Missouri landlords took millions in federal pandemic aid. Now they're kicking tenants out
This story was commissioned by the River City Journalism Fund.
Spanish Cove Townhomes by Pepper Pike Management is located off a busy road in Florissant. A sprawling set of apartments, it covers nearly 800 units.
Yet there is an almost ghost town feel to the place. Many of the units are shiny and new, but remain empty, the result of a massive renovation that began more than a year ago.
Three years ago Latice Valiant lived here with her young son. They had a good life.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. Valiant lost her job in retail a year later and fell behind on rent, then faced eviction.
Valiant had heard from a neighbor about a new program called SAFHR, or State Assistance for Housing Relief. It was a Missouri-run, federally funded program to help eligible tenants hurt financially by the COVID-19 pandemic. It provided rental and utility aid directly to landlords on behalf of tenants, as well as mortgage assistance for homeowners.
Valiant remembers asking someone in the Spanish Cove manager’s office about applying for SAFHR.
“They said they weren’t getting SAFHR,” she recalls. “They didn’t want to deal with it.”
But that wasn’t true.
As it turns out, Spanish Cove’s owners received more than $1.25 million in SAFHR funding in 2021 and 2022, according to records from the Missouri Housing Development Commission, which oversees the program.
Despite the infusion of taxpayer cash to keep people housed, Spanish Cove filed eviction proceedings against 259 tenants in 2022, according to St. Louis County Court records.
Valiant was one of them.
For months Valiant and her son struggled to find a new place to live. But her eviction history made it hard.
“It’s really hurt my life,” Valiant says of her eviction. “I can’t get any apartments. It’s on my record.”
The apartment complex owner, Pepper Pike Capital Partners of Orange Village, Ohio, did not return calls seeking comment.
Eviction filings have always come fast and cheap in Missouri — a legacy of Missouri’s long history of weak tenant protections.
Now eviction filings are happening faster than before the pandemic. And in many cases, the same landlords that benefited from the SAFHR program are the ones kicking people out.
Using a list developed by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, the River City Journalism Fund filed Sunshine Law requests with state administrators, seeking to learn how much SAFHR funding had been granted to the five landlords responsible for the most evictions in the St. Louis area last year. We also requested funding totals for another dozen landlords with significant Missouri holdings.
While the state initially declined to turn over those records, when pushed, they ultimately provided the amount each landlord received through the SAFHR program. (See sidebar “The St. Louis Area’s Biggest Evictors.”)
The evictions are among the more than 14,710 eviction filings made in St. Louis city and county in the past year, fueling a housing crisis for low-income tenants across the region. The filings represent 108% of an average year before the pandemic hit, according to the Eviction Lab — an average of 282 evictions in the city and county every week.
It’s the same story, or worse, in other cities across the nation. Eviction filings in the last year in Houston were at 143% of an average past year, according to the Eviction Lab, which tracks filings in nearly three dozen cities and 10 states. Las Vegas stood at 164%.
SAFHR funding dried up in February. Various federal and local eviction bans ended at least two years ago even as pent-up demand and inflation, plus a shortage of affordable housing, have sent rental prices soaring.
“We’ve finally come out of the pandemic and the end of these programs,” says Glenn Burleigh, a spokesman for the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council. “And we have not put together any way for tenants to have a soft landing into this housing market.”
Not only that, but the same landlords who benefited are now kicking tenants out.
Take Fountains at Carondelet, the dilapidated south St. Louis property formerly known as Southwest Crossing, at 7851 Bandero Drive.
In 2021, the Fountains’ owners received $166,863 in SAFHR funds. The next year, they received $249,961 in SAFHR funds — for a total of $416,824, according to MHDC records.
This past June, ArchCity Defenders filed suit against Fountains Apartment Homes LLC, the complex’s newest owners.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a tenant named LaQuita Thomas. She alleges the company failed to comply with Missouri law, which requires buyers to notify tenants of new ownership, including details on where to send rent. Tenants say they weren’t told about the complex’s many changes in ownership, which meant rent payments went to the wrong owners, leading to late fees.
