Just days before the federal moratorium on evictions is set to expire, lawmakers scrutinized the actions of corporate landlords that have filed tens of thousands of actions seeking the removal of tenants during the pandemic.
Representative James E. Clyburn, the chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, said the hearing was the opening salvo of an investigation into what he called “unjustified eviction practices” by some large landlords. Mr. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina, said he was disturbed by reports that some large property owners had moved to evict renters for failing to pay rent, even as the government works to distribute tens of billions of dollars in emergency rental assistance funds.
Last week Mr. Clyburn sent letters to four corporate landlords that he said were particularly aggressive in going after lower-income tenants and Black and Latino renters. “Evictions by corporate landlords have been widespread in minority communities,” he said.
Representatives for those landlords did not speak at the hearing, but several housing advocates did.
Jim Baker, the executive director of the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, a nonprofit that has been tracking eviction filings in a handful of large counties, said that corporate landlords, rather than so-called mom-and-pop landlords, had accounted for the majority of eviction filings. Corporate landlords had filed at least 75,000 evictions across the half-dozen large counties the group has tracked since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed a nationwide eviction moratorium in September, Mr. Baker said.
The moratorium is credited with cutting the number of eviction actions filed by landlords roughly in half, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.
But the effects have been mixed: State and local courts have been divided on the details of the moratorium, with some ruling that landlords could file eviction actions for nonpayment of rent and were prohibited only from removing such tenants. Other courts have permitted evictions if they are for violations of a housing complex’s rules and regulations.
With the moratorium expiring this week, housing advocates estimate that roughly 11 million adult renters are vulnerable to being evicted because they are behind on their rent. Nearly a half-million people are behind in New York City alone, according to an analysis of census data by the National Equity Atlas, a research group associated with the University of Southern California.
Housing advocates fear there will be a rush of eviction filings once the moratorium ends. Some are concerned about how slow the federal government has been to dole out roughly $45 billion in federal rental assistance. A little over $1.5 billion has been paid out nationwide, the Treasury Department said last week.
Emily A. Benfer, a professor at Wake Forest University School who specializes in health and housing law, said in an interview that the relief had been slow to trickle out partly because many local governments had had to build rental assistance programs from scratch. The process for applying can be cumbersome because of language and technology barriers, she added.
Diane Yentel, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told the subcommittee that Congress should consider extending the moratorium to allow more time for the emergency rental money to be disbursed. She said some states had allocated less than 5 percent of the money they had gotten from the federal government.
Republicans on the subcommittee criticized the C.D.C. moratorium, calling it an unconstitutional power grab that imposed financial hardships on landlords. Joel Griffith, a researcher with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy group, said the moratorium “eroded private property rights” and interfered with the ability of local courts to enforce local housing laws.
The committee has asked the corporate landlords to respond to Mr. Clyburn’s letter by Aug. 3.