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The Eviction Experts
Photo by Jeremy Poland via Getty Images

The Eviction Experts

Co-published by Economic Hardship Reporting Project and Harper’s Magazine.

In the sprawling exposition hall the mood was celebratory, convivial even, and why not? By almost any measure, it had been one of the best years on record to be a landlord. At the chuckwagon lounge, attendees dressed in flannel and Stetson-style hats sipped Budweisers, having been encouraged to “embrace their inner cowboy.” It was the 2021 gathering of the Columbus Apartment Association, the most powerful landlord-lobbying group in central Ohio; collectively, its few hundred members controlled about 148,000 multifamily units. Rental occupancy rates were the highest they’d been in decades. The Centers for Disease Control’s pandemic-era eviction moratorium was moot. Meanwhile, the billions of federal dollars earmarked for preventing evictions weren’t close to being exhausted; much of that money was sloshing around the private rental market locally, and rents were soaring.

Befitting the expo’s Wild West theme, attendees wore ID badges designed to resemble wanted posters. White men in fleece vests and golf shirts manned booths with brand names so inscrutable they might have been a list of distant stars christened by kindergartners: Zumper, Yardi Breeze, Entrata, PERQ. They were ambassadors from the world of property technology, or “proptech,” a booming sector which that year alone attracted $32 billion in venture-capital investments. Their maxims and marketing taglines circled a single objective: disrupting the traditional landlord-tenant relationship. There were revolutionary pitches promising profits from afar, with algorithm-driven software that might relieve landlords of the burden of directly dealing with tenants at all—most notably, given the federal moratorium’s discontinuance, the irksome task of evicting them. “We give managers tools to manage payment plans with our residents all the way to evictions,” a vendor at the red-curtained booth for Entrata told me. “We can take as much or as little of your operation and automate it,” said a salesman at the booth for RealPage, a property-management platform owned by a private-equity firm and used by landlords across some nineteen million rental units. “It’s really great for scaling fast-growing portfolios,” he continued.

At the Yardi Breeze booth, on a laptop dashboard, a cursor floated above a map of a hypothetical user’s properties across the country, each one represented by a pin. A single click on any of them elicited a fount of data, not merely aggregated profit and loss statements per building, but entries for each tenant and unit, as well as detailed monthly reports on missed rent and options for automatically generating nonpayment notices, the first step in an eviction process. “We can run reports that, like, show if your tenants are delinquent,” the sales representative explained. “So let’s just say Corey Oliver is our tenant at 117, he’s accruing late fees,” he said, as I took a picture with my phone. “Oh, I probably wouldn’t take that,” he said. “This is actually real?” I asked. “Yeah,” he replied. Undeterred, the pitch continued: “It’s just a nice way to obviously manage everything.”

Once automated, the landlord-tenant relationship could be redefined as remote, with any lingering moral ambiguities absolved by algorithm. That was one possible future. Other booths—Bio-One (“death, crime scene, suicide cleanup”), SERVPRO (“fire damage restoration”)—reminded those assembled that this future purged of human discretion wasn’t here just yet. Eviction was still a messy business. And for that, there were lawyers.

SHOW ME THE MONEY, read a banner mocked up to look like a dollar bill at the lawyers’ booth. HELP ME … HELP YOU. Inside the portrait oval was a photograph of William L. Willis Jr., the founder of Willis Law, the most influential eviction law firm in Columbus. Its clients include corporate owners of apartment complexes and property investors from out of state, many of them avid users of the property-management software on offer. I was there to see for myself the Willis Law that landlords knew. I had started spending time in my city’s eviction court after Merrick Garland, the U.S. attorney general, called on the nation’s lawyers to volunteer their time and help tenants following the Supreme Court’s ruling that the pandemic-era eviction moratorium was unconstitutional: “The legal community has an obligation to help the most vulnerable,” he wrote. I wondered about the lawyers on the other side of the equation—what were their obligations?