When Fountains Apartment Homes LLC bought the apartment complex in February 2023, the new owners filed 44 rent and possession eviction cases over a five-week span, resulting in 36 eviction judgments. The suit said that Thomas and an estimated 200 other residents lived in fear of being unlawfully removed from their homes.
Avraham Lapine, of Columbia, Missouri, is listed as the registered agent for Fountains Apartment Homes. Lapine, a rabbi, is co-director of Chabad Jewish Center of MU and Mid-Missouri, also known as Chabad at Mizzou, the Jewish student center at the University of Missouri Columbia.
Lapine says he doesn’t know who owns the apartment complex, telling a reporter he is serving as an agent in return for payment by the USA Corp., a business filing corporation in New York City.
A USA Corp. representative declined to divulge the identity of the apartment complex’s owner.
The suit alleges that since 2020, tenants of the Fountains at Carondelet have dealt with poor living conditions, including black mold, inadequate heat and air conditioning, and maintenance issues because of poor property management enlisted by a succession of out-of-state, corporate owners.
“Each of these transitions in ownership has also been plagued by miscommunication that has left tenants, including Ms. Thomas, and the members of the proposed class, uncertain as to when and where to pay rent and how to request responsive maintenance for their homes,” according to the lawsuit.
Property records indicate the complex’s owner in 2021 and 2022 was a company called Aria Legacy Management, of Lakewood, New Jersey.
Reached by a reporter, Managing principal Joseph Novoseller declined to discuss SAFHR funding. He denied the apartment complex was in bad shape at the time of its sale in January 2023.
“We’ve done a lot to fix it up, and we left it in good shape,” Novoseller said.
As for the many tenants evicted from the building because they couldn’t pay rent, Novoseller said, “Between COVID, I think the whole world had a problem with paying.” Then he hung up.
A lifeline ended
No one disputes that SAFHR was a lifeline for many tenants. The Missouri Housing Development Commission, which oversees the program, estimates SAFHR prevented more than 86,000 evictions statewide.
But the program could also be unforgiving and user-unfriendly, according to some tenants.
Even though SAFHR money went to the landlords, tenants were responsible for starting the process by filling out online applications and providing supporting documents, such as lease agreements.
Many tenants, however, were confused by program rules and encountered problems complying with the application process, which some struggled to navigate using their cell phones. Once approved, they had a hard time keeping track of what the program paid for and what they were still obligated to pay as part of their lease agreements, according to the tenants interviewed.
Beyond that, Missouri’s program got a late start.
Congress approved the first tranche of funds under the Emergency Rental Assistance Act by December 2020. But by the end of September 2021, Missouri had awarded only 18% of the $323.7 million it had received.
Earlier that month, the Treasury Department informed Missouri and other states that if they hadn’t distributed 65% of the first batch of rental assistance funds by September 30, they would have to submit an improvement plan.
So what made Missouri’s SAFHR program so unwieldy and so late?
Elad Gross, an attorney with the St. Louis Mediation Project, says a key turning point occurred in early 2021, when state lawmakers limited the program’s administrative overhead to 2.5%.
“It was only a quarter of what they could’ve spent under that statute,” says Gross, a candidate for state attorney general.
As a direct result of the state’s decision to cut overhead costs, few people were available at the Missouri Housing Development Commission to answer tenant questions, he says.
“One issue that came up pretty often is that people didn’t know how to complete the applications on their own,” Gross says. “You couldn’t call MHDC and say, ‘I need help.’ You could, but it was super spotty. They couldn’t tell you much, and it was really hard.”
Instead of answering callers’ questions, state workers often directed tenant calls to Gross.
“At one point they were sending them to my cell phone number,” he says. “You would call the 1-800 number, ‘Oh, call this guy.’ What was I supposed to do?”
Drowning in debt
Eviction was something that Kalil Lofton, 26, wanted to avoid.
Lofton was one of 11 residents of the Parkview Gardens Apartments who received court summonses between June and August over unpaid back rent going back as far as 18 months.
