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Florida Real-Estate Investors Clog Courts and Are Quick to Evict

A total of 10 corporate investment companies own approximately 20 percent of single-family rentals in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Eight of the companies have eviction rates far outpacing the county’s average.

As the Hillsborough County, Fla., courthouse emptied around her, Ayesha Evans sat on a bench and wept. Her adult son buried his face in his hands. They were beginning to accept the inevitable: They would be evicted from their Valrico home early the next morning.

The courthouse was closing in 10 minutes and Evans was running out of options. She hadn’t slept the night before. Her 15-year-old kept calling, wondering why she wasn’t home. None of her six children — except the oldest — knew what was happening.

A clerk told her the form they planned to submit was formatted incorrectly, and the court would likely reject it.

“There’s no way we can get this in time,” Evans said.

Theirs was one of at least 250 evictions filed in Hillsborough County last year by companies linked to Invitation Homes, a real estate investment firm with a significant footprint in the area’s rental market.

In Tampa Bay, investment firms control thousands of single-family rentals and are more aggressive in pursuing eviction cases, a Tampa Bay Times analysis of court data shows.

Some companies file for evictions at double or triple the county’s overall rate, the Times found.

Experts say nationwide, many large companies file systematically and often gratuitously, using the process to extract additional fees from tenants. Housing advocates fear the practice is displacing vulnerable residents — at a time when affordable rent is hard to come by.

“They just have an immense amount of leverage,” said Nick Carey, an organizer with Faith in Florida, a religious group that organizes around poverty and economic issues. “You have these companies that have big legal departments that can churn these (cases) out.”

Evans described months of back and forth before that February afternoon, in which her family tried in vain to pay what they owed. Invitation Homes did not answer specific questions about the family’s case.

As courthouse employees began closing the waiting area, Evans stumbled out of the building in a daze, thinking about finding a storage unit and a place to stay. She wondered what story she could tell her youngest kids to shield them from reality. They were about to be homeless.

“Clogging the Court System”

The Times tracked evictions filed in 2023 in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties by the 10 corporate investors with the most homes across Tampa Bay. Based on census estimates from 2022, the most recent available data, these companies control roughly 1 in 5 single-family rentals in the two counties.

Overall, the Times found the single-family eviction rate for both counties was about 4 filings per 100 rental households. But eight of the top 10 companies had filing rates far outpacing that average.

Sparrow Realty Investment, a firm with around 250 homes in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, had the highest rate, at about 15 filings per 100 properties. Larger companies like the Amherst Group, a Koch Industries-backed firm, and the private equity firm Progress Residential were close behind.

Together, the companies reviewed by the Times accounted for 35 percent of evictions filed from single-family rentals — nearly double the share of rental homes that they own.

Studies across the U.S. have linked corporate landlords to higher eviction rates. The practice is “clogging the court system,” said Henry Gomory, a research assistant with Eviction Lab, a team of researchers at Princeton University. “And there is basically no social benefit.”

Large rental companies have streamlined the eviction process, often filing swiftly at the first sign of trouble, Gomory said. Meanwhile, independent landlords — those who own a few rental properties in a community where they also live — are more likely to evaluate problems on a case-by-case basis.

“It’s much more of a socially inflicted decision,” he said. “It’s about knowing the person and their personal relationship.”

With tighter budgets, mom-and-pop landlords have financial incentives to negotiate with tenants and avoid a vacancy. For larger companies with more resources, though, it’s not only easier to evict — it can be more profitable.

Filing in court allows property owners additional leverage. It gives them more legal rights, shifting the relationship from landlord-tenant to creditor-debtor, Gomory said.

Some tenants have fought back: A federal class-action lawsuit last year alleged Invitation Homes had “virtually unchecked power to collect whatever late fee it wants, when it wants, no matter how illegal it may be. This is because the system that (Invitation) deployed is protected by the threat of eviction.” The company denied these allegations and settled the case.

Filing evictions is often “the best thing that (companies) can do for their bottom line,” said Elora Lee Raymond, an urban planner and assistant professor at Georgia Tech. “There’s a link between that threat — not necessarily evicting people, but using the threat of eviction — and their ability to tack on hidden fees, to charge late fees, to keep the security deposit.”