The Willis booth included a Plinko game and, on a narrow table, two rows of scratch-off lottery tickets laid out like decks of cards—freebies for attendees. In his portrait, Willis wore a silver sheriff’s star and a cartoonish cowboy hat atop his bald head. AMBASSADOR OF QUAN, the inscription inside the dollar bill’s nameplate read, yet another Jerry Maguire reference. (“Some dudes might have the coin, but they’ll never have the quan. . . . Love, respect, community, and the dollars, too. The entire package.”) It was a fitting description of the Willis brand, one ideally suited to the moment. Two converging trends—the automation of property management and Wall Street’s consolidation of America’s rental housing stock—had exacerbated the already uneven power dynamics of the landlord-tenant relationship. This put Willis Law, skilled at batching evictions on the local court docket, in high demand. Just a few hours earlier, some four miles away, I had watched Dimitri Hatzifotinos, the firm’s managing partner, and another Willis lawyer make their way through a stack of eviction filings at the local courthouse. Of the 109 eviction proceedings that day, nearly half were Willis cases. “Evictions have become sort of a big-box concept, where people want economies of scale,” Hatzifotinos would later tell me of his landlord clients. “If they can keep it all in one house, that makes them happy.” And in Columbus, where an eviction crisis has been raging unabated for years, no law firm files more evictions than Willis.

***

In 2016, Columbus had more total evictions than all but six American cities. Even Chicago, with three times the population, had fewer total evictions than the 9,020 Columbus had that year. Such high rates were in part the consequence of an impossible calculus: there were more than three times as many extremely low-income households in Columbus as affordable rentals available to house them. Once a relatively affordable city, Columbus was being transformed by a housing shortage and skyrocketing rents. There were violent sweeps of tent encampments, overflowing homeless shelters, and wait times for public-housing vouchers calculated not in months but in years.

The city’s ranking undermined the narrative of prosperity that its boosters had carefully crafted. Evicted, a Pulitzer Prize–winning book by the sociologist Matthew Desmond, based on his extensive fieldwork in Milwaukee among families caught in the eviction process, had become a favorite read among Columbus’s elite since its publication that same year. A newly elected Democratic mayor, Andrew Ginther—catapulted into office by more than $3 million in campaign contributions, a substantial portion of which came from influential developers, a potent force in local politics—appointed his wife to head a women’s commission that was in part designed to examine the disparate impact of evictions on the city’s black women, more than a fifth of whom lived in poverty. In 2019, the commission aided in compiling a list of recommendations, which included a proposal to make case information clearer in eviction summonses; the addition of another social worker focused on evictions; a process for tenants to remove their evictions from public access; and a requirement for landlords to show proof of ownership when filing an eviction claim. But none of these addressed the underlying cause of the surge: a dearth of affordable apartments amid the city’s precipitous rise in rents. Meanwhile, efforts to expand the housing supply lagged—or were easily undermined. A program offering fifteen years of tax abatements to developers who set aside 20 percent of units as affordable included a glaring exception: developers could just pay a fee and bypass the hassle of building any affordable units at all.

And so eviction filings kept rising. It would take a global pandemic to stop them. Hearings at the city’s eviction court—two windowless rooms on the eleventh floor of a brutalist government building downtown—were suspended. Such compulsory compassion gave tenants the briefest of reprieves. The court’s administrative judge, who told me that he feared “anarchy and chaos,” soon approved an allocation of $365,000 for the court to move to more spacious quarters at the city’s convention center, and thus Columbus became one of the first cities in the country to reopen its eviction court, in June 2020. Still, 2020 filings fell to their lowest level in more than a decade. In this way, the moratoriums offered a glimpse of what a renter’s safety net, even a tenuous one, might mean for vulnerable tenants. Even so, over 3,500 households fell through it: bailiffs putting the infamous red tags on their doors, demanding they leave within five days. Of those, 819 did not. So the bailiffs returned and locked them out, and a moving crew hauled their belongings to the curb.