For Lofton, like four other Parkview residents that the River City Journalism Fund spoke to, confusion over SAFHR payments lay at the heart of these court summonses.
Parkview Gardens is spread across a swath of modest apartment buildings in University City. It is run by Fox Grove Management, an arm of the non-profit DeSales Community Development.
Parkview keeps rents relatively low through a tax credit program, and it markets to low- and moderate-income tenants based on income criteria.
Parkview and Fox Grove threatened Lofton with eviction for nearly $4,000 in unpaid back rent stretching back 18 months. Other Parkview tenants threatened with eviction owed sums ranging between $3,342 and nearly $7,210, according to court records.
Lofton, who today works as a security guard in the St. Louis Public Schools, says he was shocked by the amount he owed.
The unpaid rent, plus resulting attorney fees, totaled $4,200 — an amount that Lofton had only four weeks to find.
“When I got the summons, that was the first communication I got for anything,” Lofton says. “There was no heads up. It was ‘Here’s your court date here. Here’s what you got.’”
Lofton blames his unpaid rent on bouts of joblessness. First he lost his position in the kitchen of Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Then his gig at an Amazon warehouse ended.
But Lofton says it was also difficult to keep track of his monthly rent of $555 and what SAFHR was paying for — a situation aggravated by the fact that several months would often pass between when he’d apply for SAFHR funding and when it came through to Parkview Gardens.
“We didn’t know when it was hitting the account,” Lofton recalls. “We didn’t know when it was approved. We just knew we signed up for it and this is what they will pay for six months. So for six months you know you didn’t have to do anything.”
“There was no heads up. It was ‘Here’s your court date here. Here’s what you got.’”Kalil Lofton, a former Parkview Gardens Apartment resident who received a court summons for unpaid rent
Susan Ryan, a DeSales Community Development spokeswoman, disputes that, saying Parkview tenants were kept informed of what they owed.
“I don’t think the SAFHR program was confusing. Residents had access to their financial statements at all times,” Ryan says, referencing the program’s online portal. “And it’s unfortunate that some of them were confused. But show me one government program that’s not somewhat confusing.”
Ryan emphasizes DeSales’ mission of providing affordable housing to those who need it. SAFHR enabled DeSales to continue providing such housing during a stressful time.
“There wasn’t anything they got out of it other than the ability to offer affordable housing and the ability to provide affordable housing to the people who need it most,” she says.
In 2021 and 2022, DeSales received almost $591,000 in SAFHR funds, while Parkview Gardens’ owners received $485,393 from SAFHR, records show.
Fox Grove threatened its tenants with eviction only as a last resort, Ryan says. “It’s the worst possible scenario, of course,” Ryan says. “No organization with a mission like DeSales’ ever wants to be in that situation.”
"I couldn’t break. If I was breaking, I couldn’t get any money."Kalil Lofton, a former Parkview Gardens Apartments resident in the side gigs he had to do to pay his rent
Yvette Williams, who served as Parkview Gardens’ property manager until June, says she helped some Parkview tenants set up their SAFHR accounts. Williams blames many delinquencies on uncertainties built into the waiting period that occured after tenants submitted their SAFHR applications.
“So that’s the issue a lot of them ran into — you’re waiting but you’re not paying,” Williams says. “Even if you didn’t understand how much arrears or how much forward SAFHR is going to pay, you still have an obligation to pay your rent every month.”
Lofton’s summons to court caused extreme stress. Fortunately, he had a side gig to fall back on: driving for Uber. For most of July and August, Lofton’s life revolved around the ride-sharing company.
“I’d get up early, drive Uber, take a little break,” he says. “Then get back out at night, Uber some more. And that was the process every day. I couldn’t break. If I was breaking, I couldn’t get any money.”
By the week before his August 29 trial date, Lofton had already paid down $2,000. He was then able to set up a repayment plan, agreeing to pay Parkview Gardens and Fox Grove $2,665.50, including court costs and $350 in attorney fees, court records show.
“I put myself in that position,” Lofton says. “Because even waiting for a separate rent assistance, I should’ve been paying but I couldn’t. And I was honest with them. It wasn’t like I was trying to duck and dodge and lie about it.”
