ANDERSON — Even with a moratorium put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through July 31, the COVID-19 pandemic has nearly stolen Gerald Williams’ dream of homeownership.
That’s not the way it was supposed to be. Renters affected by the pandemic were supposed to be shielded from eviction.
But Williams is one of 50,000 Hoosiers, according to data from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, who have received notices since Gov. Eric Holcomb issued emergency orders that also were intended to put a halt to evictions at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
“I have been filing petitions every day to get me a stay,” he said.
Williams’ efforts worked. He was supposed to be out of the house by 11 a.m. Friday, but because of a motion he filed Wednesday in Madison County Circuit Court 5, he now has a hearing Monday.
After finding a house he wanted to buy, Williams said he entered into a rent-to-own contract in November 2019 with New York-based Landis Properties LLC to buy the four-bedroom, two-bath home at 1726 Drexel Drive, on the Westside. Landis, which specializes in rent-to-own properties, bought the house for $80,000 with the agreement that Williams would purchase it from the company for $84,000.
To that end, Williams paid an $800 security deposit and monthly rent of $833. In addition, he paid $217 that was put into escrow so he could make a downpayment and pay closing costs after he cleaned up his credit and secured a mortgage.
Then the pandemic hit, changing everything.
Williams had worked in retail management, where his biweekly take-home pay was about $1,700. But he was forced to give up that job because he couldn’t risk bringing home the coronavirus to his fiancé and her son, both of whom had medical conditions that made them vulnerable.
“There weren’t any safety guidelines in place at first,” he said. “I took a medical leave of absence at that time until we could figure out what was going on with the pandemic. That wasn’t a safe place to be.”
He started working as a delivery driver for Door Dash and Uber Eats, thinking it would be safe because of the relatively little contact he would have with outsiders. But his earning shrank to about $600 every two weeks.
Williams’ precautions, however, did not prevent him from becoming sick with COVID-19, which kept him out of commission for three months. Just as he was starting to feel better, his mother and aunt died within nine days of one another earlier this year.
“I had a mental break. It was way too much for me to deal with,” he said. It would be another three months before things started to get back to normal.
“Once I did snap out of that mental break, and tried to get back to life, is when I got the notice for the eviction from the property.”
Williams said he tried to work with Landis to make arrangements for payment using stimulus money that had been delayed.
“They wouldn’t budge,” he said. “They were like, ‘We don’t think we can continue with you.’”
Though property owners have not been allowed to evict for nonpayment of rent during the pandemic, they were allowed to do so for other types of lease violations, such as illegal activity or destruction of property. But the only thing that applied to his situation, Williams insisted, was the unpaid rent.
He said he believes the eviction never was about the unpaid rent but about Landis reacquiring the property — which could, in the current market be sold for much more than he was contracted to pay for it.
“They are able to double their money and turn around and sue me for back rent to where they are making money hand over fist,” he said.
On May 28, Williams said he agreed in court to vacate the property within 30 days. At that time, he said he was not aware of the moratorium or the federal rental assistance for which he since has been determined eligible.
As he tried to find another place to live, Williams encountered a new problem: The fact that an eviction had been filed against him in court, even though the outcome was uncertain, was enough for property managers to reject his applications.
At a July 9 damages hearing, Judge Scott Norrick ruled Williams has to be out of the house by 11 a.m. Friday. He based that decision on the assertion by Landis attorney Christopher Gilley that the lease had expired.
“He said the CDC doesn’t protect you because there is no lease,” Williams said.
Gilley did not return calls for comment.
Housing advocates, however, decry what is known as the “holdover” loophole as contrary to the intent of the CDC moratorium.
Williams also argues he never really had a lease but a rent-to-own contract.
Norrick admitted if Willaims can prove that, it’s possible that Landis has filed incorrectly and may need to be moved from a small claims to a civil court docket.
Tamie Dixon-Tatum, civil and human rights director and Title VI coordinator for the City of Anderson, said about 90% of the complaints she has received since the pandemic started have been related to landlord/tenant issues.
“Almost every day I am getting calls in regard to some kind of housing issue,” she said.
For many, there are few options, especially when their financial circumstances dictate limited ability to retain a lawyer, unlike the property owners, Dixon-Tatum said.
“They’re trying to eat and keep a roof over their head. They aren’t in a position to get an attorney to fight for a right they don’t even know they have.”
Even for those who are able to secure representation in court, chances are slim that rulings will come out in their favor because Indiana law favors the landlord, Dixon-Tatum said.
Having an eviction on their credit record is devastating to people who already have very little, she said.
“You’ve got seven years trying to make up for something that wasn’t even your fault.”
Dixon-Tatum said she’s not really sure what’s in it for property owners to reject rental assistance on behalf of their tenants or how evictions during a pandemic are good for business.
“You would think the bottom line for the landlord would be to get the money, particularly if you have tenants who have paid regularly and taken care of the property,” she said. “It’s very counterproductive. It reduces the pool of people eligible to rent. Who are you going to rent to?”
Dixon-Tatum said rent-to-own issues and leasing issues during the pandemic have affected Black residents disproportionately.
“A lot of times, it’s one of those gentrification strategies, too,” she said. “So once again, these communities of color are robbed of homeownership. Historically, we have been left out of homeownership. This is another barrier, if you will, to homeownership.”