But something was finally different. By mid-2021, the court, for the first time in its existence, was quite improbably awash in cash, and the influx of federal rental assistance radically altered its routines. What had always been an endless procession of hardship suddenly was not. There had never been help like this before—nothing remotely close. For the eviction attorneys and their landlord clients, the cash seemed to be all upside, the inherent risks of their investments temporarily dissolved. They were made whole with very few conditions, including no restrictions on rent hikes or curbs on often-exorbitant late fees.

Everyone I spoke to at eviction court—the mediators, interpreters, Legal Aid attorneys, social workers, magistrates, and eviction attorneys—agreed that something felt good for the first time. Negotiations between eviction lawyers and tenants were ending in ways they never had before, often with thousands in rental debt paid off. Late fees were also easier for landlords to charge and collect with so much money on offer. This money, which would come to more than $129 million in the city, helped to quell the unstoppable increase in filings in Columbus much as similar subsidies had across the country: expected eviction rates were down nationwide, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. The most dire warnings—that up to forty million Americans might be evicted from their homes—proved unwarranted.

Yet while the government bestowed such largesse on landlords, they spared little consideration for the autonomy and agency of tenants, with the notion of sending cash directly to tenants themselves dismissed outright. Rental assistance was grace, then, with stasis as the kicker: no moving for a job, no escaping from a bad relationship, no chance at finding a cheaper place or a better landlord. And in Columbus, nowhere was this more visible than in the procedural dominance of Willis attorneys at eviction court.

***

Hatzifotinos moves through the courtroom like he owns the place, but in a game-show host sort of way. No one bustles like him, delivering paperwork to sometimes weeping tenants and filings to the bailiff. On occasion, he turns brusquely away from the team of modestly paid Legal Aid attorneys asking for just a moment of his time. With a stocky, muscular frame, he moves efficiently through the court’s low-slung corridors, gliding on the white rubber soles of his dress shoes, often dispensing so quickly with a round of cases that he doesn’t bother to remove his winter coat. In all the time I spent in court, it was impossible not to find Hatzifotinos compelling. He was the only person who seemed to be having a good time.

His intimate familiarity with the court’s machinations came in sharp contrast to the tenant experience. Tenants rarely have an attorney representing them, and often passed by the free Legal Aid clinic in the narrow, crowded hallway outside the courtroom without noticing it. When fully staffed, the clinic could take on only about a dozen or so cases out of as many as a hundred or more each day. These few were flagged with a fluorescent-pink note that read THIS CASE FILE IS CURRENTLY WITH THE TENANT ADVOCACY PROJECT CLINIC (LOCATED IN THE HALLWAY), a signal to the court’s many functionaries that the case might not proceed as quickly as the others. Tenants straggled in holding summonses that indicated hearing dates and times, either 8:30 am or 10:30 am, the two scheduled dockets, and often assumed that such specificity suggested an appointment, that punctuality might be rewarded, or, more futilely, that proceedings might themselves start on time. Before the eviction attorneys arrived, tenants queued in long lines that could extend to the hallway, waiting to check in with the bailiff. To other attorneys who ply their trade in these courtrooms, the preeminence of Willis was simply a fact. “Willis is the big dog,” Josh Fravel, then of Griffith Law Offices, told me. “There’s no denying that, there’s no questioning it—they always have the biggest stack.” That stack isn’t metaphorical. Each morning, organized in neat piles on a long wooden table in front of the high dais that was the magistrate’s perch, case folders accumulated, painstakingly prepared by court staff for the eviction attorneys.

To tenants at court for the first time, Hatzifotinos was sometimes mistaken for a courthouse official of some kind, and not without reason. In the waning days of pandemic-era social distancing, I watched him comfortably make his way behind the plexiglass barrier of the bailiff station. One day, Hatzifotinos barreled into court with his winter coat still on, a messenger bag strapped across his chest. “I got such a nice welcome this morning,” he said, a little too loudly, as he rounded the empty bailiff’s station. The waiting tenants, many quietly scrolling on their phones, looked up, bewildered by this outburst of exuberance. Most days, he read names from the center of court with a bellowing shout. Hesitant tenants might raise a hand or stand at the sound of their names, at which point Hatzifotinos would lead them to the courtroom’s vestibule, or out into a crowded hallway, and then back again, to where they had waited, sometimes for hours, on long rows of wooden benches. Much of what passed for an eviction proceeding didn’t happen before a magistrate but in the form of a one-on-one meeting between a vulnerable tenant and an eviction attorney. In Hatzifotinos’s daily negotiations, it was easy to be struck, at first, by his apparent kindness. Also noteworthy was the willingness of tenants to strike a deal, often agreeing to a move-out date that would keep an eviction from their record—practically a necessity in Ohio, where a bill to make such records “permanently irretrievable” has been held up in committee for years.

