‘I don’t want to rent to you anymore’
A Trump supporter kicked her tenant out after a political disagreement. In Mississippi, some renters live at the whims of landlords with little recourse.
The difference between housing stability or an expulsion can hinge on personalities and the landlord-tenant relationship.
BY ANNA WOLFE | AUGUST 20, 2020
Editor’s note: This article contains language that some readers may find offensive.
Whitney Wages first found her landlord, 77-year-old Wilma Hughes, wearing a housedress and sitting on her porch swing during Wages’ search for a new home in March of 2019.
Wages, 31, recalls the first words Hughes, co-owner of a large plot of land and several rentals off a county road outside of Oxford, said to her: “Well, shit! Took you long enough.”
Wages, who is white, disabled and depends on a patchwork of public assistance, said it was the nicest place she ever lived. So the college-educated artist and baker grit her teeth at Hughes’ offensive and racist remarks — up until Hughes forced her out of her rental last month, calling her a “welfare POS.”
“I don’t know what I did to displease her,” Wages said. “I did everything she asked but go get a fucking watermelon from the goddamn farmer’s market on a Tuesday.”
Mississippi’s housing laws heavily favor landlords, resulting in outcomes for renters that are “completely personality driven,” said Desiree Hensley, who runs the Housing Clinic at the University of Mississippi School of Law.
Because renters have little control and protections over their dwelling, experts say, the tone of the personal relationship between a tenant and landlord can play as big a role as anything when it comes to evictions and expulsions.
That did not bode well for Wages, a liberal-thinking recipient of government benefits, living in a house owned by a Trump supporter who recently said she’s “sick of everybody holding their hands out.”
Hughes sent the 30-day expulsion notice by text message about an hour after Wages shared a post on Facebook suggesting that arresting President Donald Trump, who was impeached less than a year ago, would heal the nation.
But neither political opinions nor socioeconomic class describe protected groups under the federal Fair Housing Act, so while ending a tenancy based on those biases might constitute discrimination, Hensley said, “it’s just not a type of discrimination that is unlawful if a private landlord does it.”
Hughes declined to discuss this story when reached, telling this reporter: “Kiss my ass and don’t call this number again.”
For Wages — who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, complex post traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia and also struggles with joint pain and sciatica — Hughes’ place was perfect.
The apartment, with its wood paneled walls and brushed concrete floors, was clean and affordable on her limited income. Being just one story, she wouldn’t have to struggle up and down stairs. It offered lots of outdoor space for her to get fresh air and even plant a garden.
And Hughes agreed to accept Wages’ federal housing voucher, a critical hurdle for her when looking for a place to live. Mississippi law does not prohibit landlords from discriminating against rent applicants who receive the housing subsidy as 11 other states do.
Wages moved there within two months, eager to leave behind a shabby house in Baldwyn filled with memories of her ex-husband.
In the following year, despite vastly different worldviews, the two women developed a relationship. Wages would run errands for Hughes, picking up buttermilk from the market, or gin and a “big ole jug” of Burgundy wine from the liquor store. Hughes brought over jarred salsas and they made Sauerkraut together. They shared progress on their home projects — Hughes’ new headboard and Wages’ tomato plants.
On July 21, Hughes asked if Wages planned to go to the market. She was craving watermelon. But Wages had developed a sore throat and was going to get tested for COVID-19 instead.
The next day, Wages shared a Facebook post that called President Donald Trump a fraud and a traitor and predicted his loss in the upcoming election.
Hughes, a staunch Trump supporter, did not appreciate it: “Well I don,t know you at all_ a lot of stuff you pass on_ I can not comprehend_ but Trump is not POS_!!!¡” she commented.
About twenty minutes later, Hughes told Wages in a text message she needed to vacate her house in 30 to 45 days. “I do not want to live with a negative person like your self,” she wrote. Wages got a formal letter a few days later.
The news was a blow to the independence Wages had finally gained in her apartment over the last year, an especially important achievement for someone living with mental illness. Wages receives $794 in social security benefits due to her disability, which means she can’t earn more than $1,260 a month at any job. Despite her limited income, she never missed rent.
Wages had recently left her prep cook job at Proud Larry’s restaurant because she was planning to start substitute teaching at Lafayette County School District. That opportunity fell through when the pandemic hit in March — she didn’t have internet access to teach remotely. She also left a part-time job at local market and restaurant Chicory Market in March, fearing for her health.
