Moving evicted tenants is big business
NEW YORK -- Property owners across the country bear a burden from the recession: paying a fortune in moving and storage costs to evict tenants who fail to pay their rent.
But the owners' losses are a boon for the companies that clear out homes. Their business has skyrocketed, "making money out of people's misery," said David Robinson, an attorney for Legal Services NYC, which helps low-income New Yorkers navigate the eviction process.
Hardest-hit are ethnic urban neighborhoods, where about twice as many renters are forced to leave as in the general population, according to housing experts.
Low-income black women, often single mothers, are the most likely to be evicted because they can't afford their rent, recent research showed.
For the movers, "it's a lucrative business, absolutely," said Eli Navon, owner of Eagle Van Lines, a New Jersey-based company that executes eviction moves in the greater New York area.
Such jobs typically bring extra money because "you have to pack every single thing, from the dishes to the furniture, and sometimes even garbage; we're not allowed to throw anything out," Navon said.
His clients pay an average of about $2,500 to clear out a two-bedroom apartment, Navon said. And that's not the end of eviction expenses for the property owner, who then must pay for a storage unit to hold the tenant's goods for 30 days.
That's how long tenants in New York and New Jersey have to pick up their belongings before they're discarded or auctioned off as a lot.
And some owners take on additional cost when they hire an attorney who specializes in evictions.
Kick ‘em Out Quick is the name of a nationwide, online referral service warning owners that "nonpaying and nuisance tenants cost you time, money and serious risk to your property. ... Take control and protect your investment."
In January, they posted their Nightmare Eviction of the Month, from Ogden, Utah. In that case, the landlord waited five months before filing to evict the tenant, who owned $5,600 in back rent, plus $8,700 in damages.
The total loss to the property owner was $14,300, before moving costs.
After New Year's, "my phone is ringing nonstop," said Gregory Gosset, managing director of Ogden-based Kick ‘em Out Quick, which fields queries from landlords seeking attorneys who handle eviction cases.
Judging by the volume of calls he's getting, "It's gotten worse," said Gosset.
He said he's now hearing more often from the West -- especially southern California, Texas, Washington state and Arizona.
The annual cost of evictions to property owners is in the millions of dollars, according to Chester Hartman, an urban planner with the Poverty and Race Research Action Council in Washington.
A study conducted in Milwaukee showed that one of every 20 renter-occupied properties is evicted each year. In mostly black neighborhoods, the rate is one in 10 households. The research was based on an analysis of court records and fieldwork from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, led by sociologist Matthew Desmond, now at Harvard University.
"The odds of a woman being evicted in black neighborhoods is twice that of men," Desmond said. "It's quite stunning."
Arthur Mirtal, sales manager at the White Glove Moving & Storage in Bayonne, N.J., said he's seen a rise in evictions that reflects the failing economy.
In Brooklyn, AAA Moving makes more than $120,000 a year from evictions, accounting for about 20 percent of its revenue, according to manager Mike Edelman, who said his company charges $35 an hour for each employee, plus packing materials and storage.
In 2007, New York's housing court reported about 700 evictions citywide; two years later, there were more than 1,100. The numbers have tapered off slightly in the past few years.
While failure to pay the rent is a major reason for eviction, a tenant can also be kicked out for violating a lease, damaging property or other causes that can be proved -- from criminal activity to unbearable noise.
It's all legal, hinging on a strict process that governs any eviction move.
First, an owner must warn the tenant of the possibility of eviction and offer them a chance to rectify the situation before going to housing court to request an eviction order from a judge. Then, once a date is set, a city marshal or sheriff with the proper documentation accompanies the mover to the property, along with a locksmith.
"It can be a sleazy business," said Mirtal, of White Glove Moving & Storage.
"A mover has to show up at the door, and we don't know what to expect," Mirtal said. "We're not allowed to throw anything out, so if there's something that looks like garbage, it has to be packed and labeled."
More often than not, tenants warned of pending eviction leave before the mover arrives.
And that allows crews "to be very generous with the amount of materials and time they take to do the job," as Mirtal puts it.
Translation: Companies charging by the hour often take as much time as possible to pack every item, which must then be written up for an inventory, as required by law.
If tenants refuse to leave, it can get ugly, with authorities forcing their way in, sometimes facing resistance.
"Once, in Manhattan, we were met with bats and chains," said Mirtal. "And we were told, `You're evicting our friend."'
His company averages four or five evictions a month.
In certain communities, like Suffolk County on New York's Long Island, the law allows a property owner to leave a tenant's belongings on the sidewalk.
Attorney Steven Snair specializes in landlord-tenant cases. They often involve middle-class, blue-collar Suffolk owners renting out part of their home to barely make ends meet, he said.
Then they're slammed with the eviction costs.
Sheriff's deputies in the New York county either move belongings to the curb themselves, or use companies under contract to them. Because it's only a walk away, the cost of such a move is far less, but the total still runs to thousands of dollars.
Snair charges a minimum of about $1,000 per case, plus charges for paperwork and other fees like the $400 that goes to the sheriff when filing an eviction warrant.
"When owners try to do it on their own, they often screw up," said Snair. "It's very difficult to evict someone, very technical, and if you don't dot all your i's and cross all your t's, a judge quickly dismisses the case."
However it's done, the patterns of tenant evictions across the country reflect a painful reality.
"Just as incarceration has become typical in the lives of poor black men, eviction has become typical in the lives of poor black women," said Desmond, the sociologist.