Despite the influx of federal assistance, tenants were still evicted with regularity. Sometimes landlords refused to accept the government subsidy. Most eviction cases, as Hatzifotinos repeatedly told me, were legally straightforward: a tenant didn’t have enough money to make rent. At the time, local law allowed for eviction if a tenant was even a single day late on payment. That brutal calculus wasn’t altered by the pandemic programs; in certain respects, it got worse. “Landlords were jacking up rent because there’s this pot of money,” Michael Cassone, an eviction lawyer with Cassone Law Offices, told me. Cassone, a quiet presence in court, worked at Willis until 2019, when he left to start his own firm. “Eventually, the dust is going to settle, and so you’re just setting tenants up for failure,” he added. And so each morning, service bailiffs still fanned out into fifty of the county’s zip codes to hang eviction notices or oversee the removal of people from their homes. To Hatzifotinos, such tragedies were avoidable. “ ‘Don’t have money’ is not an excuse right now,” he told me. “I don’t know why people are choosing to get evicted. It never used to be a choice. Now I believe that it is.”

***

A few weeks after the expo, Hatzifotinos arrived an hour and a half late for our scheduled meeting at an upscale coffee shop near his home. He was dressed more casually than I’d ever seen him—athleisure, no tie—and his galvanic personality was still on full display. “Evictions are just one thing that we do,” he told me. “We do litigation, we do fair housing, all kinds of lobbying.” A compulsive talker, he launched with little prompting into the bedbug outbreak of the 2010s (“One of the ironies of life, the pandemic has done more for bedbug issues. Nobody moved for like a year!”) and the harsh consequences that landlords holding mortgages face for their tenants’ non-payment (“The amount of fees and costs that are immediately triggered on the seventeenth are ridiculous. Percentages, lawyer fees. They literally tell you you owe the whole mortgage!”). Of the automation trend on display at the Wild West expo, Hatzifotinos noted that he didn’t see it as a threat to the Willis business model. Proptech startups were coming to lawyers hoping to partner with them, but human intermediaries seemed necessary for the time being. Nevertheless, something consequential was under way: a new “mentality” among landlords, as Hatzifotinos put it, brought on by the continuous availability of data. “There’s an app for everything nowadays,” he said. “The owner of a company that owns twenty thousand apartments can literally get on their cell phone and look at whatever they’re using and figure out, you know, here’s how much money I brought in on rent this month, here’s how much money defaults and whatever.”

Just before the pandemic, Desiree Fields, a professor of geography at the University of California, Berkeley, coined the term “automated landlord” in a paper of the same name. Fields, who studies housing financialization, spent years researching Wall Street’s aggregation of more and more of America’s rental housing stock since the Great Recession. Although such investments made sense financially—foreclosed properties were cheap, mortgage credit for average people was hard to come by, and some 3.8 million former homeowners needed somewhere to live—Fields made a novel argument: “Those conditions were insufficient on their own.” It was the automation of “core functions,” as she called them, such as rent collection and maintenance, that “enabled investors to aggregate ownership of resources, extract income flows, and securely convey these flows to capital markets.” Fields harbored no illusions about the landlord-tenant relationship, but she suggested that we were in the midst of a profound shift. “There’s a new landscape of power relations,” she told me. “Almost any potential point of face-to-face or even full verbal interaction is taken out of the process.” She gave an example: “You can set up an if-then rule in a database. If the rent’s five days late or seven days late, you evict.”

