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Throughout the pandemic, one Atlanta-area landlord has bombarded residents with eviction notices

At the Brooks Crossing apartments, tenants have faced 427 eviction filings since April 2020, more than any other area building. They can’t afford an alternative.

At the Brooks Crossing apartments south of Atlanta, dozens of residences have been issued eviction notices each month, even during the height of the pandemic, data shows. (Lynsey Weatherspoon for The Washington Post)

RIVERDALE, Ga. — During the first week of every month, the white sheets of paper show up, jammed behind doorknobs, laid on porch chairs or tables, dropped on concrete patios.

Janahya Sugick, a nail technician and mother of three, received her first late notice in June 2020, after her hours had been cut and her paycheck had dwindled because of the pandemic. Soon after, her apartment complex filed for eviction.

But even though she couldn’t immediately pay, Sugick was not evicted. Instead, she is regularly served eviction papers and then charged hundreds of dollars in fees to avoid removal, in a way that she and other residents of the Brooks Crossing apartments, a 224-unit complex south of Atlanta, say has become commonplace. Management of Brooks Crossing has filed for eviction against its tenants more than any other landlord in the Atlanta area, a total of 427 times since April 2020, according to data from the Atlanta Regional Commission. That equates to 1.9 eviction notices per unit there between April 2020 and early December 2021.

The practice shows how some landlords during the pandemic have employed frequent threats of removal and charged tenants extra fees, even as government authorities were urging landlords to minimize hardship and keep people in their homes.

Sugick, who rents a three-bedroom apartment with her children and fiance, faced five more eviction notices over the next year and a half. Over the past year, she received more than $2,000 in additional fees as a result of late rent payments, according to payment records reviewed by The Washington Post, including a $72 court fee for each eviction notice.

“As soon as you pay, there’s just, like, little fees you still got to pay,” said Sugick, 33, referring to the penalties. “Then the next month, it’s like right there, and you’re right back in that cycle.”

In July, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis announced an investigation into why Brooks Crossing’s management company, Florida-based Ventron Management, and several other real estate firms pursued evictions against tenants despite federal initiatives, particularly in areas where rents have sharply risen and state laws make it difficult for low-income renters to appeal evictions. The investigation is ongoing and no findings have been published.

In March 2020, Congress passed a stimulus measure, the CARES Act, that temporarily banned landlords who receive federal housing subsidies from assessing late fees or pursuing eviction against tenants behind on their rent.

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But during the four-month ban, Ventron filed for eviction against Brooks Crossing residents 99 times, even as hundreds of competing Atlanta landlords paused eviction filings altogether during that time. At the time the CARES Act moratorium was in place, Brooks Crossing had 14 tenants who were using federal housing vouchers, according to Jonesboro Housing Authority records obtained by the Atlanta Legal Aid Society through a records request and shared with The Post.

Amber Hobbs, a Ventron executive, said in an e-mail that the company “followed expert legal advice, which stated that we were in compliance with the CARES Act" and other bans.

Hobbs said that only five tenants were evicted from Brooks Crossing between March 2020 and August 2021, and that “tenant turnover” was cut in half.

“Throughout the pandemic, Ventron has consistently partnered with tenants, before and after eviction filings, on rental assistance, payment plans, and fee waivers, all in an effort to avoid actual eviction,” said Hobbs, Ventron’s director of collections.

Housing experts and federal officials have been happily surprised — though perplexed — in recent months as an expected wave of evictions did not appear after federal eviction bans expired. With their income hit by the pandemic, and living in an area with fast-rising rents and state law that allows landlords to quickly and cheaply file for eviction, residents of Brooks Crossing fit many of the criteria for tenants at risk.

Ventron manages three of the 10 Atlanta properties where tenants experienced the most eviction filings during the pandemic, according to the regional data. Company executives did not respond to a request for comment about its rate of filings compared with other properties.

Critics say landlords like Ventron should not have been so aggressive in filing for eviction given the pandemic.

“This is about somebody’s home,” said Michael Waller, executive director of the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. “So there may be one side making a business decision, but they are forcing the other side to make serious moral decisions about who they are and how they see themselves. There’s a lot of hazard there.”

Eviction filings leave lasting damage

With fast-rising rents, this part of the Atlanta area is one of the few places left that is affordable for working-class residents. Sugick regularly drives 40 minutes to do nails in Sandy Springs, in the wealthier northern part of the area, but cannot afford to live there.

“You’re like bone tired, because you’re fighting to get to work to even have a decent-paying job,” Sugick said.

A landlord-friendly legal framework in Georgia allows building owners and managers to quickly and cheaply file for eviction, housing experts said. Even if residents do not leave, they often face extra fees, and can find it more difficult to find another place to live later with an eviction filing on their records, housing experts and advocates said.

“Very few of them actually end up in eviction, but it doesn’t matter because the damage is already done,” said Tabitha Ingle, a doctoral candidate at Georgia State University who studies housing access issues in suburban Atlanta. “They have nowhere else to go after that.”

Clayton County, where Riverdale is located, has long been a majority-Black, middle-class suburb, somewhat accessible to downtown and more affordable than neighboring suburbs.

But the financial crisis more than a decade ago hit harder here than most places. Where other investors stayed away, Ventron founder Ronald Eisenberg, a real estate broker from Canada, saw an opportunity. His company took over management of Brooks Crossing, a complex of two dozen two-story buildings surrounded by tall pine trees and near Riverdale’s main commercial thoroughfare, after its purchase in 2011.

