Thrown Out Of Home, At A Time When A Roof Is More Important Than Ever

Sep 16, 2020
Originally published on September 16, 2020 6:53 pm

Ruby Jensen was living in a rented room in a Los Angeles house in June, when her landlady sent her a text that would upend her life.

Unhappy about the condition of the house, the landlady wanted Jensen and every other tenant to leave immediately. She was moving relatives back in, the text said.

Even in normal times, eviction requests have to proceed through the court system in California, said housing attorney Aimee Williams of the Castelblanco Law Group.

But when the COVID-19 crisis began, California courts imposed a de facto ban on almost all evictions, and Los Angeles County had a moratorium of its own. The bans have since been extended, in somewhat different form.

Despite the eviction ban, Jensen's landlady, who didn't respond to requests for comment from NPR, began trying to force out her tenants — first by shutting off the water and gas. Then she went further.

"She just kept coming over to the house and that's when she started demolishing the kitchen. She tore up the sink, the stove, everything, the floor, everything," said Jensen, 21, who moved to California a year ago from Idaho.

At a time when people everywhere are being urged to stay home as much as possible, some renters like Jensen are being forced out.

Housing activists say evictions across the country have been common since March, despite federal, state and local orders restricting or barring them.

The Eviction Lab at Princeton University said 48,379 evictions have taken place in the 17 cities it track since the pandemic began. It's not clear how many were carried out illegally.

One reason evictions have continued is that the overlapping series of moratoriums can be complicated, Williams said. Some apply only to people who can prove they've been hurt financially by COVID-19. Other have lapsed temporarily, only to be reinstated in different form. It's not always easy to tell which buildings are covered.

"The fact that there's not a single, uniform moratorium in place... puts the burden on renters to know whether they're protected," said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

"Most tenants and most landlords just don't know or understand those laws, that, [they are] not legal," Williams added.

Bobby Parker had no idea evictions were barred in New Orleans when he arrived home in March to find that his landlady had changed the locks to his apartment.

After an unexpected trip to the hospital, Parker had fallen a few days behind on his rent and his landlady was demanding that he pay hefty late fees, he said. By then, Parker had lost one of his two jobs at a restaurant because of the coronavirus, and he didn't have the money to pay.

Locked out of his building, Parker, 56, couldn't get medicine he needed or the uniform for his other job.

"I called the police for two days. They never came. And when they did came, they said there wasn't anything they could do about it," Parker recalled.

For more than two weeks, Parker was forced to sleep outside, until a judge ordered his landlady to let him back in his place. When NPR contacted the landlady for comment, a woman who answered the phone said she was blocking the caller and hung up.

In New Orleans, tenants such as Parker can challenge evictions in court. But if they lose, the eviction goes on their record. That makes it harder to find a decent apartment in the future and tenants may also have to pay court costs, said housing activist Andreanecia M. Morris.

As a result, most evictions in New Orleans are "informal," meaning tenants quietly move away without challenging them.

Morris is executive director of HousingNOLA, a public-private partnership that advocates for more affordable housing, and she is quick to say that landlords shouldn't necessarily be seen as the culprits.

In New Orleans, most apartments are owned by small, mom-and-pop landlords who are themselves struggling to pay their mortgages and other expenses during the pandemic shutdowns, Morris said.

"For every terrible landlord who is acting outrageously, there are dozens of landlords that are also struggling themselves," she said.

Morris favors some form of rental assistance for tenants affected by the pandemic, but Congress has been unable to agree on another stimulus bill.

Meanwhile, illegal evictions continue.

Jensen ended up leaving their rented room after the landlord tore out the building's kitchen, to move into a motel. Her fiancé, who lives with her, lost his job as a restaurant dishwasher, and money remains tight.

"I'm trying to do the best that I can because I just can't figure out how to put everything together with everything I'm going through right now," Jensen said.

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There's good news for the millions of Americans struggling to pay rent. The Federal Government recently barred landlords from evicting renters who'd been hurt financially by the pandemic. But recent moratoriums in most states haven't stopped all landlords from trying to remove tenants. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Twenty-one-year-old Ruby Jensen (ph) moved from Idaho to California last year hoping for a fresh start. She met a guy, and they rented a room in a house in Los Angeles. Things went OK for a while. Then, in June, the landlady contacted her angry about the condition of the house.

RUBY JENSEN: She sent the text saying that, I need everyone to move out of the house. I'm going to be moving my family back in.

ZARROLI: By then, Jensen's fiancee had lost his job as a restaurant dishwasher because of COVID. Money was tight, and they were reluctant to leave. Things quickly turned ugly. Jensen says the landlady turned off the water and gas.

JENSEN: She just kept coming over to the house. And that's when she started demolishing the kitchen. She tore up the sink, the stove, everything, the floor, everything.

ZARROLI: Jensen's landlady didn't respond to requests for comment. Tenant attorney Aimee Williams says all this happened at a time when most evictions were barred in California. But she says some landlords have tried to remove tenants anyway.

AIMEE WILLIAMS: You know, I'm getting crisis calls saying, the landlord's at my door. They're saying that they want to come in with the locksmith. That definitely has increased my workload.

ZARROLI: Williams says one reason this is happening is confusion. Federal, state and local governments have imposed eviction bans - some have lapsed, others haven't. It's not always clear what buildings are covered.

WILLIAMS: Most tenants and most landlords just don't know or understand those laws, that that's not legal.

ZARROLI: When Bobby Parker (ph) was evicted from his New Orleans apartment, he didn't know a moratorium was in place. He'd fallen behind on rent after a hospital stay, and his landlady charged him late fees. But he'd lost one of his jobs and couldn't pay them.

BOBBY PARKER: When I came back from work that Monday, which was the 24 of March, she set up there and had them change all my locks on my door. I went and tried the back door - same thing, key wouldn't fit in.

ZARROLI: A woman who answered the landlady's phone hung up when asked to comment for this story. Parker says the next couple weeks were tough. Locked out of his place, he couldn't get his medicine or his work uniform.

PARKER: I called the police for two days. They never came. And when they did came, they said there isn't anything they couldn't do about it.

ZARROLI: Parker spent two weeks sleeping outside. Then a judge ordered his landlady to let him back into his apartment. In New Orleans, tenants can challenge evictions in court, but housing activist Andreanecia Morris says they're usually reluctant to do so. If they lose it can be hard to find another place. They may face court costs.

ANDREANECIA MORRIS: There's a severe consequence to that tenant and to their future if they end up with a court-ordered eviction.

ZARROLI: Morris says apartment owners aren't always to blame. In New Orleans, most people rent from small mom-and-pop landlords, and a lot of them are having trouble, too.

MORRIS: For every terrible landlord who is, you know, acting outrageously, there are dozens of landlords who are also struggling themselves.

ZARROLI: Morris thinks the government needs to help renters financially affected by COVID, but a stimulus bill is stalled in Congress. Meanwhile, illegal evictions go on. Ruby Jensen ended up leaving her place after her kitchen was torn out. It was traumatic.

JENSEN: I'm trying to do the best that I can because I just can't figure out how to put everything together with everything that I'm going through right now.

ZARROLI: Her fiancee went back to his old restaurant job for a few days, then the restaurants were closed again. Today the couple lives in a motel. They're looking for a new place to rent - a place they can stay in for good.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.