It wasn’t hard to locate an example of that dystopian scenario in the actually existing proptech industry. AUTOMATING EVICTIONIT HAS TO BE A THING, reads the headline in a sly promotional article for Resident Interface, a spin-off from Hunter Warfield, one of the nation’s largest collection agencies for landlords. (Hunter Warfield has been sued hundreds of times in federal court, and has received more than one thousand consumer complaints with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.) The article trumpets a brave new world for landlords ushered in by the automation of evictions, which “stops those uncomfortable conversations for onsite team members”:

When residents receive an eviction notice, they often end up at the leasing office, asking, “Why couldn’t you just give me a few more days?” With automation in place, associates can simply respond, “Sorry, but our system handles late payments automatically.”

And this future, expunged of messy human interaction, needn’t be limited to evictions—setting rent rates, say proptech entrepreneurs, can be automated as well.

It was a structural change that Hatzifotinos had started to recognize. Some of his landlord clients required tenants to use rent-collection apps, another exploding sector in the proptech world. “It just goes directly to the landlord out of their paycheck,” he explained of one of them during a panel convened by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. “Before the pandemic, I had never seen anything like that before.”

Hatzifotinos, who himself owns sixty-one rental properties—although he identifies as a “small-time” landlord compared with his clients—was still intimately involved with some of his tenants. That’s why he was late to our coffee that day, in fact: he had been helping a tenant he had evicted move her belongings into a U-Haul. The trouble had started months earlier, when Hatzifotinos first issued a move-out notice. “I hate labels, but she’s probably a hoarder,” he said. He granted her an extension of a few months, on one condition: she had to apply for rental assistance from a local fund. In her case, even if her application were approved, she would still have to vacate by the following February. “I needed to make a break at some point,” he told me. But the tenant didn’t apply, he said, and, summoned to court, declined the opportunity to secure another extension. That morning was the setout, as landlords call it, his third as a landlord. But it wasn’t unfamiliar to him. He had helped his father, from whom he learned the business, perform a number of them over the years.

Hearing this, I thought it a good time to explain why I’d been at court. I said that I wanted to understand the legal arguments on both sides of eviction cases. “Your saying that tells me you’ve been talking to Legal Aid too much,” he told me. “An eviction is not a legal issue at all,” he added. “It’s not. It’s a people issue. If you are living somewhere that you can’t afford to live in, for whatever reason, and somebody else now wants you to move, you can bring that back together and solve that with, hey, I can afford this, and I want to live here, and so let’s keep going. Or, no, I can’t afford this.” He continued: “Any attorney that deals with me knows, if you talk to me about legal issues when we’re in court, you’re gonna get yelled at. I don’t like talking about legal issues.”

“So you yell at people?” I asked.

“I mean, I have,” he said. “I’m not interested in working with somebody who’s an opposing attorney who wants to get into legal issues. This is somebody’s life. I want to work it out. I want to figure out how to either get them to stay and pay or get them to move without getting evicted.” He paused. “A lot of times, young attorneys, or attorneys that don’t have eviction experience, want to get into the legalities of everything, and the reality is that the legalities of an eviction are extremely simple . . . you either have paid or haven’t paid. That’s a factual issue, right? Your lease is expired or it’s not. Those are simple, simple issues.”

***

It wasn’t until 2017 that any tenants without means were guaranteed legal representation if faced with eviction. That’s when New York City passed the first right-to-counsel law for eviction cases in the nation. Other cities, including San Francisco, Newark, Cleveland, and Philadelphia, followed, along with at least three states—Washington, Maryland, and Connecticut. A legal concept that some advocates and scholars call a “civil Gideon” might theoretically extend that right to counsel to the remaining millions of tenants who deal with an eviction filing each year. (It was a 1963 Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright, that first established the right to counsel, but only in criminal cases. Evictions, as civil cases, have long been exempt.) In the early days of the pandemic, the idea that tenants deserve lawyers gained even more traction. And unlike Merrick Garland’s volunteer-lawyer suggestion, the civil right to counsel would guarantee paid lawyers. A civil Gideon would represent more than an expansion of tenant rights. It would be a direct challenge to the power of the landlord bar and firms like Willis. And as more corporate landlords buy up America’s rental housing stock—a 2022 study found that large corporate landlords filed at least twice as many evictions as small landlords—it would be a way to empower tenant resistance. Only about 4 percent of tenants use the services of an attorney, compared with 83 percent of landlords. “In most places, there is no tenant bar,” John Pollock, the coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, told me. “That industry just doesn’t exist.”

