Georgia Today: One metro Atlanta landlord filed more evictions during the moratorium than any other
An investigation finds one apartment complex in Clayton County has filed more evictions against tenants than any other landlord across metro Atlanta — including during the federal government's pandemic eviction ban that was designed to keep people in their homes and stem the spread of COVID-19.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. On the show this week: how one apartment complex in Clayton County has filed more evictions against its tenants than any other landlord across Atlanta; why tenants at the complex continued to get eviction notices even as the federal pandemic eviction moratorium took effect; and how even eviction attempts can impact tenants long after they move out. For more on this story I'm joined by Yeganeh Torbati. She's a reporter at The Washington Post. Her recent story, written with her colleague Jonathan O'Connell, looks at the Brooks Crossing apartment just south of Atlanta in Clayton County. Can you tell us a little bit about that apartment complex?
Yeganeh Torbati, Washington Post Economic policy investigations reporter: It's pretty large. It's around 224 units, maybe a couple dozen sort of two-story buildings, each of them with, you know, four units or so a piece.
Steve Fennessy: What can you tell us about the tenants who live there?
Yeganeh Torbati: You know, it's a lot of, I'd say, working-class folks, in part because it's one of the more affordable places to live in the Atlanta area.
Steve Fennessy: And what led you to Brooks Crossing?
Yeganeh Torbati: So, we were interested in covering eviction and one idea that we had was to focus on one apartment building where maybe there had been more eviction filings than in other places. And Brooks Crossing really stood out in the number of evictions that they had pursued against their tenants even during the pandemic. And so we decided to just take a closer look at kind of what was going on there.
Steve Fennessy: How exactly do you find out who is filing evictions and the numbers and all that stuff?
Yeganeh Torbati: You know, there's no real national tracking of this, which is why it's kind of difficult to research eviction. And you know, there are some really excellent academics and researchers looking at this issue but it takes a lot of legwork. But when a landlord files for eviction, that is recorded through court cases. Folks at the Atlanta Regional Commission had been tracking data on eviction filings in the Atlanta area. So that was the data that we drew from in order to find, you know, the building that had done it the most often, which was Brooks Crossing. So what we found is that it was 427 eviction filings, and that equates to about 1.9 eviction notices per unit between April 2020 and December 2021.
Steve Fennessy: We're talking about a timespan that begins around the pandemic in the spring of 2020. So I thought that there was a moratorium on evictions?
[News Tape] NBC News: The CDC is ordering a halt on evictions nationwide for people who have lost work during the pandemic and don't have other good housing options. The goal of the new eviction ban is to stem the spread of the outbreak, which the agency in its order says presents a historic threat to public health.
Yeganeh Torbati: There was not really any sort of real enforcement mechanism for that moratorium. It didn't cover every landlord. It covered certain landlords that received certain types of federal assistance. But Brooks Crossing was one of those landlords because they did have tenants that were using federal aid to rent there. We found that they filed for eviction 99 times in the months that the CARES Act moratorium was in place, which was sort of late March through late July. And if you look at the data on other Atlanta landlords that really stands out — like those for those months, those landlords went to zero filings and Brooks Crossing did not.
Steve Fennessy: Who actually owns Brooks Crossing?
Yeganeh Torbati: Yeah, good question. The ownership structure is a bit opaque. What we can say is that Brooks Crossing is managed by a company called Ventron Management. It's sort of a real estate management company. They manage several different apartment complexes in Georgia. The ownership, according to documents that have kind of come out in various legal actions against Brooks Crossing — a small stake is owned by Ron Eisenberg, who is the founder and CEO of Ventron. And then it looks like the majority of Brooks Crossing is traced to a man named Alon Ossip, who lives in Canada and is sort of like a private equity investor. Ossip has said in a court affidavit that he doesn't have really anything to do with the day-to-day management of Brooks Crossing, but that that is kind of the ownership structure that we've been able to figure out through court documents. And what we found is that they managed three of the 10 Atlanta area properties where tenants experienced the most eviction filings during the pandemic. You know, we did speak to tenants who said that they felt that the management had been able to work with them in order to avoid filing for eviction as long as they kind of set up a payment plan. This is not necessarily some huge, massive corporation with tens of thousands of employees. It's a it's, I'd say, like a mid-sized company — you know, where it would be pretty fairly easy for the executives to kind of know what's going on. We asked for interviews with with the chief executive, but — but that was not granted. And we put all these questions to them in terms of like their policies and sort of why they pursued these things and all they could tell us was that they had tried to avoid evictions.
Steve Fennessy: For a landlord to start eviction proceedings against the tenant — what does that mean, in practical terms?