Williams, however, believes that SAFHR funding set up many tenants for eviction.
“It’s a tough one,” she says. “Because they dished out all that money to help, but in the long run it didn’t help at all because people got out of the habit of paying the rent every month. Now they can’t get caught up.”
Missing tenant protections
Even as they received SAFHR money, Missouri landlords could keep evicting tenants. That was true even during the supposed eviction “moratorium,” which applied only to tenants who could show they were harmed directly by the COVID-19 pandemic (either too sick to work or affected by the slowing economy).
Unlike states like Minnesota, Missouri never imposed a statewide eviction ban. And after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the eviction freeze in August 2021, the pace of evictions only accelerated.
Sarah Owsley, the advocacy director for Empower Missouri, a tenants’ rights group, notes that Missouri has long lacked tenant protections taken for granted in other states.
They include the right to a lawyer in eviction cases (the law in Maryland, Connecticut and Washington, as well as cities such as New York and San Francisco), and the automatic sealing of eviction records (10 states, plus D.C.).
Even the low cost of filing an eviction case in Missouri — on average $33, one of the cheapest in the nation — underscores the state’s pro-landlord bias, Owsley says.
Owsley blames this bias on the strength of the state’s real estate lobby and its support for property owner rights.
“We also have a really strong mind toward small business; we view landlords as a small business,” she says.
Now the tenants who needed SAFHR the most are bearing the brunt of the current eviction crisis, attorneys and advocates say: poor women of color, families with young children and domestic violence survivors.
“There are all these pressures right now that are pushing people to become homeless,” Gross said. “Everybody who’s tracking this stuff is seeing an increase in evictions right now, and there’s no place for folks to go.”
But for many St. Louisans, the crisis is taking place out of sight. That’s because eviction filings are concentrated in a few hotspots, Eviction Lab data show.
Since October 2022, almost 40% of all evictions in St. Louis occurred at just 100 buildings. Many are in north St. Louis County, with Timberland Partners STL in Hazelwood having the most eviction filings since March 2020 — 528, court records show.
“It’s a lot of very highly concentrated activity in specific neighborhoods and within specific buildings,” Eviction Lab research specialist Jacob Haas explains. “But that also means that solutions can be targeted. Rental assistance can be targeted to the areas and buildings that need it the most.”
'People are in very great need'
The money for SAFHR came from the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which Congress funded at $46.5 billion in 2021 and 2022. Missouri received about $600 million.
Since the program was voluntary, and the idea was to distribute it as quickly as possible, SAFER’s federal and state supervisors attached hardly any strings.
“So effectively, I think you saw people handed free money,” says Gross. “And that became a big problem.”
Ryan, the DeSales spokeswoman, disagrees that the SAFHR program provided any extra benefits to landlords. “Absolutely not,” Ryan says. “It kept people in their homes. It did exactly what it was designed to do: keep people with a roof over their head.”
The biggest problem, in Gross’ view, is that nothing was done in Missouri to soften the blow for low- and moderate-income tenants once the program ran out.
Kennard Williams, the organizing manager for Action St. Louis, one of the region’s leading tenant rights groups, says the current level of evictions could have been mitigated if some form of assistance had continued.
“The pandemic really showed us the scale with which that’s needed,” Williams says. “And we saw with those programs how much they were helping people. Now that they’ve been running out, we’ve seen the other end of that. We still see that people are in very great need.”
Brian Vollenweider, a Missouri Housing Development Commission spokesman, declined to address criticisms of the program.
“The SAFHR program was a federal emergency rental assistance program by the U.S. Treasury to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Vollenweider wrote in an email. “The program was administered according to federal guidelines as determined by the U.S. Treasury including eligible uses and program requirements.”
One of the easiest things Missouri lawmakers could have done to slow evictions would have been to raise the price of filing an eviction case in state court, thereby encouraging landlords to negotiate with tenants.
The current initial filing fee for an eviction case in St. Louis County is just $36. In contrast, landlords in Mississippi pay a filing fee of $65. Landlords in Georgia pay $87, while in Alabama they pay $276, according to Eviction Lab data.
