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Corporate Landlord Evicts Blacks At Higher Rates Than Whites, Research Shows

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In this late phase of the pandemic, it's getting more likely that people will be evicted from their homes if they haven't made the payments. All kinds of people are being evicted, but some new research in Georgia finds that Black Americans are being evicted more often than white Americans. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Katrina Chism has rented a house outside Atlanta for three years. She's a single mom with a teenage son. She lost her customer service job during the pandemic, and back in January, she fell a month behind on the rent.

KATRINA CHISM: I remember going to the door and a sheriff standing there, and it scared me because I didn't know why he was at my house.

ARNOLD: The reason was her landlord had filed an eviction case against her. Chism says she scrambled, managed to find a temporary job and caught up on the rent.

CHISM: I worked my butt off, and I borrowed money, and I saved everything that I could.

ARNOLD: But when that temporary job ended, she fell behind again. Chism applied for federal rental assistance money, and she got it, but she and her lawyers say her landlord refused to take that money. The landlord disputes that. She says the company told her that her lease was about to end, and she had to leave or get evicted.

CHISM: Once you get that eviction, no one's going to want you to rent from them. So me and my son will be - I mean, I don't want to be in a homeless situation.

ARNOLD: Getting evicted can send people into a downward financial spiral. During the pandemic, there's been the added danger of catching or spreading COVID. Chism's landlord is a company owned by a private equity investment firm called Pretium Partners, which apparently has been filing eviction cases against a lot of people during the pandemic.

JIM BAKER: The company has filed to evict more than a thousand residents since last September.

ARNOLD: That's Jim Baker with the Private Equity Stakeholder Project. It's a nonprofit group that's been tracking eviction filings by big corporate landlords. And it's done a report on Pretium, finding a racial disparity

BAKER: They're filing to evict residents at rates four times as high in majority-Black counties.

ARNOLD: Baker's group looked at four counties where Pretium owns hundreds of rental homes in each and compared two mostly Black counties in Georgia with two mostly white counties in Florida. The median income in the counties is similar, but the report found that in the white counties, Pretium's been filing for eviction against about 2% of the people renting those homes.

BAKER: By comparison, they filed to evict 10% to 12% of their residents in majority-Black counties in Georgia.

ARNOLD: Ten to 12% of the people living in their properties in those counties in Georgia?

BAKER: Yeah, since - just since the beginning of the year. So it's incredibly disturbing.

ARNOLD: Pretium declined an interview but said in a statement that the report is misleading and makes, quote, "baseless assertions." The company says it's hired extra staff during the pandemic to work with residents to avoid eviction and says it's waived millions of dollars in late rent and secured more than $10 million in government rental assistance money for residents. To be clear, the report does not allege any discriminatory intent on the part of the company.

PETER HEPBURN: There's nothing here about racial disparities in eviction that I find surprising.

ARNOLD: Peter Hepburn is a researcher with the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. He's read the report and says that the disparate impact on Black renters goes far beyond any one company. He recently published a study looking at millions of court records of eviction cases across 39 states - this goes back before the pandemic.

HEPBURN: Nationwide, on average, we're seeing eviction-filing rates against Black renters that are about twice as high as what we see for white renters.

ARNOLD: Why is that? Hepburn says there's a bunch of reasons

HEPBURN: And some of them are just economic, right? We know that Black renters have lower incomes. They have less stable employment as well. They have less in savings. And they're less able to call on family ties to provide financial support in the event of an emergency.

ARNOLD: But Hepburn says all that still doesn't explain the whole story - why there would be such a striking difference, twice the eviction rate nationally.

HEPBURN: I think there's reason to suspect that landlords may be quicker to file for eviction against a Black tenant who's fallen behind on rent than a white tenant.

ARNOLD: It's unclear why the report on Pretium's eviction filings apparently found an even greater disparity. Pretium says it provides, quote, "equal rental opportunities and support to all our residents." The company says it does not track the race, gender or ethnicity of residents. Still, Jim Baker says the company appears to have the resources to have been a lot more flexible with renters during the pandemic.

BAKER: Pretium Partners is not a mom-and-pop landlord. They have billions of dollars in assets under management. They're run by a guy named Don Mullen, who used to work for Goldman Sachs, and he just bought a $20 million mansion in Miami.

ARNOLD: Baker says Pretium owns 55,000 rental homes across the country. He says his group looked at other big corporate landlords, too.

BAKER: We've actually found that there are some quite large landlords that have held off on evicting residents.

ARNOLD: Since September, an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has aimed to stop many evictions, but renters have to know about it and take steps to be protected. Pretium says it's complying with the CDC rules. In Katrina Chism's case, the company offered to forgive the back rent and fees that she owed, but only if she and her son moved out right away.

CHISM: Yes. It's been extremely exhausting. I literally have things thrown in boxes.

ARNOLD: We reached Chism on her cellphone as she was moving. She managed to find a place to rent, but it's $400 more a month, and to get it, she and her 16-year-old son had to move in with her boyfriend, since she hasn't been able to find a job yet. And the house is an hour away, so her son has to switch schools.

CHISM: He just gave me that look like, Mom, really? Now I got to stop and start all over again?

ARNOLD: Chism says she is glad that the company says it will dismiss her eviction case. Meanwhile, Jim Baker says Pretium has been filing more eviction cases since his report. He says it's now filed to evict nearly 20% of its residents in those mostly Black counties in Georgia.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.