Yeganeh Torbati: There's not really a strict time limit for when a landlord has to warn a tenant that they're late and may be evicted. Oftentimes, that can just be a period of a couple of days. The rent is due on the first, and if it's not paid by the end of the third, sometime around the fourth or the fifth, tenants receive their first late notice. And at least according to the late notices that I saw, which a couple of tenants shared with me, they then have around eight or nine days before the complex will file for eviction, at least according to that notice. And already, when they first get that notice, they have accrued a late fee of around $100. And then if the building moves forward with filing for eviction, that usually accrues more late fees — or more fees, I should say: One called a court fee, one called a collection administration fee. And so overall, you know, we're talking about easily $300 in fees as a result of being late for one month on your rent. At that point, you're looking at an eviction filing that is filed in court and is served to you by the authorities.
[News Tape] 11Alive: Everybody has been through a hard time. We've got people that lost jobs because of COVID. You come home one day and there's a paper on your door. It's telling you you got to go.
Steve Fennessy: Over the course of this time period that you looked at the filings that Brooks Crossing was — was filing against its tenants — eviction filings — how many ended up actually being evicted?
Yeganeh Torbati: Ventron told us when we went to them for comment that only five tenants were actually evicted from Brooks Crossing between March 2020 and August 2021. And of course, you know, an eviction filing is very different from an eviction. The vast majority of filings do not actually result in evictions. But you know what we wanted to show in this story is how even just filings can be damaging and how landlords sort of use those filings to collect extra fees.
Steve Fennessy: Give us an example of — of a tenant at Brooks Crossing who was receiving these eviction notices.
Yeganeh Torbati: The tenant that we profiled most prominently in the story is named Janahya Sugick and she had moved into Brooks Crossing with her family a couple of months into the pandemic and was having trouble with work because she was working from home. The internet was not reliable in her apartment, and so her hours had been cut. And so she was finding it difficult to pay rent and Brooks Crossing filed for eviction against her.
Steve Fennessy: Next, the fate of Janahya Sugick and her family amid Brooks Crossing's attempts to evict them. Stay with us.
Steve Fennessy: You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm joined by Washington Post reporter Yeganeh Torbati. Well, let's talk a little bit more about Janahya Sugick. How she was getting these notices and getting all the fees that came with them? What did that mean for her living situation?
Yeganeh Torbati: It made it much more precarious. And it also sort of trapped her and other tenants that I spoke with in this situation where, you know, they owe all this money to the building, so that limits their ability to move elsewhere. Once you get an eviction filing, it can show up on your credit report and makes it harder for you to get approved to live elsewhere as well. And so it's very easy when a landlord is doing a credit check or some sort of background check on a tenant for that to pop up. And at least one family told me that that was what had happened to them. They had not been evicted from Brooks Crossing, but they had an eviction filing. And when they tried to move elsewhere, it came up and they were rejected.
[News Tape] 11Alive: There's a lot of us will be homeless. There's a lot of us will be put outside. There's a lot of us will be in a position, that need help that's not here.
Yeganeh Torbati: That, you know, definitely affected Janahya as well. And Jonathan and I, my colleague, tallied her total number of fees over the course of the year — because she shared with us her payment history — and it added, you know, more than $2,000 to her, to the overall rent that she had paid. And that's a lot of money. That's, you know, that's more than just, almost two months worth of rent basically added over the course of the year due to these fees. So that just really affects what people can afford and then, of course, their ability to move elsewhere later on. You know, she was facing issues with her work. She has tried to find kind of more lucrative work, but has been limited, of course, by both the pandemic and then, also, child care issues. She did receive help through a local nonprofit that was disbursing federal aid that the federal government had allocated to help people with their rent. But a couple of months later, was sort of facing the same situation where she just couldn't afford the rent. And then, of course, once you can't afford the rent, then the fees pile up, which makes it even harder to get even again. So that was kind of the struggle that she was facing and, honestly, continues to face. The last time I talked to her, you know, she was trying to like, gather enough money, save enough money so that she could pay what she owed and then leave. But she wasn't even really sure where they would be able to go to next, which just kind of shows the problems of housing prices going up on a widespread basis. Even if you're able to leave one place, it's not necessarily true that you'll have a better situation elsewhere.
Steve Fennessy: And she's a mom, right?
Yeganeh Torbati: She's a mom. She's got three kids. Her fiancee works as well, but they're just not able to make enough money to just be in the black on a consistent basis.
Steve Fennessy: And so they are still living at Brooks Crossing?
Yeganeh Torbati: Shortly after the new year, she was.
