They didn't pay rent and stole the fridge. Pandemic spawns nightmare tenants

Oct 22, 2021
Originally published on October 22, 2021 1:27 pm

Just before the pandemic, Nitin Bajaj and his wife, Nimisha Lotia, rented an apartment they own in Los Angeles to two young women.

"They were really nice to talk to," Lotia says.

But as soon as the pandemic hit, the new renters, both in their late 20s, stopped paying the rent. Lotia says the young women sent them an email saying that COVID-19 had created a financial hardship and that the city had just imposed an eviction ban — so the renters couldn't be evicted.

"No further explanation," she says. "No calls or nothing, just an email, and I think a snapshot of what the city rule was."

Across the country, more than 20 million Americans lost their jobs as the pandemic took hold. Many fell behind on rent. Eviction moratoriums at the local, state and federal level clearly helped millions of people keep a roof over their heads as they struggled financially. But some other renters took advantage of the protections.

Lotia says she's not sure whether the renters lost their jobs or not. But things started to get weird after they stopped paying the rent. The young women stopped talking to them on their way in and out of the house.

"They didn't make eye contact," Bajaj says. So that went on for a few weeks.

"Then I lost my job due to COVID," Lotia says. "And that was a major hit as well because there were two streams of income that had just stopped coming in."

Nitin Bajaj and his wife Nimisha purchased this small apartment building almost 10 years ago. The family has gradually fixed it up, removing bars from the window and painting it. Early on, Bajaj had to drag a dismantled abandoned van out of the yard. "There was a bumper here, and a door there," he says.
Jessica Ruiz for NPR

Bajaj and Lotia aren't big corporate landlords with massive real estate holdings. They're immigrants from Mumbai, India, who bought a small rundown building with four units nearly 10 years ago. They were starting a family and couldn't afford a traditional single-family house. So they live in one apartment and rent out the others.

Over the years, they've slowly turned it into a nice home. They painted it, replaced all 42 of the windows and removed the security bars.

The rental income helps keep the family afloat. Bajaj works for an education nonprofit, and after Lotia lost her job, living on his salary was tough. So the couple rented out their own home, the apartment where they live, and moved 80 miles away to a much cheaper house out in the desert.

Lyra Bajaj, 11, and Reva Bajaj, 9, play near a cabin their parents built for them after clearing out and fixing up their apartment building in Los Angeles.
Jessica Ruiz for NPR

Lotia says their kids couldn't even go outside it was so hot. "They were very angry with us," she says. "They're just 9 and 11 so leaving their friends, their life just completely changed like upside down within a couple of weeks." Months went by and the renters still weren't paying any rent.

Meanwhile, pressure was building from housing advocates and landlord groups for Congress to do something to prevent a wave of evictions. And last December, lawmakers passed an emergency rental assistance program. In all, it would be $47 billion to prevent evictions and pay back rent. And that would help both renters and landlords.

"It was great to hear," says Bajaj. "I started looking for information."

Nitin Bajaj surveys the damaged empty kitchen earlier this month. The stove the tenants took with them has been replaced, but there is still much work to be done.
Jessica Ruiz for NPR

But distributing rental assistance money turned out to be a slow process. And the tenants had lots of complaints, even though they weren't paying rent. They called the city if they thought the plants near a walkway needed to be cut. They even called a city inspector because they didn't like how the new dishwasher was working.

"I was just appalled and I was like, seriously?" Lotia remembers. "I'm already going through so much and that was adding to it. There was so much more stress."

Eventually, this past spring, the rental assistance program in Los Angeles started taking applications. Bajaj says he was told that the renters needed to supply some documents.

"So we reached out to the tenants and said, 'Hey, could you guys please do that?' " He says they tried emailing, calling, approaching them in person, but, "they would just not talk."

Nimisha Lotia recalls how the problem tenants apparently had no money for rent but no problem with making constant complaints.
Jessica Ruiz for NPR

Finally, in July, the renters left unexpectedly in the middle of the night.

They must have had a pretty big truck because when they moved out, the couple says, they stole some rather large objects. Nimisha remembers walking through the apartment the morning after they left.

"When I reached the kitchen, I noticed, why does this look so open?" Lotia says. "Like, why is it looking so empty and bright? And then I realized, oh, the fridge is missing! Then, oh, my god, the other appliances are missing!"

The couple says the renters stole the refrigerator and the gas stove. They even took the dishwasher they had complained to the city about.

The damage left by the tenants went from floor to ceiling, leaving Bajaj and Lotia with a long to-do list before they can rent out the unit again.
Jessica Ruiz for NPR

There was also considerable damage to the apartment including cigarette burns on the vinyl floors. The tenants hadn't paid rent in 16 months, which added up to $32,000 in lost rent. NPR reached out to the tenants; they did not respond to requests for comment.

So, the couple has been calling the city rental assistance program to try to get reimbursed. After all, Congress has approved $47 billion for rental assistance.

The couple says the renters stole the refrigerator, the gas stove and even the dishwasher they had complained to the city about.
Nitin Bajaj

"We spoke to 17 different agents, two supervisors, it was very frustrating to not get any kind of answer," Bajaj says.

Eventually they were told they couldn't qualify for any help, because for landlords to get paid, renters need to cooperate with the program.

Across the country, other landlords are discovering the same thing. The same rule applies at all 500 state and local programs distributing that money from Congress.

There are a couple of different reasons for that. Fraud prevention is one. Also, policymakers don't want landlords to be able to just evict lots of people and then collect the back rent. Preventing evictions is a primary goal.

Noel Andrés Poyo is a deputy U.S. Treasury secretary who oversees emergency rental assistance efforts nationally. He says it's difficult to allow landlords to get help without the cooperation of renters and stay within the rules of the law passed by Congress.