In Columbus, tenants unable to afford an attorney can rely on the Tenant Advocacy Project. It was first opened in 2017, the vision of Legal Aid attorney Jyoshu Tsushima, who, after earning his law degree, spent fifteen months volunteering at housing court. His first case, and his introduction to Hatzifotinos, concerned an unreturned deposit. “He used the same techniques he uses on all our trainees, which is to just explain to me how I didn’t know anything,” recalled Tsushima, who has a bushy beard and wears tortoiseshell glasses. The son of two sociology professors, Tsushima grew unnerved by Willis Law’s untrammeled prowess in court. He considered opening a practice to represent tenants but soon realized there was no way to do so profitably, and no way to adequately challenge the likes of Willis. “The joke is it’s the Willis Eviction Court,” Tsushima said. He secured a grant to open a clinic, and Legal Aid eventually hired him full-time.

The nonprofit had previously never maintained a daily presence at court, and only on occasion dispatched lawyers, who would somewhat pitiably carry a free attorney sign through the hall. Such restrained solicitation efforts were a world away from the unabashed approach of the Willis Law booth at the Wild West expo, which came dangerously close to violating one of the Ohio State Bar Association’s rules of conduct: namely, that attorneys shouldn’t directly solicit clients primarily for pecuniary gain. Crucially, there’s an exception if the person solicited has a prior professional relationship with the lawyers. Because so many landlords at the expo regularly filed evictions, such ethical quandaries were rendered largely irrelevant. By contrast, Legal Aid attorneys are limited in how they can reach out to the tenants they regularly see despondent or crying in the hallway. As a result, many tenants came and went each day without knowing that Legal Aid was an option.

All the while, the Willis big-box model extends far beyond Columbus: its attorneys crisscross the state daily, representing landlords who control at least 175,000 rental units. Their influence isn’t confined to eviction courts either. Many landlords use FABCO, a rental-collection and tenant-screening firm based in Columbus, to demand unpaid rent. A flowchart on its website notes that “all legal collections will be handled by Willis Law Firm.” Philip Garboden, an associate professor at the University of Chicago, argues that the increasing ubiquity of rental debt reflects a broader shift in landlord-tenant relationships, from owner-renter to creditor-debtor. And with housing an asset class for investors, the landlord bar perhaps exerts its power best outside the courtroom, working in close coordination with property developers to secure a legal framework favorable to its interests. In the microcosm of Columbus, that influence is most evident in the relationship between Willis and the Columbus Apartment Association. Hatzifotinos serves as the CAA’s general counsel, and in that capacity has helped stop several local legislative efforts that might have shifted the outsized power from landlords toward tenants. In turn, the CAA’s influence reaches far beyond Columbus; it is merely the local chapter of the National Apartment Association, an entity which, along with many other real estate groups and corporate landlords, lobbied to unravel pandemic-era eviction moratoriums in a campaign that involved a budget estimated at more than $100 million.

