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

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C.J. LeMaster, WLBT

Southaven sits in the northwest corner of the state and boasts high-ranking schools and a growing economy. It also has one of the highest eviction rates in the state.

Entering DeSoto County from the south, the countryside transitions quickly. Sprawling acreage gives way to razed construction sites and newly paved interchanges signal to drivers to expect delays. Farmhouses and grain silos are replaced with subdivisions, strip malls, office parks and billowing industrial stacks as the four-lane interstate grows to 10.

Nestled in the northwest corner of the state, DeSoto County boasts the state’s fastest growing metropolitan area and is one of Mississippi’s most affluent. The county’s largest city, Southaven, bills itself as the “Top of Mississippi,” a nod to its geographical location, good public schools and abundant job opportunities.

These are the reasons LaQuisha Smith wanted to settle her family here. In 2013, Smith, 35, found an apartment at an apartment complex called The Terraces for $534 per month, a bargain compared to most rents in the county. Plus, her children, Lakevian and Secoiya, would attend DeSoto County schools – the largest district in the state and, by several measures, the highest performing.

Although she didn’t know it when she signed the lease, the reason the rent was so affordable is because The Terraces were financed with federal low-income housing tax credits distributed by the Internal Revenue Service. Known colloquially in the real estate business as LIHTCs (pronounced LIE-teks), the program was created during the Reagan Era to incentivize private developers to build higher quality homes in safer neighborhoods and better schools than low-income families could otherwise afford.

C.J. LeMaster, WLBT

After nine eviction judgments from the same unit, LaQuisha Smith is looking for affordable options nearby. The ninth was her last, and she moved her family in with her mother.

But Smith also didn’t know how hard life would get. Over the next five years, a leg injury would sometimes keep her from working, forcing her to scrape together the rent each month with help from family and friends. Sometimes, she couldn’t cobble the money together fast enough and missed the due date. Some months, she had to use the rent money to keep the lights on. Other months, she let the electricity get shut off to pay the rent. In the meantime, she complains that property managers were slow to respond to requests for repairs and concerns about pests.

Although she was at the mercy of apartment managers to make repairs, they had a powerful tool at their disposal when she failed to make rent – eviction. In all, she would face eviction nine times. But these are not the evictions depicted in popular culture when tenants have all their worldly possessions dumped at the curbside. These eviction judgments happened on paper, a bright red flag on her rental and credit history.

“Even though they have raised the prices of the rent, it’s still the lowest rent price around in that area because most of the apartment complexes are $800 and up a month, and I can’t afford that right now,” she said. “So that’s why I’m fighting to stay. You know, to keep my place.”

Thousands of people in DeSoto County and throughout Mississippi are fighting the same fight.

Mississippi Today, working in collaboration with WLBT-TV, analyzed every eviction record in DeSoto County since 2006 — over 17,000 court records — and thousands more in Hinds County and found two of the state’s most populous counties also have some of the highest eviction rates. Tunica County, located just south of Desoto, has the state’s highest eviction rate.

Mississippi Today’s analysis builds on findings of The Eviction Lab, a project based at Princeton University that compiled eviction records from court filings and other databases, and found Mississippi, despite its low cost of living, ranks No. 8 in the nation for evictions. Jackson, the capital city, ranks No. 5 among cities with more than 100,000 people; Hinds County ranks second among Mississippi counties for evictions.

The Eviction Lab estimates about 30 evictions a day remove Mississippians from their homes, which the lab’s researchers say fosters further instability for families without a safety net.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

The Terraces, located in Southaven, is owned by Southaven Partners in DeSoto County. In the last decade, the company has had a 12 percent eviction rate of tenants living in the low-income units.

Our analysis revealed that while landlords who provide low-income housing must follow federal guidelines, which Mississippi officials monitor, residents and experts say there is too little oversight of the system to ensure landlords are responsive to tenants’ needs; moreover, neither federal nor state officials closely monitor eviction rates to make sure low-income families do not fall deeper into poverty.