Since then, the Atlanta-area apartment market has soared, and the pandemic only added to the demand, said Jay Lybik, an apartment analyst at CoStar Group. Rents went up 19 percent in the 12 months through November, he said, one of the highest increases in the country. He estimated that the pandemic drove rents up $172 per month more than they would have grown otherwise. “The demand has just been so strong,” Lybik said.

Lower- and middle-income families — priced out of areas closer to downtown Atlanta — have moved south, to the benefit of Ventron and other real estate companies.

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As recently as 2016, tenants could rent a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment at Brooks Crossing for approximately $800 a month, according to company documents produced in the course of a lawsuit brought in 2017 by past tenants who alleged that Ventron failed to make adequate repairs to units. The company denied the allegations. By 2020, similar units at the complex rented for approximately $1,200 per month, according to leases and tenant payment records reviewed by The Post.

“We’ve had a lot of success in the south end of the city,” Eisenberg said in a 2018 deposition taken as part of another lawsuit against the complex. “We bought property there when no one wanted to buy and we did a good job with it. And, I think, generally speaking, our resident base is very happy with us.”

Eisenberg, who founded Ventron in 2004, declined to be interviewed. He often takes small ownership stakes in Ventron’s properties, including Brooks Crossing, according to his 2018 deposition. The majority owner of Brooks Crossing, through a trust and general partnership, is Alon Ossip, a private equity executive living in Canada, according to Eisenberg’s deposition. Ossip could not be reached for comment, but he submitted an affidavit as part of a lawsuit saying he had nothing to do with management of the property.

Ventron sometimes seeks and accepts renters at Brooks Crossing who are on public assistance or who have faced eviction in the past, according to interviews. One tenant, who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation, said she was turned away from units across Atlanta because of a past eviction, but managed to get a unit at Brooks Crossing.

“We go out of our way to help people who are challenged with credit,” Eisenberg said in his deposition. “And lots of people through the recession got challenged with credit. We go out of our way to help them have a nice home.”

Hobbs, Ventron’s director of collections, said the company was proud to rent to “a high number of second chance tenants, in traditionally underserved communities.”

But some Ventron tenants say it’s hard to escape the cycle of late payments and fees at Brooks Crossing and other second-chance apartment buildings.

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Sugick, despite sometimes getting rental assistance from the county, was often late making her rent and regularly carried a balance of more than $2,000 when the first of the month arrived, according to payment records she shared with The Post. This cost her dearly. Ventron often tacked on a $100 late fee, a $35 late-utility fee, a $128 “collection administration” fee, a $72 court fee for evictions, and a $100 “month to month” fee, according to screenshots of her account. Ventron collected an extra $2,230 over the year, and Sugick paid 14 percent more for her apartment.

Sugick, normally bubbly and quick to laugh, broke down crying when discussing the extra expenses.

“That just makes me sad,” she said. Once when she fell behind last year, “I was even trying to explain to them: ‘I’m giving you all my entire paycheck. I have a kid. I can’t buy diapers.’ ” Staff moved forward with filing for eviction days later, she said.

Ventron did not respond to specific questions about tenants’ experiences.

Court filings show that Ventron filed for eviction against tenants in 31 units in November, or nearly 14 percent of the apartment complex.

Aubrey and Queniesha Jones, who have four children, faced eviction filings for their three-bedroom unit at Brooks Crossing in 2020, when Aubrey, 31, lost his job as a trucker, according to court filings and interviews. He found new work as a courier, but injured his back in August and fell behind on rent again as he waited to have surgery. Queniesha stays at home to watch their children, including toddler twins, because child-care costs would probably eat up whatever salary she could earn, the couple said.

The family recently tried to move, but was turned down because of their past eviction filings, the Joneses said.

Aubrey Jones said staff at Brooks Crossing have been willing to work with the family over the past few months of financial hardship.

“I’m about to go in there again and try to keep them from filing eviction,” Jones said while standing on his concrete porch in early December. He gestured toward the apartment, where his children played inside. “We got to make sure they come before everything, we got to make sure they have some food on the table, clothes, what they need.”

‘We’re able to stop the bleeding’

Wanda Dallas, former chief magistrate judge for Clayton County, helped launch an eviction diversion program before the pandemic. “The ways the laws are structured and the ways the laws are written in Georgia, it allows landlords to have so much more power,” she said. “It shouldn’t be that easy to disrupt someone’s entire life.”

Clayton County expanded its eviction prevention efforts at the onset of the pandemic, when billions of dollars in federal funds were given to states to help people in danger of losing their housing.

Many states and municipalities have struggled to deliver federal rental assistance to the people who need it. Data provided by Clayton County officials show that as of Dec. 7, the county had distributed $5.8 million of $8.8 million in first-round funds, and $3.2 million of $4 million in second-round funds.

“We’re able to stop the bleeding,” said the county’s chief magistrate judge, Keisha Wright Hill.

A local nonprofit group, Hearts to Nourish Hope, has helped disburse that federal aid to people who are late on rent but do not have a pending court case. That program helped Sugick and her family, paying her rent and accumulated fines for several months this summer. But by early December, Sugick again fell behind on her rent.

With an eviction pending and thousands owed to the apartment complex, Sugick’s only goal was to save enough to be able to leave Brooks Crossing. She had no idea where they would go next.