/Eviction note How a housing program to help families out of poverty may trap some in it

Eviction note How a housing program to help families out of poverty may trap some in it

DeSoto County is located in the northwest corner. It boasts one of Mississippi’s wealthiest and fastest-growing metropolitan areas. Southaven is the county’s largest and most populous city. It calls itself “Top of Mississippi” due to its geographic location, excellent public schools, and numerous job opportunities. This is why LaQuisha Smith moved her family to Southaven. Smith, now 35, purchased an apartment in The Terraces apartment complex for $534 per monthly. This is a great deal compared to the majority of rents in the area. DeSoto County schools would be home to her two children, Lakevian, and Secoiya. This is the largest and most performing district in the state. The reason that the rent was affordable even though she didn’t realize it at the time she signed the lease is that The Terraces were funded with federal low-income housing credit credits distributed by The Internal Revenue Service. The program is commonly known as LIHTCs (pronounced LIEteks) in real estate. It was established during the Reagan Era to encourage private developers to build better quality homes in safer areas and better schools than low income families could afford. Smith didn’t realize how difficult her life would be. Over the next five-years, Smith would often be disabled from work by a leg injury, which forced her to rely on family and friends to pay the rent. Sometimes she couldn’t come up with the money fast enough and missed her due date. She had to borrow money from the rent money for a few months to keep the lights on. Some months she allowed the electricity to go off in order to pay rent. She complained that the property managers took too long to respond to her requests for repairs or concerns about pests. She was dependent on apartment managers for repairs but they had a powerful tool: eviction. She would be evicted nine times in total. These are not the typical evictions that tenants face when all their possessions are left at the curb. These eviction judgements were made on paper. This was a red flag for her credit and rental history. She stated that even though the rent prices have increased, the rent is still very affordable in the area. “Most apartment complexes cost $800 per month and that’s not something I can afford right now. “So that’s the reason I’m fighting for my place. It’s my fight to keep my place. There are thousands of people fighting the same battle in DeSoto County and across Mississippi. Mississippi Today and WLBT-TV collaborated to analyze every DeSoto County eviction record since 2006. There were over 17,000 records in the county court and thousands more in Hinds County. The analysis revealed that two of the most populous counties in the state have the highest eviction rate. The highest state eviction rate is in Tunica County which is just south of Desoto. Mississippi Today’s analysis is based on The Eviction Lab’s findings. This Princeton University project compiles eviction records from court filings. It found that Mississippi, despite its low living costs, ranks No. 8. in the country for evictions. Jackson, the capital, is ranked No. 5 in cities with over 100,000 residents; Hinds County is second in Mississippi for evictions. According to the Eviction Lab, about 30 Mississippians are evicted each day. This creates instability and leaves families without a safety net. Our analysis showed that landlords providing low-income housing must comply with federal guidelines. Mississippi officials monitor them, but residents and experts claim there is not enough oversight to ensure that landlords respond to tenants’ needs. Moreover, neither the federal nor the state authorities closely monitor eviction rates to ensure low-income families don’t fall into poverty. Experts say that both DeSoto County and Hinds county renters complained about non-responsive landlords in similar situations. Smith admits to not always paying her rent on time and that she did not live up to her lease agreement. However, Smith wonders if her landlords are upholding their end of the agreement with taxpayers who funded the construction of the complex so that families like hers can live in stable environments. Smith has been served with four eviction notices from the same apartment. Each one makes it more difficult to catch up. She’ll be behind next month, after all. From fighting evictions in courts, she’s already accumulated more than $1,000. Even after the bills have been paid, her eviction record continues to follow. They don’t do their job. “I think it’s unfair. They don’t send in pest control. They won’t do the necessary repairs to our apartment. You expect us to pay our rent on-time. She said that you want to evict us immediately, but you aren’t doing your part. The Terraces management company believes that they are fair to tenants. Ambling, a Georgia-based attorney, declined to interview company officials and refused to respond to multiple requests for information about Mississippi Today’s analysis on its eviction rates. Attorney Lisa Wannamaker stated that the company’s policy provides a grace period of five days. After that grace period expires, a late charge is charged and an eviction notice is filed with the court. Wannamaker stated that if a person is late three times within a 12-month period, they will not be allowed to stop the eviction. If management or a judge require it, there are exceptions to the three times late policy. Wannamaker said that the