Nitin Bajaj, with his youngest daughter Reva Bajaj, 9, in the background, has found that the federal rental assistance program has been unable to assist them.
Jessica Ruiz for NPR

But he says, that may change. "Right now, Congress is engaged in a process of looking at the original legislation and whether some updates can or should be made," Poyo says.

So, Congress or Treasury might soon come up with a workaround for landlords like Bajaj and Lotia. The couple says that because the government imposed eviction bans for so long, it's only fair that landlords in a situation like theirs be able to get some of this money from Congress.

"You just cannot be black and white," Lotia says, "like we're just not going to help the landlords at all."

Meanwhile, the couple is hoping one way or another they can recoup the $32,000 in back rent, which would help them buy a new refrigerator for their rental unit.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Many people throughout the pandemic have not been paying rent. That's due to eviction moratoriums that were in place so landlords could not throw people out for not paying rent. And now some of those landlords are finding out even though Congress approved billions of dollars for rental assistance money, they cannot get any of that money back. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: About 10 years ago, Nitin Bajaj and his wife were starting a family and looking to buy a house. They had emigrated from Mumbai, India, to Los Angeles. Money was tight, but luckily he found the perfect place.

NITIN BAJAJ: It had a lot of deferred maintenance. The garage doors were busted in.

ARNOLD: OK. It was a fixer-upper. There was an abandoned van in the yard. Also it wasn't a regular house. It was a small building with four apartments. So the couple could live in one and rent out the other apartments to help pay the mortgage. His wife Nimisha Lotia was a bit skeptical.

NIMISHA LOTIA: I was like, are you sure this is what we want to get? And he was like, trust me on this. This is going to be good for us.

ARNOLD: And over the years, they've slowly turned it into a nice home - painted it, replaced all 42 of the windows. And just before the pandemic, they rented to two young women.

LOTIA: We gave them a tour of the apartment, and they were really nice to talk to.

BAJAJ: Yeah. They were in their late 20s, and they had told us that they wanted to be a part of our family and stuff like that.

ARNOLD: But as soon as the pandemic hit, the new renters stopped paying the rent. Nimisha says the young women sent them an email saying that COVID had created a financial hardship and pointing out that the city had just imposed an eviction ban.

LOTIA: No further explanation, no calls or nothing - just an email and I think a snapshot of what the city rule was.

ARNOLD: She's not sure if the renters lost their jobs or not. But things started to get weird after that. The renters stopped talking to them on their way in and out of the house.

BAJAJ: You know, they didn't make eye contact.

ARNOLD: So that went on for a few weeks.

LOTIA: Then I lost my job due to COVID. And that was a major hit as well because there were two streams of income that had just stopped coming in.

ARNOLD: Nitin works for an education nonprofit and living just on his income was tough. So the couple rented out their own home, the apartment where they live, and they moved 80 miles away to a much cheaper house out in the desert. Nimisha says their kids couldn't even go outside because it was so hot.

LOTIA: They were very angry with us because they're just 9 and 11. So leaving their friends, their life just completely changed like upside down within a couple weeks.

ARNOLD: Around the country, millions of Americans had lost their jobs and many fell behind on rent. Pressure grew for Congress to help. And last December, lawmakers passed billions of dollars in emergency rental assistance. This was money to pay back rent, and that would help landlords, too.

BAJAJ: So it was great to hear, and I started looking for information.

ARNOLD: Meanwhile, the renters still were not paying rent. And they had lots of complaints. They even called the city inspector because they didn't like how the new dishwasher was working.

LOTIA: I was just appalled, and I was like, seriously?

ARNOLD: Eventually, this past spring, the rental assistance program in Los Angeles got up and running. Nitin says he was told, though, that the renters needed to supply some documents.

BAJAJ: So we reached out to the tenants and said, hey, could you guys please do that? And they just - they would just not talk.

ARNOLD: Finally, in July, the renters left unexpectedly and in the middle of the night. And they must have had a pretty big truck because when they moved out, the couple says they stole some rather large objects. Nimisha remembers walking through the apartment the morning after they left.

LOTIA: And when I reached the kitchen, I noticed, why does this look so open, like, empty? And then I realized, oh, the fridge is missing. Then, oh, my God, the other appliances are missing.

ARNOLD: They took the gas stove, even the dishwasher that they had complained to the city about. On top of all that, the couple was out $32,000 in back rent that the young women still owed. So they've been calling the city rental assistance program trying to get reimbursed for that.

BAJAJ: We spoke to 17 different agents, two supervisors. It was very frustrating to not get any kind of answer.

ARNOLD: Eventually, they were told that they couldn't get any help because for landlords to get paid, renters need to cooperate with the program. And across the country, that is the rule. Noel Andres Poyo is a deputy treasury secretary. He says allowing landlords to get help without the renter's cooperation, that's a difficult thing to do and still stay within the rules that Congress laid out.

NOEL ANDRES POYO: And right now, Congress is engaged in a process of looking at the original legislation and whether some updates can or should be made precisely around some of these issues that you're bringing up.

ARNOLD: Also nobody wants landlords to just be able to evict lots of people and then go collect the back rent. But Congress or Treasury might soon come up with a workaround for landlords like Nitin and Nimisha. Nimisha says since the government imposed these eviction bans, it's only fair that landlords in a situation like theirs be able to get some of this money from Congress.

LOTIA: You just cannot be black and white like we're not just going to help the landlords at all.

ARNOLD: Meanwhile, the couple is hoping one way or another they can recoup the $32,000 in back rent, which would definitely help them buy a new refrigerator for their rental unit.

Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.