$36.00The cost to file an eviction in Missouri
Increasing an eviction filing fee by $100 reduces the eviction filing rate by 2.25 percentage points, according to an Eviction Lab study.
Another important step would be a right-to-counsel law, which would level the playing field for tenants, Gross says.
Nationwide statistics show that tenants facing eviction often don’t show up in court because they believe they have little chance of winning without an attorney. While some 80% of landlords have lawyers, just 3% of tenants do, according to NPR.
Tenants who represent themselves lose more than 90% of the time when they go up against landlords represented by attorneys. “But in cases when both sides are represented,” Gross says, “it’s much closer to 50-50.”
The City of St. Louis passed a Right to Counsel ordinance this past July. The program is not comprehensive. It will focus on ZIP codes with the highest rates of eviction: 63103, 63101, 63111, 63118, 63112. And it’s at best a trial: The program, which takes effect next July, is funded with just $685,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Kansas City’s right to counsel law, however, has made a big difference. Implemented in June 2022, it offers free legal services to those on the verge of eviction with the help of the UMKC School of Law and Legal Aid of Western Missouri.
Before the pandemic, 99% of cases filed in Jackson County led to eviction. In the first three months of the Right to Counsel Program, however, having a lawyer paired with rental assistance dropped the eviction rate to less than 20%, the city says.
What’s threatening to make things worse for low-income renters is the fact that Missouri’s relatively low property costs and the lack of tenant safeguards make St. Louis a great opportunity for out-of-state investors.
In the first quarter of 2023, St. Louis was one of the top five markets for real estate investors, according to data from New Western, which serves more than 150,000 investors.
“Word has gotten out that St. Louis is this affordable city,” says Lee Camp, a senior attorney with ArchCity Defenders. “Because we’re seeing a major influx of out-of-state ownership through these different LLCs. And they’ve adopted an eviction-first mentality.”
One of the nation’s largest property investment firms, Monarch Management and Investment Group of Franktown, Colorado, began buying up properties in the St. Louis area just before the pandemic hit.
In a 2022 profile in Bloomberg magazine, Monarch owner Bob Nicolls stated that Minnesota, once Monarch’s best market, had soured due to its highly restrictive eviction moratorium. “Hopefully, it will wash away,” he told the magazine.
“At the Oak Park Apartments in north St. Louis, more than 80 households saw multiple filings since Monarch acquired the complex in 2018,” Bloomberg reported. “Fourteen faced eviction more than once during the pandemic. Over the short time that Monarch owned Oak Park … the company filed 480 evictions, touching the majority of families living at the 756-unit complex.”
“SAFHR, I say, was a s—— program. There was almost no vetting."Matthew Chase, a University City-based lawyer who represented the Fountains at Carondelet
Monarch’s onslaught of threatened removals was led by Matthew Chase, a University City-based lawyer who also represented the Fountains at Carondelet in court.
Chase earned notoriety for a 2021 video that went viral. In it, Chase told landlords not to go out of their way to tell tenants about the federal eviction moratorium. Staring into the camera and jabbing his finger angrily for emphasis, Chase declared, “They shouldn’t have signed a fucking contract for a thousand-dollar-a-month unit for a year if they’re too fucking stupid to sign, to know anything, to read the news, to have any idea about their rights.”
Since the video came out more than two years ago, Monarch has severed ties with Chase, the company says.
Chase didn’t respond to numerous messages seeking an interview, but when a reporter stopped by his office in University City on a recent weekday, he was more than happy to expound (see sidebar “The Man Behind the Evictions”).
“SAFHR, I say, was a shitty program. There was almost no vetting,” Chase says. “Somebody said, ‘I was affected by COVID’ — it applied to everybody. There was no vetting for most of it. For the most part of it, all you had to say was, ‘COVID affected me,’ and you’re good.”
He’s also unimpressed with St. Louis’ right-to-counsel pilot program.