***

In November 10, 2022, Willis cases accounted for 56 of the 124 in the eviction court’s stack. It was two weeks before Thanksgiving, and one of the cases was that of a home health aide. She slipped by the legal clinic unnoticed. (No matter: their caseloads were already full for the day.) With her fourteen-year-old son, she entered the courtroom slowly, her neck stiff, her gait labored. As a black single mother, she belonged to the demographic that is evicted more often than any other in the United States. She checked in with the bailiff and sat quietly on a bench. Her son, a pair of headphones around his neck, rested his head on her shoulder. Hatzifotinos found them, and within minutes struck a deal. He wrote up the “agreed entry” for his landlord client: she would pay $562.20 by the following Friday, then another $5,592 by the first of December. It was a gamble of sorts. The landlord had the “right to an immediate setout” if the rental check didn’t arrive in time. Standing above her, he told her where to sign. She signed and left, her case never vetted in open court and negotiated without the consultation of an attorney representing her interests. But would telling her story have mattered? “Being able to tell one’s story in court does not necessarily correlate with better substantive outcomes for tenants; in fact, they may result in better outcomes for landlords,” writes Lauren Sudeall, a law professor, and Daniel Pasciuti, a sociologist, in their 2021 paper “Praxis and Paradox: Inside the Black Box of Eviction Court.” Legal representation, however, can tip the balance. “Lawyers often have the power to serve a translating function,” they write, “taking the elements of a tenant’s story and transforming them into relevant legal arguments.”

But her story, which she told me at a nearby café later that day, seemed to offer no ready-made legal arguments. It instead typified the brutal economics of the city’s eviction crisis. She had worked the entire pandemic as an in-home caregiver, but then came a series of setbacks: the loss of a major client, and then an undiagnosed health issue that restricted her mobility and further reduced her ability to work. Her monthly rent of $1,005, previously manageable, suddenly was not. In other words, there was no viable legal defense to mount: she had simply been unable to keep up with her rent. Her apartment complex had recently sent word of a nearly $300 monthly increase. “Why would they let them raise the rent?” she asked me.

I asked Tsushima about her case, and he told me he might have been able to negotiate a lengthier buffer for her and, more importantly, never would have agreed to an immediate move-out date if rental assistance was late. When I later asked Hatzifotinos about her case, he had no recollection of the woman or her son.

“Does that ring a bell?” I asked after describing them.

“Nope, not at all,” he said, then mentioned his large caseload. “Yesterday was eighty cases that are the same thing.”

As the holidays loomed, eviction filings rose to 20,984 for the year. The home health aide’s case was reopened. A few days before Christmas, she left me a voicemail. Her line was disconnected when I called back the following day.

On Christmas Day, more than one hundred of the city’s affordable apartments were made uninhabitable in one fell swoop. Falling temperatures froze the pipes inside a low-income housing complex, which soon burst and flooded two fifteen-story towers. In frigid weather, 161 households had to be hastily evacuated. Their residents left behind unopened holiday gifts and uneaten meals. Many moved to nearby hotels paid for by the government. The private investors who owned the complex—which had seen multiple owners in less than a decade and a half—paid nothing. The former public-housing complex, built in the Sixties, had numerous unaddressed code violations—bedbug and roach infestations, broken doors and windows, busted pipes, unworkable elevators. It was a mass displacement, no legal eviction necessary.

***

On the eighteenth floor of the courthouse, Les Yost, the deputy chief service bailiff, a towering man who sported a thick gray beard, was plenty busy—as he had been that whole winter. When I met with him in January 2023, he led me to an orderly cubicle in the farthest corner of the windowless room. Identical cubicles extended in every direction. Yost, who previously worked in private security for an armored-car company, directed the court’s team of service bailiffs. Behind his desk hung a map of the city. “We have no way to stop anything,” he told me. “It’s not up to us.” In 2022, his bailiffs had posted approximately 9,350 writs of restitution, or red tags, which effectively indicated to evictees that no legal recourse remained.

A few weeks later, one was delivered to the home health aide, whom I’ve been unable to reach since and so remains unnamed in this story. Her question—“Why would they let them raise the rent?”—stuck with me. It captured the paralysis afflicting not just Columbus, but the nation generally. As rents continue to climb, who has any real power to stop them? And who are “they” anyway? Local, state, or federal lawmakers? Just the year before, the Columbus Coalition for Rent Control, a citizen-led initiative, circulated petitions for a ballot initiative that might put the question to Columbus voters instead. Shortly thereafter, Ohio’s governor signed a bill into law blocking any municipality in the state from imposing anything of the sort.