In interviews, renters in both DeSoto and Hinds counties had similar complaints of non-responsive landlords, which experts say signals a need for better oversight.

Smith acknowledges that she didn’t always live up to her lease agreement by not paying rent on time, but wonders whether her landlords are living up to their end of the agreement with taxpayers, who paid for the complex’s construction so that families like hers could live in more stable environments.

Smith, who has had four eviction judgments against her just this year from the same apartment, says each one makes it harder to catch up because it requires a visit to small claims court, where she must pay the rent plus $75 in late fees and $64 in court fees. By then, she’s behind for next month. She’s racked up more than $1,000 in fees from fighting evictions in court so far. But even once the bills are paid off, the eviction record still follows her.

“I think that it’s not fair because they don’t do their part. They don’t send pest control in. They don’t fix things that’s needed to be fixed in our apartment. You want us to pay our rent on time. You want to just evict us right away, but you’re not doing your part,” she said.

In their view, the company that manages The Terraces believes they are more than fair to tenants. An attorney with Georgia-based Ambling declined to make company officials available for interviews and declined repeated requests to respond to Mississippi Today’s analysis of its eviction rate.

Through a statement, attorney Lisa Wannamaker said the company’s policy includes a five-day grace period. When that’s up, a late fee is applied and an eviction is filed in court.

“Our policy is if the person has been late three times in a 12-month period, we will not stop the eviction if we go to court,” Wannamaker said.

There are exceptions to the three-times late policy if management approves or a judge requires it. Wannamaker added that the company has a process in place to cap court suits after a few late payments to ensure that everyone is treated the same.

“Collecting delinquent rent is time-consuming and takes the onsite staff away from tasks and activities that benefit all residents,” she said.

The job of oversight

Mississippi’s Today’s investigation echoes similar accounts that have in recent years raised questions about how the tax-credit program for low-income renters is working.

Last spring, an investigation by NPR and Frontline found that between 1997 and 2014, the number of homes built for poor families dwindled while the costs of these developments have ballooned. In the meantime, a patchwork of oversight fails to ensure the goal of providing stable housing to low-income families is being met.

In the last 20 years, the state has doled out over $190 million in tax credits to developers to build over 21,000 units, which should be affordable – within 30 percent of the area’s average income – for at least 30 years. However, a number of tax-credit apartments start raising rents after 15 years, pushing them out of reach of low-income families, which is allowed under a specific contract as long as the complexes keep current low-income families rent-restricted for three years.

“A lack of data shows that maybe the IRS isn’t doing a proper job of oversight,” U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley told the NPR/Frontline reporters, adding: “If you aren’t following the money, how do you know if the low-income housing tax credit is working?”

The federal law that regulates the tax credit provides tenants with “good cause” eviction protection – meaning tenants cannot be evicted for no reason, especially as tax-credit developments transition out of the program.

Scott Spivey, executive director of the Mississippi Home Corp.

Responding to questions from Mississippi Today, an IRS spokesperson said the agency is not aware of any audits that specifically examine evictions at tax-credit properties.

“This is compliance and goes back to (state agencies) and their compliance monitoring … but not a lot of activity in that regard for us here,” a spokesperson for the agency said.

The Mississippi Home Corp. is the state agency charged with managing the tax credit program, which works like this: The IRS allocates a certain dollar amount, based on population, to state housing agencies. Developers apply and, if they are awarded tax credits, they sell them to investors to raise the cash to build the developments.

The homes are supposed to remain affordable to low-income families for 15 years or the IRS can revoke the tax credits. After that, the developments enter an “extended-use period,” which according to the IRS, aims “to maintain the buildings as low-income housing for at least 30 years,” but are under the sole regulation of MHC.

“You know, it’s something that hasn’t been contemplated at the state or national level at this point,” Scott Spivey, the executive director of MHC, told Mississippi Today of repeat evictions.