company has a procedure in place to limit court suits after a few late payment to ensure everyone is treated equally. She stated that collecting late rent is time-consuming, and it takes away from other tasks and activities that will benefit all residents. Mississippi Today’s investigation echos similar accounts in the past that have raised questions about the effectiveness of the tax credit program for low-income renters. NPR and Frontline conducted an investigation last spring and found that the number of affordable homes for low-income families has declined over the past decade, while their costs have risen. In the meantime, there is a patchwork in oversight that fails to meet the goal of providing affordable housing for low-income families. Over 21,000 units have been built by the state in the last 20 years. The tax credits were worth $190 million. However, many tax-credit apartments raise rents after 15 year, making them unaffordable for low-income households. This is permitted under a contract that allows complexes to rent-restricted low-income families for three years. U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley stated that “a lack of data indicates that perhaps the IRS isn’t doing a proper job in oversight.” He also said that “if you don’t follow the money, how can you tell if the low income housing tax credit works?” The federal law that governs the tax credit gives tenants “good cause” eviction protection. This means that tenants cannot be evicted without a reason, especially as tax credit developments leave the program. A spokesperson for the IRS said that they are unaware of any audits that examine evictions at tax credit properties. A spokesperson for the agency stated that this is compliance. It goes back to (state agencies), and their compliance monitoring. However, there has not been a lot activity for us here in that regard. The Mississippi Home Corp. manages the tax credit program. It works in the following way: Based on the population, the IRS allocates a dollar amount to state housing agencies. Developers can apply for tax credits and, if awarded, they can sell them to investors to raise funds to build the development. The tax credits can be canceled by the IRS if the homes are not affordable for low-income families within 15 years. The developments then enter an “extended use period,” which, according to IRS, is designed “to keep the buildings as low income housing for at least thirty years.” However, they are subject to the exclusive regulation of MHC. Scott Spivey (executive director of MHC), said that it was not something that had been considered at either the national or state level. So I don’t know how MHC fits in to a relationship we have never been involved in. The Landlord Tenant Act governs the landlord-tenant relationship. MHC has not been involved in that type of relationship on any level.” Tamika Calhoun, who lives two hundred miles from Jackson’s DeSoto County, has some words to say about the conditions in her tax-credit apartment. Her comments echo those of LaQuishaSmith. Calhoun spent months worrying about mold in her apartment after she had lived in the same place for 13 years. Calhoun was cited by her complex for violating routine unit inspections. She complained that she had too many laundry baskets in her apartment’s four bedrooms. However, Calhoun claims she didn’t address the leaky air conditioner or the buckling ceiling she worried about. She said, “Because (management) believes we don’t understand much.” “If they were their family, they would test for mold.” Her children asked her if she should wear protective masks at home as the humidity in her apartment grew worse. She said that this realization broke her heart and scared them, knowing that the kids were becoming more aware of the problem. Calhoun’s Village Apartments received tax credits totaling more than $2,000,000 in 2007 for the rehabilitation of 264 low-income Jackson units. McCormack Baron is her landlord. He manages properties across 27 states. Calhoun acknowledges Calhoun’s concerns but says she should continue to push for management to test. According to 311 call logs, multiple complaints were received by tax-credit apartment tenants about mold, holes in floors, rodents and open electrical wires. They also threatened eviction. Records show that the Village Apartments did not violate any housing code during this period. Mississippi Today and WLBT bought a mold test kit at a local hardware shop to test Calhoun’s apartment. It revealed five types of mold after a swab was taken of the wall below the leaky air conditioner. Calhoun will use the results to convince management that they should conduct a more thorough test. She said that her landlords feel like she needs them. “So I’m going to just… tuck my tail, and deal with what I feel like they feel. Or they’ll tell me to move. They know I don’t have enough money right now. Catherine Lee, Jackson office of Green and Healthy Homes Initiative said that neighborhoods with lower rents tend to be more affordable for low quality homes and less access to good schools and healthy food. This further perpetuates the cycle of poverty in low-income families. Lee’s group assists landlords and tenants in applying for grants to improve their properties. It sees a link between the need for better policies that reduce evictions, and the need for affordable housing. Lee stated that people are faced with difficult decisions. “Do I choose to live in a place where I can afford rent but it isn’t the best environment or highest quality housing?” Lee explained, assuming they