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Landlords could exploit COVID-19 victims to fast-track evictions, housing advocates say

A renter got the coronavirus. A month later his landlord tried to evict him.
Community members protest against evictions outside the Bronx housing court in New York on Aug. 10, 2020.
Community members protest against evictions outside the Bronx housing court in New York on Aug. 10, 2020.Angela Weiss / AFP - Getty Images

Just a few weeks after recovering from the coronavirus, Barbaro Rodriguez, a driver for Lyft, received a letter from his landlord saying that he was being evicted for being a “nuisance.” Several tenants in Rodriguez’s apartment building in the Los Angeles area had reported that “they did not feel safe living at the property” knowing Rodriguez and his girlfriend, Rosario Sandoval, had tested positive for the coronavirus and were later seen without masks, according to the eviction letter, obtained by NBC News.

The couple, who deny they left their apartment without a mask, were given three days to leave.

Housing advocates say that in the push for gentrification and higher-paying tenants, landlords are trying to find any excuse to turn out renters, upgrade the now vacant unit and offer it at a premium. The coronavirus has emerged as a convenient way to facilitate this. And for working-class and middle-class families already struggling to hang on to their rented apartments in the country’s increasingly expensive cities, it means the virus carries an additional threat.

“It’s a complete and utter crisis,” said Matt Shapiro, president of the New Jersey Tenants Organization, which advocates on behalf of tenants facing eviction. “I’ve been doing this for 49 years and I haven’t seen a situation as dire as this.”

Rodriguez and Sandoval have been in a protracted battle with their landlord, Winstar Properties, which has been renovating units at their Downey, California, apartment complex over the last year, according to Sandoval.

“I’m at a loss for words,” she said. “I’ve been going crazy because I don’t know what to do any more.”

One tenant in the same complex said that the company raised her rent by $500 a month during the time she lived there, from 2016 to 2018, but failed to do any requested repairs. The family took a $6,000 payment to leave the apartment in 2018, according to an agreement obtained by NBC News.

Winstar Properties made the $6,000 offer as “a completely voluntary, no-obligation option to anyone who was interested in order to assist them if they were looking for an opportunity to move,” Niv Davidovich, an attorney with Davidovich Stein Law Group, which represents Winstar, said in an email. The company did not respond to a request for comment about the repairs.

A two-bedroom apartment in their complex rents for $1,200 to $1,400. The average list price for a two-bedroom apartment in Downey is about $1,500, according to the real estate website Zillow. Rodriguez, Sandoval and their three children are the only remaining residents paying a lower rent, at $947 for a one-bedroom, according to Christopher Chapman, an attorney with Friedman & Chapman, the law firm representing the couple in a separate lawsuit against the management company.

Winstar Properties said it had received three complaints from tenants, including one who demanded she be allowed to break her lease because Rodriguez and Sandoval were seen without a mask, according to Davidovich. All Californian residents must wear a face covering while in public or face potential misdemeanor charges, according to an order that Gov. Gavin Newsom introduced in June.

The landlord had "no choice but to take action to protect the safety of the remainder of the tenants and their families in the community from the tenants in question who refused to follow mandatory safety protocols applicable during this global pandemic,” Davidovich added in an email.

But when the couple was reported to have been seen without masks, they had already recovered from the virus and it was before Newsom's order, according to Chapman.

“If we start evicting tenants because they get COVID-19, then we’re hurting the most vulnerable group because they live in tight, dense housing compared to those of us who live in single-family homes,” he said.

"Eviction can facilitate new rounds of gentrification, when landlords take it as an opportunity to renovate and attract wealthier tenants.”

Roughly 6 million people were considered "cost burdened" in 2018, meaning that they pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. A disproportionate number of those are Black, Latino and Asian renters who are more likely to work in industries that have seen mass layoffs as a result of stay-at-home orders, according to Zillow.

“It really affects us,” Rodriguez said of his family's looming eviction. “It’s our right to humanity, a home and living.”

There are no comprehensive statistics quantifying the number of evictions that have been filed since the start of the pandemic. But for context, 3.7 million eviction filings were filed in 2016 when the unemployment rate hovered at around 4.7 percent, according to Anne Kat Alexander, who is leading a project called COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard, with Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. The unemployment rate currently stands at 10.2 percent, according to data released this month from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The number of evictions, Alexander said, is higher than the number of foreclosures during the housing crisis.

Cities including Cleveland, Houston and Milwaukee have seen a spike in eviction filings over the last four weeks as governors lift eviction moratoriums. That has opened the floodgates for landlords to attempt to recoup missed rent through courts or by leasing out the home, according to the Eviction Lab. During that time, more than 3,600 eviction requests have been filed in those three cities alone, Alexander said.

Many cities affected by evictions were already in the midst of mass displacement of Black and Latino residents following attempts at gentrification, according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.

“The interplay between gentrification and eviction is significant,” said Jesse Van Tol, CEO of National Community Reinvestment Coalition. “Eviction can facilitate new rounds of gentrification when landlords take it as an opportunity to fix up units and renovate to attract wealthier tenants and it can be used as an opportunity to extract more rent out of people.”

Another renter, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is undocumented, lives in an area that has seen a surge in luxury apartments and rent prices soar to roughly $2,400 for a two-bedroom apartment over the last 10 years, according to Zillow’s rent index. A single mother of two children, she said that she had lost her job working in the kitchen of a local Pancake House after stay-at-home orders closed restaurants across the state.

After she was unable to pay April and May rent, her landlord sent her letters saying she was required to pay the balance or leave, according to documents obtained by NBC News. The landlord rescinded the eviction lawsuit against her in July, according to the documents. She plans to remain at the apartment with her 23-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.

“I don’t have anywhere to go,” said the renter, who pays $1,720 for a two-bedroom apartment. “I pray to God they don’t increase the rent.”

The property management company said that it had extended its rent relief program through the year, which includes a temporary hold on evictions, late fees and rent increases.

For now, Rodriguez and Sandoval are left anxiously waiting at home in Downey about whether their landlord will pursue eviction through the courts and serve them with legal notice.

“No one is above the law, especially laws which are put in place to protect the health, safety and wellness of our communities and neighbors,” Davidovich, the attorney for Winstar Properties, said in an email. “Regardless of their personal circumstances, all tenants have to abide by these policies. If there is continued and intentional noncompliance, the landlord is required to protect the safety of all the rest of the tenants.”

But the family said if they lose their home, they would have nowhere to go.

“They’re still trying to push us out,” Sandoval said. “We requested a face-to-face conversation but the owner said no — they just shut us off. So far, that’s all we know.”