The largest single-family rental operators filed evictions against a total of about 945 households in Hillsborough County last year. Of those, the Times found at least 1 in 10 had been the subject of multiple filings by the same landlord. Some households faced three separate eviction cases in a single year. Researchers call the practice “serial filing.”

“They’re very liberal with using this threat,” Raymond said, even if the case is ultimately dropped and the tenant is allowed to stay. “The judgment rate is far lower.”

Overwhelmed and Displaced

It was still dark when Evans loaded her children into the family’s minivan, along with stacks of papers, armfuls of stuffed animals and black plastic bags with every important item she could think of. She’d been up most of the night packing.

The family spent the hours before school at a storage unit down the road. Evans’ two oldest sons, Blake Hurst, 21, and Eathon Hurst, 13, stacked bags haphazardly. Evans apologized for crying in front of them.

Evans and her partner, Clifford Hurst, first rented their Valrico home in 2021 from a different company. From the start, there were problems.

Since mid-2022, the family had a broken refrigerator and a stove with only one working burner. The electricity didn’t turn on in part of the home. Last summer, one of the toilets flooded. Hurst paid for the repairs when Streetlane Homes, the owner at the time, didn’t send a maintenance worker. Invitation Homes bought soon after.

Despite the problems, the family didn’t really consider leaving, Evans said. As a single-income household, they had few options. Plus, the kids were doing well in school and Evans didn’t want to move them.

They fell behind on their rent last summer and were taken to court after Invitation Homes bought the house. In court records, Hurst told the judge there was a “miscommunication” after the sale, and he was able to make up for the three months of rent that was owed. After he paid more than $9,000 into the court registry, all parties agreed he would split his remaining balance into three payments of a little more than $1,000.

In some cases, tenants are told to continue paying into the court registry, where a judge could monitor the transactions. But Hurst and Evans were required to send payments directly to Invitation Homes, which they said they delivered via money orders in person or by certified mail.

Copies of money orders and certified checks shared with the Times show the couple attempted to make payments on their balance. But in emails to the company, they expressed persistent confusion about the amount owed. Different Invitation Homes employees sometimes gave them conflicting totals, and partial payments were rejected. Meanwhile, Hurst said he was locked out of the company’s rent portal, which made tracking the debt impossible.

After two months, Invitation Homes filed an affidavit claiming the tenants hadn’t paid.

Hurst was exasperated by the constant back-and-forth. He sent several messages to both company and court employees trying to explain the situation.

“A regular landlord would’ve been like, OK, no problem, let’s work something out,” Hurst said.

Patterns of Miscommunication

It’s often harder for tenants to fight an eviction initiated by a large company, said James Kushner, managing attorney for housing at Gulfcoast Legal Services. Instead of negotiating with the local landlord who lives down the street, they are up against a faceless entity, reachable only by a customer support hotline.

Corporations are also more likely to have long and complex lease agreements that include “traps an unwary tenant could fall into,” Kushner said. It becomes harder to make their case, if they can afford to fight it at all.

Six households told the Times they were threatened with eviction by some of the region’s largest single-family rental operators. Many described hefty fees, along with breakdowns in communication and payment processing issues that led to them being billed more.

Some told the Times they tried to negotiate with customer service representatives but often resorted to paying thousands to avoid repercussions to their credit and reputation that can come with a court filing.

“They’re the only ones to rent from,” said Charles Place, a former tenant of Invitation Homes. “If you want to stay in this area, you have to just bite the bullet.”

On a recent February morning, Place and his wife, Melissa, sifted through their belongings outside what was once their home in Lithia. Their new wooden bed frame was in pieces, Melissa’s “Tough Mudder” medals cast aside, important financial documents blowing across the suburban street. A clay dish, pressed with the handprint of their son when he was a baby, was shattered in the fray.