Steve Fennessy: Yeganeh, I think it's important to talk about not just Brooks Crossing, but sort of the larger context, especially in a place like Clayton County, which traditionally has been a place that's avoided a lot of the forces of gentrification that have driven up the price of housing across metro Atlanta. What did you find in terms of how that's changed, or changing, in Clayton County?
Yeganeh Torbati: Clayton County is one of the last pockets of affordability for people in the Atlanta area. But even that is changing. You know, we spoke to experts who are seeing huge increases in Atlanta housing prices, especially during the pandemic. Specifically through Brooks Crossing. I saw that they were renting a three-bedroom apartment at Brooks Crossing for around $800 a month as recently as 2016. Whereas, you know, four years later, I saw leases that were signed in 2020 for those same or similar three-bedroom apartments going for $1,200 dollars. And that's a 50% increase in around four years, and wages have not increased at the same level in that time period. So you're just seeing this in a really concrete level how even these affordable areas are just going up in prices so much each year.
[News Tape] 11Alive: The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta tracked eviction filings for a year and showed eviction filings were greater in communities of color. In this case, in southern Fulton, southern DeKalb and Clayton County.
Steve Fennessy: Today, the moratorium is no longer in effect, and I know that in the weeks leading up to that, there was a lot of concern that there was going to be this sort of avalanche of evictions across the country and that people would be thrown out of their homes. But we haven't really seen that, have we?
Yeganeh Torbati: No, not as much as as one would expect and you know, the major caveat here is that there really is no national tracking of eviction statistics. We're not seeing kind of a massive wave of evictions, and that could be partly due to unemployment aid during the first year, year and a half of the pandemic, stimulus payments. And then, of course, the dedicated rental aid, which has been going out to the tune of, I think, around $30 billion so far, although there's kind of very little of that money left.
Steve Fennessy: There was also the child care credit, which expired as of December, so parents won't be getting that.
[News Tape] CNBC: The child tax credit was a key provision in the American Rescue Plan passed in March. Families had been seeing monthly payments of either $250 per child for kids 6 to 17 and $300 for children under the age of 6. Since it started going out in July, we've seen that it's been used for things like food, for child care, for clothing, for back-to-school. And so it's credited for helping reduce child poverty in the U.S. by 40%.
Yeganeh Torbati: And that was a huge help for families, especially for young families. And that last payment went out in December, and it looks like it will not be renewed, at least not immediately. And we're still seeing disruptions due to the pandemic, kids having to stay home from school, which then affects whether their parents can work. A lot of industries are still not back to where they were pre-pandemic.
Steve Fennessy: Yeganeh, going to the issue of housing precarity is one that predated the pandemic, and the pandemic seems to only be exacerbating it. Where do you see this going? Not just here in metro Atlanta, but nationwide?
Yeganeh Torbati: In this country, we just have a lot of housing affordability issues — and that's not just true for Atlanta, it's true for any city/town in America. Housing prices seem to be going up almost uniformly, so it's a really deep issue in this country, and I think the pandemic has just made that even more visible.
[Tape] Alieza Durana, the Eviction Lab at Princeton University: In a normal year, we would see 3.7 million evictions filed annually. But now that we're in this global health and economic crisis, you know, people are making choices between paying for rent, paying for food, insulin. People are really squeezed right now, and this is quickly becoming an unpayable amount of rental debt that households are struggling with.
Steve Fennessy: This issue of affordable housing has become so acute here. We just elected a new mayor in Atlanta, and these issues are really front and center, and nobody seems to know what the fix will be. But I think it does bear stressing that when you look at specifically Georgia and the mechanisms that are in place that allow a landlord to pursue an eviction, it's — it's much easier for them to do it than for a bank to come after me for not paying my mortgage. It's going to take them a while longer.
Yeganeh Torbati: Yeah, I mean, a lot of people told us they felt like landlords could kind of use the court system in Georgia to their advantage as sort of part of their business model, that they could kind of make these eviction notices very routine. I didn't see evidence that there was a big debate right now in Georgia statewide on whether they should change these laws or not. And of course, if you get an eviction notice, it induces kind of like this feeling of panic. I could see how that would make a tenant — they will do anything they could to avoid an eviction so they would pay all the fees even more quickly. It just destabilizes families and it causes a lot of stress and it's a really big problem.
Steve Fennessy: Last summer, a Congressional House subcommittee launched an investigation into Brooks Crossing's management company and other real estate firms for allegedly violating the eviction moratorium, especially in areas where rents have risen dramatically. The subcommittee's findings have yet to be released.
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