“All it’s going to do is create more trials,” he says. “All it’s going to do is create delays. Again, delay is not going to help these people. The bottom line is they have to become more fiscally responsible.”
For many decades researchers have tried to understand the root cause of chronic poverty in America.
They examined such traditional suspects as a lack of educational opportunity and job discrimination. They drilled down into the impacts of mass incarceration, public assistance, various parenting styles and the many corrosive effects of chronic poverty and racism.
Then in 2016 sociologist Matthew Desmond published his groundbreaking book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.
Desmond’s book, the product of two years shadowing poor families in Milwaukee, showed how the tenant eviction process isn’t just a symptom of American poverty, but one of the most powerful engines driving its expansion.
Some of the most heart-wrenching passages depict the steep losses that eviction inflicts on a family — the material hardships and psychological pain that come not only from losing a home, a school and a neighborhood but also losing personal possessions. Eviction dramatically raises a family’s odds of becoming homeless, while also spiking rates of clinical depression and even suicide.
Collectively, these impacts drive families into the segment of the housing market known as “low-tier,” which is characterized by disproportionately high rents and unsafe living conditions.
Sophisticated internet search tools and screening software now make it nearly impossible for tenants to hide court records of an eviction — even if it’s filed in error or maliciously — from future landlords.
“There is a slice of landlords across St. Louis that realizes there are thousands and thousands of people across St. Louis with bad credit history,” says Burleigh. “And they will not be let into any well-kept apartment building because of these background checks.”
Companies make big profits collecting and selling housing court data, “culling court records for names of defendants in eviction proceedings — whether they win or not — and then compiling them to profit off the tenants’ misfortune,” according to the Appeal, a nonprofit journalism platform.
Meanwhile, the shortage of affordable housing sets up a situation, Burleigh says, where “what often happens is that folks get down to the lowest level of landlord that takes people with credit issues and all those other issues.”
That’s what happened to Valiant.
One of the few places that would take Valiant after her eviction was Ridgeview Apartments, in the tiny community of Riverview, located in the far eastern edge of St. Louis County, just north of the city line.
“There is a slice of landlords across St. Louis that realizes there are thousands and thousands of people across St. Louis with bad credit history..."Glenn Burleigh, a spokesman for the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council
She’s lived there with her son for 15 months. During that time she’s watched its ownership change hands several times. The same for property managers.
Around January, facility maintenance and repairs, which were already spotty, began to end. So did basic services like trash pick-up.
Soon squatters took up residence in abandoned apartments. Some sold drugs on the premises, and overdoses became common. The complex was condemned by the Village of Riverview in August, but officials later rescinded the order. They say they will shut it down.
Interviewed by a reporter in August, Valiant says she has no idea where she and her son can go next.
“I ain’t got hotel money,” she says.
Evernest, Ridgeview’s most recent property manager of record, received $75,054 in SAFHR funds in Missouri, state records show.
“Hopefully I’ll have some luck with the new property manager from the building I’ll be renting from in my situation."Kalil Lofton, a former Parkview Gardens Apartment resident who received a court summons for unpaid rent
Lofton, the Parkview tenant, is working on his payment plan — and still Ubering to do it. Someday, he hopes to be a police officer.
But that’s all in the future. These days, he fears he might find himself trapped in low-tier housing because of the court judgment on his record in St. Louis County.
Williams, the former Parkview property manager, says those fears are well-founded. She calls the eviction process “a domino” that, once it falls, hurts tenants’ chances of obtaining a credit card, loans of many kinds, even a good job.
So when tenants she worked with fell too far behind on rent, “I told them just to leave,” she says. “And if someone runs a credit [report] it’ll just show, ‘Oh, you owe Parkview $1,000. But it’s not an eviction. It’s not a judgment.”
Lofton hopes by early next year to move out of Parkview Gardens but admits to being anxious.
“Hopefully I’ll have some luck with the new property manager from the building I’ll be renting from in my situation,” says Lofton. “All I can say for that is, ‘I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.’”
For more on the River City Journalism Fund, which provided funding for this project and seeks to support local journalism in St. Louis, please see rcjf.org.