The couple had fallen behind on rent last fall, after they both contracted COVID-19 and missed work. Then, one of their sons needed a new transmission for his vehicle. After a couple of days, they were locked from their payment portal. By the time their case reached the court, they owed Invitation Homes two months’ rent and additional fees, totaling around $6,500.

It was the second time the company filed an eviction against the Places — the first was only seven months prior. In that instance, an agreement was reached and the company dismissed the case. The Places thought this time would be no different, they said, since they had the money.

“Occasionally, we do get behind, but we paid the fees, and we kept the house in decent shape,” Charles Place said. “I just expected to have a little compassion.”

After paying more than $4,000 into the court registry, records show the Places were allowed to split their remaining balance and add it to future rent payments — similar to Hurst and Evans.

But Melissa Place said the payments demanded by the company were always much larger than what the court ordered, including attorneys fees and additional charges. The couple was still locked out of the rent portal, so there was no way to evaluate how the total was reached.

“The thing with communication with them,” Melissa Place said, “there really wasn’t any.”

On a Friday afternoon, she drove about an hour to the Invitation Homes office in Tampa to deliver a cashier’s check for more than $6,800. When she arrived, an employee told her the amount wasn’t enough and didn’t accept it. The Places had no time to obtain a new cashier’s check before the office closed.

The Places scrambled to get the court to intervene, and succeeded. The court ruled to delay the family’s eviction until further notice. But 15 minutes after a judge signed the order, according to official records, a sheriff’s deputy removed them from the property anyway. A crew hired by the company moved the family’s belongings to the curb.

“They should not have been evicted,” said Sean White, an attorney at Panther Law who is defending the Places. “They should have been allowed to make the payment and then have their chance to explain their side in court, which is why the stay order was granted.”

Invitation Homes did not answer questions about the Places’ case.

In a statement, a company spokesperson said “eviction is never a course we want to pursue,” and that Invitation Homes works with residents to find a way to keep them in their residence.

“The vast majority of filings are resolved with the resident staying in the home and no eviction on their record,” said Kristi DesJarlais, the spokesperson. “We encourage all of our residents facing financial challenges to reach out to us so that we can help find the best solution for their individual needs.”

White noted that his firm has seen an increase in evictions by corporate landlords recently — mostly from smaller companies owning five to 10 properties, but also some large real estate firms. He said the Places are part of a larger pattern. In these cases, he said, clients often tell him they struggled to find someone at the company to reach an agreement or understand how charges were calculated.

“Once upon a time, you wouldn’t have all of these cases in the courts because people were able to work it out, but if you’re a corporation, it’s a number,” White said. “‘You don’t make (rent)? Boom. We’ll put somebody else in there.’”

The day after they were evicted, Melissa Place said she found her house listed for rent on Zillow for about $500 more than what her family was paying.

With an eviction on their record, the couple said they couldn’t find a new place to rent. They moved some items into storage, but now live in an RV with their two sons, two dogs and two cats. They are without most basic essentials — socks, towels, toiletries. They still have bills to pay. Even with a paycheck advance and borrowed money from friends, they said, they had about $30 to last to the end of the week.

“We lost everything,” Melissa Place said. “Everything.”

Investors Playing “The Rules of The Game”

In 2019, Jena Bass and her mother, Ella Glover Powell, leased a home in Ruskin from Progress Residential, a private equity firm that controls around 5,500 homes in Tampa Bay. But after returning to Florida from an Army deployment in 2021, Bass said her mental health deteriorated. It became harder to afford rent.

In late 2022, she contacted Hillsborough County’s Rapid Response Recovery program, which offers emergency rental assistance. The county program agreed to pay rent for October and November, and a check was sent in January 2023.

But in the interim, Bass said she was still charged late fees. In late January, the company charged a $700 eviction fee, though no case was filed in court. Bass said her account on the company’s rent portal was frozen. On the phone with company representatives, Bass tried to contest the eviction fee, accruing additional charges with each month it went unpaid.

For months, Powell and Bass said they tried to resolve the matter. Each time they called Progress Residential, they reached a different representative and had to tell their story from the beginning. Often, they were given conflicting instructions.