“So I wouldn’t know where MHC would fit in that relationship that we’ve never been involved in. The landlord-tenant relationship (is) governed by the Landlord Tenant Act. MHC has never been involved in that relationship on any kind of regular level.”

Tradeoff decisions

Two hundred miles away from DeSoto County in Jackson, what Tamika Calhoun has to say about conditions of her tax-credit apartment building echoes those of LaQuisha Smith.

Calhoun, who has lived in the same apartment for 13 years, spent months worrying about mold in her apartment. Her complex runs routine unit inspections that cited Calhoun for violations such as having too many full laundry baskets in her four-bedroom apartment (she protested, saying the on-site laundry isn’t open when she makes it home from work and school) but didn’t address the buckling ceiling or leaky air conditioner she feared was causing mold, she says.

“Because we live here, (management) thinks we don’t know much,” she said. “If it were their family, they would have tested for mold.”

As the moisture issues in her apartment got worse, her kids asked if they should wear protective face masks at home – a realization she said broke her heart and scared her – knowing the kids were catching on to the problem.

C.J. LeMaster, WLBT

Tamika Calhoun, who has lived in the same apartment for 13 years, spent months worrying about mold in her apartment.

The Village Apartments, where Calhoun lives, received more than $2 million in tax credits in 2007 to rehab 264 low-income units in Jackson. Her landlord, McCormack Baron, manages properties in 27 states and says their staff is trained to spot the difference between mildew and mold, but acknowledges Calhoun’s concerns and says she should still keep trying to get management to test.

City of Jackson records from 2017 show multiple complaints from tax-credit apartments about mold, leaks, holes in floors, rodents, open electrical wires and threats of eviction, according to 311 call logs. The Village Apartments had no housing code violations during that period, records show.

Mississippi Today and WLBT purchased a mold test kit from a local hardware store to test Calhoun’s apartment, which revealed five possible types of mold from a swab of the wall beneath the leaky air conditioner. Calhoun plans to use the results to convince management to conduct a more thorough test.

“I feel like they feel like I need them,” she said of her landlords. “So I’m just … going to tuck my tail and deal with it is what I feel like they feel. Or either I’m going to move – and they know that I don’t have the means right now to move.”

Catherine Lee of the Jackson office of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, said neighborhoods that tend to offer lower rents, trade that affordability for poor quality homes and limited access to living wages, good schools and access to healthy food, further entrenching low-income families in a cycle of poverty.

Lee’s organization helps landlords and tenants apply for grants to improve their properties and sees a correlation between a need for better policies aimed at curbing evictions and the need for more affordable housing.

“People are making these tradeoff decisions of, ‘Do I live somewhere where I can afford the rent and it’s not the safest environment or best quality housing or do I really take on a high cost of living and spend 50 or 60 percent of my income on rent?,” assuming people can find that housing,” Lee said. “Sometimes people just don’t have the choice because there aren’t a lot of great options for renters who are low or very low income.”

A question of opportunity

Desiree Hensley, who runs the Housing Clinic at the University of Mississippi’s law school, is among the experts who believe it’s time for the goals of low-income housing programs to be reassessed.

“The goal (low-income housing tax credits) is to produce a certain volume. And less concern is for quality and longevity, and that’s particularly the case after a period of years,” said Hensley, who is unrelated to this reporter.

After 15 or 30 years, depending on the contract, the property becomes privately owned so the public doesn’t have any long-term say, she says, adding that the system largely relies on for-profit companies to self-regulate.

“How many are being operated in a way that’s discriminatory or how many of these have serious housing code violations?” she asks. “We don’t even have that data so we can’t scrutinize substantively if it’s doing a good job – all we can say is that over these years money is going toward it and that’s resulting in a certain number of units a year,” she said. “And that’s the best we can say about it.”

Spivey, the executive director of Mississippi’s state housing agency, says evictions are strictly a landlord and tenant issue, but that good-cause eviction requirements protect tenants from being forced out of units unfairly, especially as units transition out of compliance into conventional rentals. Spivey said the program is always evolving to meet the state’s needs.