In the ensuing months, the battle over rent hikes went national, in part prompted by a ProPublica investigation which concluded that RealPage, one of the companies I first encountered at the Wild West expo, “may be artificially inflating rents and stifling competition.” A series of lawsuits followed, and in November 2023, lawyers for the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs, arguing that the use of shared data and software must “be subject to the same condemnation” as other price-fixing schemes. The brief called algorithms in the rental-housing market “the new frontier” of price-fixing. Yet such cases, moving glacially through the courts, won’t provide renters relief anytime soon.

The battle for tenant power has always been a city-by-city and state-by-state fight, and for good reason: the landlord-tenant encounter is shaped almost entirely by local and state rather than federal laws. And that’s how property investors want to keep it, Marie Claire Tran-Leung, the Evictions-Initiative Project director at the National Housing Law Project, told me. “If landlords are getting a benefit from the federal government, there should be some protections,” she said. “We can’t just leave it to the states anymore.” A push for federal intervention recently gained more traction, most notably in the Biden Administration’s “Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights,” a report released last January that seemed to challenge the status quo, however limply. It is merely a “statement of principles” that “does not itself constitute U.S. government policy.” The phrase “rent control” is nowhere to be found in the document. The closest thing to it is a mealymouthed line that suggests “a shared baseline for fairness for renters.”

But that July, seventeen senators submitted a letter to the Federal Housing Finance Agency that was written in decidedly more strident language, calling for limits on “egregious rent hikes.” (So, not rent control either, exactly.) And despite holding elected office, the senators weren’t seeking change via legislation as they might have. The proposal was an informal tactic. It offered a possible antidote to the powerlessness of low-income renters and one possible answer to who the “they” might be: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These quasi-public entities—under government conservatorship since the subprime-mortgage meltdown—have congressional charters obligating them to benefit low-income households. It’s an especially vital function in a country that has grossly underfunded public housing for decades. By any measure, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have failed to live up to these charters. The senators’ proposal, then, reflects the desperation of the moment by demanding that a relatively obscure government agency (the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) do something. But what?

For decades, the government-sponsored enterprises, as they are known, have effectively pumped public funds into the coffers of private developers and landlords. But as with the billions in federal rental assistance during the pandemic, the government has never placed much in the way of stipulations on such generosity: landlords save on their financing costs, but tenants get no federal protections. Might there be some leverage to be had over private investors—leverage that, without a legislative battle, could be used to patch together some form of rent control after all?

In May 2023, the FHFA requested public comment on the matter, and to peruse the responses is to glimpse a cross section of the American renter’s anguish. “Rent is too high! You need to help American people by stopping the rent hikes,” one tenant writes. “I cannot afford to live on my own,” the note continues. “I am an EMT for my city and soon I will be unable to live in the city at all.”

Rents keep rising in Columbus, and eviction rates along with them. On a Wednesday morning in early August 2023, the docket of cases totaled 135. The Willis stack dominated with 103. Hatzifotinos called out renters’ names from the center aisle. A tenant raised his hand but didn’t stand. Hatzifotinos walked up, leaned over him, lifted his left leg onto the wooden bench where the man sat, and started negotiating a deal. The tenant agreed to move out of his home.

Then the cold of winter arrived, and eviction filings in Columbus continued their climb. They would ultimately approach 24,000 for the year. Once again, those numbers didn’t tell the whole story. Columbus saw another mass displacement of over a thousand tenants, many of them Haitian migrants, from a sprawling complex that had become increasingly uninhabitable. The Monday after Thanksgiving, residents were notified of their “termination of tenancy,” and would have to vacate by New Year’s Eve. “If you have any further questions or concerns, please contact our attorney, Dimitri Hatzifotinos,” read the notice pinned to the doors of the apartments in the complex. The government, not the landlord, again paid for buses to shuttle displaced tenants to nearby hotels—and the hotel bills to keep them housed, but only through March.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the FHFA finally released its report in early January. It outlined no particularly substantive plans, only a promise to “continue its public stakeholder engagement process.”

 

Mya Frazier is a journalist based in Columbus, Ohio. Her work on this article was supported by Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center and by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Mya Frazier is a journalist based in Columbus, Ohio.

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