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Post: : ‘I want this person very uncomfortable’: Corporate landlords harassed tenants, filed evictions during pandemic, House investigation finds

An executive for the Siegel Group, a Las Vegas-based real estate company, allegedly told staff in Texas they could “get rid” of a past-due tenant without an eviction order last May by calling child protective services if too many people were in the home, misleadingly suggesting a federal eviction ban was no longer in effect, or having security knock on “her door at least twice a night,” a House subcommittee investigation found.

If there was an animal in the apartment, the executive added in an email, “we can tell her that if we knock on her door and she is not there we will assume she has vacated and call animal control to come pick up her abandoned pet.”

“I want this person very uncomfortable sitting in our room for free,” the executive said.

The email was detailed in a report published by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis following a yearlong investigation into the eviction actions of four corporate landlords from March 15, 2020, to July 29, 2021. The investigation found the companies — the Siegel Group, Pretium Partners, Invitation Homes

and Ventron Management — collectively filed nearly 15,000 eviction cases.

Landlords sometimes argue eviction is a last resort they only take to maintain their own financial security, but that didn’t appear to be the case with the real estate companies that the subcommittee investigated. While they were moving forward with eviction actions, all four companies “displayed evidence of financial stability” according to a subcommittee statement. Siegel, for instance, “experienced almost no revenue decline even during the most disruptive early period of the pandemic,” but still allegedly prevented tenants “from understanding their protection from eviction” under a since-expired federal eviction moratorium that went into effect in September 2020.

“While the abusive eviction practices documented in this report would be condemnable under any circumstances, they are unconscionable during a once-in-a-century economic and public health crisis,” Rep. James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and the subcommittee chair, said in a statement announcing the report. “Rather than working with cost-burdened tenants, abiding by applicable eviction moratoriums, and accepting federal rental assistance, these companies — with properties across 28 states — expedited evictions above all else.”

The findings involving Siegel’s actions, which were among some of the most serious allegations in the report, were referred to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission for investigation, according to the subcommittee’s statement.

In its original form, the federal eviction moratorium, which was imposed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in September 2020, was only supposed to protect certain tenants from eviction relating to nonpayment of rent, including those who signed a sworn declaration and delivered it to their landlord, earned less than $99,000 as a single adult, and lost income or faced high medical bills, among other qualifications. When that order expired, the Biden administration announced a new, narrower order in August 2021 that applied to tenants in areas experiencing high spread of COVID-19. Then, later that month, the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down, leaving renters nationwide vulnerable to losing their homes.

The federal moratorium wasn’t without flaws, according to tenant advocates. Landlords were still able to file eviction cases in court, beginning the legal process of removing a covered tenant, so long as they didn’t carry out the eviction itself until the moratorium expired. The regulations and the legal challenges surrounding the moratorium were also at times confusing or overwhelming for tenants, who had the burden of attesting that they qualified for eviction protection. 

Data collected by the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, which scrutinizes the effects of private equity investments, found thousands of eviction cases were still filed by corporate landlords throughout the ban on removals. Even so, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis said it uncovered “three times as many eviction cases as previously reported.” Invitation Homes and Siegel did not keep complete data on eviction filings, the subcommittee said, meaning the number of actual cases filed could have been higher. 

The Siegel Group and Ventron Management did not immediately respond to MarketWatch’s request for comment. In a statement to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, an attorney for the Siegel Group said they were surprised that they weren’t called before the report’s release, saying the company “has at all times been committed to abiding by the letter and the spirit of the law applicable to our operations.”

“We will continue to put roofs over people’s heads and keep people employed,” Sean Thueson, executive vice president and general counsel for the Siegel Group, told the Review-Journal. “This is what we have always done. SIEGEL CARES!”

Pretium, meanwhile, said in a statement to MarketWatch that it has “always complied with the CDC moratorium,” which it said was not disputed in the subcommittee’s report.

“No resident covered by a valid CDC declaration has ever been evicted from our homes for non-payment of rent,” Pretium said. “In fact, we had voluntarily extended the CDC moratorium for residents covered by valid CDC declarations beyond its expiration.”

An Invitation Homes spokesperson similarly said the subcommittee’s report stated “we did not engage in practices that were unlawful, a fact we know quite well since we work hard to follow the laws in all of our markets.”

“We responded transparently and in good faith to the subcommittee’s multiple requests over the past year,” Invitation Homes said in a statement. “In a time when the focus should be on adding much-needed supply to the country’s housing market, it’s disappointing that the committee chose instead to pursue a fault-finding mission.”

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