“The program isn’t today what it was 12 years ago and it isn’t today what it was 22 years ago, there’s constant changes and it’s always in flux,” he said. “Every time we do a [plan], we go back and tweak the program a little bit to ensure that we are getting maximum value out of the credit and maximum value out of our property managers and developers.”

Thomas Silverstein, a fair housing attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in Washington D.C., questions whether some of those changes are for the best. Specifically, he notes, although low-income housing should seek to locate families in so called high-opportunity areas, with low poverty and crime rates, good schools and access to job opportunity, Mississippi defines high opportunity areas differently.

In Mississippi, a high opportunity area has to meet 70 percent of the state’s median household income, totaling $28,370 per year, and have schools rate at least a B on the A-to-F accountability scale. To incentivize developers to build rent-restricted complexes in those areas, MHC gives developments that meet those standards extra points on their tax-credit applications.

“It’s somewhat odd to say you’re incentivizing development in high opportunity areas and what you’re really doing is incentivizing a very broad swath of development that’s just everywhere except for the lowest opportunity areas,” he said. “But that’s the step that (Mississippi) has taken.”

The problem there, according to Silverstein, is that using Mississippi’s less rigorous threshold for high opportunity areas gives developers wiggle room with their land placement, effectively rendering the complex “high opportunity” – and earning the credits that come with that – without necessarily offering tenants the amenities and access provided in true areas of opportunity.

Silverstein worked with the Mississippi Center of Justice to analyze the placement of tax-credit developments and found that historically, they tend to cluster outside of high opportunity areas. Mississippi was in the process of transitioning its developer incentives to include high-opportunity areas in 2015, according to MHC.

Since 2016, Mississippi’s tax credit developments have spread to more higher opportunity areas than before, but still could do more to ensure low-income families have access to areas that will foster a better quality life, according to Silverstein. And because of the less-rigorous application of “high opportunity,” he says, new developments are tending to stay out of major metropolitan, more affluent areas like Desoto and Jackson metro.

“That’s not necessarily fostering integration because people aren’t going to be moving from Jackson to Tishomingo County or moving from north Gulfport or east Biloxi to the northeast corner of the state,” he said. “That’s not the way people are making decisions about where they’re going to move.”

Further into poverty

In early September, LaQuisha Smith was evicted for a ninth time in five years. This one would be her last.

Smith, who says she hasn’t found work since June after hurting her leg, said she and the management company had enough of dealing with each other so landlords finally requested a warrant of removal.

Smith knew the warrant was coming and had already decided to move out after management taped a bright pink late notice to her door, detailing her debts in bold black Sharpie for all her neighbors to see. But with so many evictions on her record, she knows it will be a struggle to find another apartment.

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A Facebook posted photograph of LaQuisha Smith with children Lakevian, 13, and Secoiya, 7, was taken inside of Terrace Park Apartments in Southaven.

“It’s a cycle that pushes you into poverty if you weren’t already there and further into poverty if you are already there,” says Lavar Edmonds, researcher with the Lab. “It’s the kind of thing we should care about from an empathetic standpoint, but also something we should care about because it’s all around us whether you are seeing it or acknowledging it or not.”

“Because of that record, the more you are evicted, you just have to keep moving into worse and worse housing in worse and worse neighborhoods, and that of course is going to spiral into a slew of other problematic outcomes,” Edmonds says.

For Smith, that has meant packing up their two-bedroom apartment and moving in with her mother in nearby Senatobia. She wants to keep her kids in the DeSoto school system, so she’s been driving back and forth every day so their schooling isn’t another disruption on top of the eviction.

Says Smith: “I just need for a low-income government-based apartment to stay that way. Keep the rent at the rate that you’re supposed to keep it at to make it affordable for, you know, single parents like me. That’s what I want to see happen.”

Read Mississippi Today’s methodology employed in reporting this article here.