But after receiving her more than $700-a-week unemployment benefits in mid-July, more money than she’d ever made before, Wages was finally able to pay off several debts, a veterinarian bill for her cat Wilson and the balance owed on her red 2013 Hyundai Tucson. She paid other bills months in advance and bought a new lens for her camera that she planned use to do freelance photography.
The benefits allowed Wages to stay safe and sheltered-in-place during the pandemic so far and offered some promise of financial comfort. They also irked her landlord.
“You get all this free unemployment money_after you Had quit your jobs_ how much of that did you pay on student loans!? None because you will never pay_ say it isn,t so?” Hughes wrote in a text message after notifying Wages she must move.
Hughes wrote: “My money pays your SSI, medicare, food stamps, unpaid tuition, etc_ can you not even try to understand??”
Wages’ reprieve from poverty was short lived. Right as she was losing her housing, her unemployment benefits also dropped to just $140-a-week. Congress has yet to determine if it will extend the benefit boost as the pandemic continues to rage, though a recent executive order by the president may lead to a $300 boost soon.
Hughes was able to expel Wages from her property in a month’s time, and for little reason, because her initial lease ended in March. Though Wages didn’t realize it, that automatically began a month-to-month agreement, which Hughes was free not to renew at any time.
“The law gives the landlords too much power over the lives of the people they rent to,” Hensley said.
Mississippi law also allows owners to start the eviction process if a tenant is just three days behind on rent. In 2019, lawmakers removed a cushion in the law that gave tenants 10 days after an eviction to vacate. Current law allows landlords to immediately request a warrant for a renters removal the day of a judge’s order. The law also does not allow tenants to withhold rent when a landlord fails to conduct a repair at the unit, a common complaint of renters.
“It’s definitely a landlord’s world,” said Allison Cox, director of the Jackson Housing Authority.
Landlords who rent to people with a federal housing subsidy, such as Wages, sign a contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which contains certain cleanliness and safety standards. But if a landlord violates the contract, Hensley said, the most the housing authority can do is bar the property owner from contracting with HUD again — making little difference to a low-income renter potentially facing homelessness.
Wages secured her federal housing choice voucher, sometimes referred to as “Section 8”, in 2013. It pays a portion, usually between 50 and 65 percent of her rent, depending on how much income she earns. Typically, voucher holders are reluctant to give up the assistance, remaining on the program for many years. In the Oxford area, 109 families are on the wait-list for the voucher program — it will take several years before they are accepted.
Since her landlord gave notice of her ejection, Wages has struggled to find a new apartment that fits her income level and accessibility needs and accepts the voucher. She’s contacted units only for them to fill before she receives a call back.
“If you add a physical need to a unit on top of already trying to look for a price range, that increases the difficulty in finding a place,” Cox said. “That’s a tall order for that area.”
Wages has packed most of her belongings into a storage unit and moved into her partner’s apartment, which was already cramped by a roommate and another friend crashing on the couch. If Wages doesn’t find a place to use her voucher in 60 days, she could lose it, though the Oxford Housing Authority has promised to work with her.
Johnathan Hill, director of the Oxford Housing Authority, said most of their voucher holders have a six-month or year-long lease. But he estimated at least one-in-ten are on month-to-month leases, which may benefit tenants who want more freedom to move when they want. Otherwise, they’re “terrible for residents whose landlord, for whatever reason, says, ‘I don’t want to rent to you anymore,’” Hill said.
Hill said it’s unusual for an owner to elect to remove a paying tenant for something other than a major violation. Landlords have an interest in keeping units full and rent money flowing. But that doesn’t take into account other emotional human motivations.
Right after Wages began documenting the landlord saga on her Facebook page, Hughes took to her own post: “I do know if I own land, rental house, pay taxes and up keep_ I do not have to have a welfare POS living there. I am not against empty house_ some things you just can,t digest!”
Wages said she hears this rhetoric all the time, resigning that “there are people that obviously hate me for just who I am, being a disabled woman on Section 8.”
“They don’t even know what welfare even means. They just assume it’s free money, so therefore I live a luscious lifestyle and I’m like, ‘Do I?’” Wages said. “I’m grateful I can put gas in my car when I can … I’m grateful that I can, you know, feed myself. I’m really grateful when I can decide what to feed myself and not have to go to the food pantry.”
“Who wants to live that way, hand to mouth?” she added.
On a recent trip back to the apartment to grab some belongings, Wages noticed some new Trump signs had been posted on the property.
One read: “Make Liberals Cry Again.”