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DALLAS — A Dallas-based corporate landlord skirted a federal ban on evictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic while making record profits and hiking rents, according to findings from a congressional investigation released Thursday.
Invitation Homes, a Dallas firm that owns about 80,000 rental homes across the country, sought to evict thousands of tenants during a federal moratorium on eviction filings, a report from the Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis said. The moratorium was meant to prevent a wave of people from losing their homes while suffering financial hardship as the pandemic wracked the economy.
Invitation filed evictions against tenants even as they were waiting on help from federally backed rental assistance programs and declined to take funds from such programs if they deemed the amount of assistance too small, the committee said. Meanwhile, Invitation downplayed the number of tenants the company ultimately evicted to Fannie Mae, the federal housing institution, which had backed the firm with a $1 billion loan in 2017.
In an emailed statement to The Texas Tribune, a spokesperson for Invitation Homes said the Dallas company has worked to keep tenants housed, helping more than 33,000 “who were in need of extra time or financial assistance, for a total of nearly $175 million.” The statement said the company helped 10,000 tenants secure rental assistance.
“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,” the Invitation spokesperson said.
The House committee’s findings, though, come after a yearlong probe into the eviction practices of Invitation and three other large corporate landlords — Pretium Partners, Ventron Management and The Siegel Group — while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium on evictions was in place during the first 16 months of the pandemic.
All together, the landlords filed more than 14,000 evictions across the country in that period while their companies appeared to be doing just fine, the committee found. Nearly 2,000 of those eviction filings were in Texas, according to documents provided to the committee that the Tribune reviewed.
“As countless Americans acted admirably to support their communities during the coronavirus crisis, the four landlord companies investigated by the Select Subcommittee evicted aggressively to pad their profits,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, who chaired the committee. “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.”
The CDC moratorium aimed to help tenants struggling financially during the pandemic’s peak but didn’t apply to all evictions or uniformly stop them. Tenants had to show they tried to pay rent or would have no other place to go if they were evicted, among other requirements. But not all tenants knew about the order or how to use it. On top of that, the moratorium wasn’t enforced in all parts of Texas.
Investigators allege that the companies used aggressive tactics to get rid of tenants who fell behind on rent at the height of the pandemic’s economic fallout — though it’s unclear whether the landlords broke the law.
In one such instance, a Siegel executive sent an email to managers overseeing a San Antonio property with a list of aggressive methods to try to get rid of a tenant behind on her rent.
The managers could try telling the tenant one Friday evening they planned to evict her on Monday and see if she left over the weekend, the executive wrote in an email sent in May 2021. They could also try calling “Child Protective Services” or replacing her functioning air conditioner with one that doesn’t work, the executive suggested.
On Thursday, Clyburn reached out to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to find out whether Siegel employees made false claims of child abuse — a state jail felony in Texas — to the agency regarding one of their tenants.
A spokesperson for Pretium — which filed more than 1,800 evictions in Texas while the CDC moratorium was in place — said the company “always complied” with the federal moratorium and voluntarily extended its protections after the order expired in August 2021. No Pretium tenant was evicted for nonpayment of rent if they had a “valid CDC declaration,” the spokesperson said.
“We share the goal of housing stability and are committed to partnering with bipartisan policymakers on meaningful solutions that appropriately bridge the gap between the government’s role as the public safety net and the private sector’s role as a financially responsible provider of safe, stable, and affordable rental housing,” the Pretium spokesperson said.
Invitation filed at least 3,300 evictions from March 2020 to July 2021, company insiders told committee investigators. More than 140 of those were in Texas, records provided to the committee show. But that number could be higher given that Invitation did not keep accurate records of evictions the company initiated, the report said.
Meanwhile, Invitation’s profits grew to record highs during the pandemic — rising by more than 30% to almost $200 million in 2020 and another 30% in 2021 to more than $260 million. In that time, the average monthly rent for its homes grew by nearly 10% from the start of 2020 through the end of 2021.
But when asked by Fannie Mae about its eviction practices, Invitation minimized how many of its tenants it had initiated eviction filings against who wound up ousted from their homes. An executive told a Fannie Mae representative in March 2021 that only 6% of households the company tried to evict within the previous six months eventually lost their homes.
But according to the company’s files, that figure was more like 27%. Over the course of the moratorium, about 29% of Invitation tenants who the company tried to evict ultimately lost their homes, the report found.
In a Thursday letter to Fannie Mae, Clyburn suggested that the federal agency “consider Invitation Homes’ conduct and representations about its pandemic eviction practices before acting as a significant creditor to the company in the future.”
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