can find such housing. “Sometimes people don’t have the option because there aren’t many great options for renters with low or very low income.” Desiree Shensley, who runs Mississippi’s Housing Clinic, is one of the experts who believes it’s time to reassess the goals of low-income housing programmes. “The goal of low-income housing tax credits is to produce a certain amount. Hensley, unrelated to this reporter, said that quality and longevity are less important. The property is made private after a period of 15 to 30 years depending on the contract. This means that the public has no long-term control over the property. She also said that the system heavily relies on for profit companies to self-regulate. She asks, “How many are being operated discriminatorily or how many have committed serious violations of the housing code?” She said that she doesn’t have the data to evaluate whether it’s doing a good or not. “All we can do is say that over these years money has been going towards it and that it’s resulting a certain amount of units per year.” “And that’s all we can say about them.” Spivey is the executive director for Mississippi’s state housing agency. She says that evictions are strictly a landlord-tenant issue. However, good-cause requirements prevent tenants being forced from their units unfairly as they transition out of compliance to conventional rentals. Spivey stated that the program is constantly evolving to meet state needs. He said that the program isn’t what it was 12 or 22 years ago. There are constant changes, and the program is always in flux. “Every time we make a plan, we tweak it a bit to ensure that the credit is getting the maximum value and the maximum value from our property managers, and developers.” Thomas Silverstein, an attorney for fair housing with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in Washington D.C. questions whether some of these changes are the best. He notes that low-income housing should be able to find families in high-opportunity locations. These areas have low poverty, high crime rates, great schools, and easy access to work opportunities. Mississippi is not one of them. Mississippi’s high-opportunity areas must have a minimum of a B-to-F accountability score and a household income of 70 percent. MHC awards developers who meet these standards additional points on tax credit applications to incentivize them to build rent-restricted buildings in these areas. He said, “It’s odd to say that you incentivize development in high-opportunity areas. But what you really do is incentivizing an extremely broad swath development that’s just about everywhere else than the lowest opportunity areas.” “But that’s what (Mississippi has done.” Silverstein said that the problem is that Mississippi’s lower threshold for high-opportunity areas allows developers to place complexes without requiring them to provide tenants with the amenities and access that are available in areas of real opportunity. Silverstein teamed up with the Mississippi Center of Justice in an analysis of the tax-credit development placements. They found that they often cluster outside of high-opportunity areas. According to MHC, Mississippi was moving to include high-opportunity locations in its developer incentives in 2015. Silverstein says that Mississippi’s tax credit development have expanded to higher-opportunity areas in 2016 but could still do more to ensure low income families have better access to areas that will promote a better quality of life. He says that new developments tend to avoid major metropolitan areas such as Desoto or Jackson metro because they are less strict in applying “high opportunity.” “That’s not necessarily encouraging integration because people aren’t going to integrate.”
He said that Jackson to Tishomingo county or north Gulfport, east Biloxi or Jackson to the northeast corner would be all possibilities. “That’s not how people make decisions about where they want to go.” LaQuisha Smith was expelled for the ninth time in five year. This would be her last. Smith claims she hasn’t found work since June, after she injured her leg. She said that she and the management company had had enough of dealing. So landlords requested a warrant for Smith’s removal. Smith was aware of the warrant and decided to leave. Management taped a bright pink notice to Smith’s door. It detailed her debts in bold black Sharpie, so that all her neighbors could see. She knows that it will be difficult to find another apartment, given her history of evictions. Lavar Edmonds, a researcher at the Lab, says that it is a vicious cycle that will push you further into poverty if your aren’t already there. “It’s something we should be concerned about from an empathic standpoint but also because it’s something we should pay attention to because it’s all around you whether or not you’re acknowledging it.” Edmonds states, “Because that record, the more that you are evicted, the worse your housing situation gets in worse and poorer neighborhoods. That will lead to a whole host of problems,” Edmonds adds. Smith has had to pack up her two-bedroom apartment in order to move in with her mother in Senatobia. Smith wants her children to continue attending DeSoto schools so she has been driving every day, making sure that their school is not disrupted. Smith says, “I only need a low income government-based apartment that stays that way.” To make it affordable for single parents like mine, keep the rent at the same rate as you are supposed to. This is what I want to see.” You can read Mississippi Today’s reporting methodology here.