever been in. I don’t want to put the TV too loud or listen to music too loud. It’s just not my space. So it is weird and uncomfortable,” she said. “And also, I can’t afford it. Sometimes I ask friends for help.”

CT Public Intern Maxwell Zeff contributed to this report.

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