“They don’t communicate well. When you call, it’s not like they’re leaving notes in a system,” Bass said. “You have to tell the same story a million times.”

In May, the family was served a court summons — one of more than 360 evictions filed by Progress Residential in Hillsborough County last year. By the time their court date arrived in October, the balance on their rent portal was around $18,000.

Progress Residential representatives dispute Powell and Bass’ record of events.

“We reviewed the residents’ files and found that the timeline presented by the residents does not match our records. Our team worked closely with the residents, and they’ve remained in their home,” said Nikki Sloup, the company’s senior vice president of communications and public relations. “This is always our goal as eviction is a last resort with many steps taken along the way to prevent that outcome — including offering residents a three-day grace period if payment is not received on the first of the month and working with rental assistance programs.”

Sloup said filing an eviction notice “generally initiates a conversation with the resident regarding the delinquency so that the appropriate process can be determined and implemented.” The ultimate goal, she said, is to keep the tenant in the home.

“In fact, one of our primary objectives is resident retention,” she said. “So in 2023 we began delaying the eviction process to allow us more time to work with our residents with the specific goal of avoiding eviction, which has led to a decrease in the number of eviction filings.”

But data from Hillsborough County Clerk of Courts shows companies linked to Progress filed for eviction 130 times more in 2023 than the year prior, despite the firm selling off more homes in the county that year than it gained. Pinellas County cases stayed relatively consistent.

Experts note that once a formal eviction has been filed, it becomes part of the public record, which can make it more difficult for tenants to obtain housing. The eviction process is also exceptionally quick in Florida, researchers say, giving tenants little time to take action.

“It generally seems that in Florida, eviction is likely to be a first recourse rather than a last recourse,” said Elizabeth Strom, a public affairs professor at the University of South Florida. “Which, in terms of why these private equity companies and institutional investors have looked so much in the Florida market, it’s probably because tenant laws are so weak.”

Renee Tapp, a professor at the University of Florida in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, agreed that Florida “is not an especially tenant-friendly state.” She pointed to recent measures passed into law that preempt local ordinances she said might mitigate some of the “ill effects” of corporate landlords’ expansion throughout the state.

The massive 2023 affordable housing bill dubbed the Live Local Act allocated about $711 million to encourage construction of homes across the state, while also barring local governments from capping rents. A second law last year gave the state control over landlord-tenant disputes, effectively prohibiting a local government from creating a “tenant bill of rights.”

Yet another 2023 law allows companies to charge monthly maintenance fees instead of a security deposit — which critics say gives landlords the ability to overbill renters without transparency.

“Investors are playing by the rules of the game,” Tapp said. “And so if we think that this is a problem — we’re seeing higher eviction rates, higher rents, lower quality housing or vacant housing — then we need to change the rules of the game and what investors in housing are allowed to do.”

“It’s Not a Victory At All”

The financial and emotional strain of the compounding fees plus the threat of having to leave their home took a toll on Bass and Powell. Bass stayed up late searching online for another place to live or someone to argue their legal case. Half of their home was packed in boxes, ready to go in case they needed to leave quickly.

On the day of their court hearing, they were approached by a Progress Residential account manager, who agreed to knock $700 off the amount owed in exchange for settling the case.

For Bass, this offered no sense of relief. Only anger and confusion. How did a misunderstanding that took only a few minutes to solve end up costing her thousands of dollars in fees and months of gut-wrenching anxiety?

“Why couldn’t you guys do that from the jump?” she vented in an interview with the Times. “It’s not a victory at all.”

Evans and Hurst are staying in a Comfort Inn in Brandon indefinitely, along with their six children and Evans’ mother, who’d been living with them. For days, Hurst continued to file motions in court, asking the judge to reconsider his ruling.

At this point, Evans said, she only hopes to retrieve some of their belongings — their laundry machines, bedroom sets, family photos. She worries constantly about the impact their situation will have on her children. She avoids talking about where they will live, instead steering conversations to school, homework and class parties.

“This is the one thing I never wanted, for them to feel or experience what I did as a kid,” Evans said. “I just need them to be OK.”

©2024 Tampa Bay Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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