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There's good news for the millions of Americans struggling to pay rent. The Federal Government recently barred landlords from evicting renters who'd been hurt financially by the pandemic. But recent moratoriums in most states haven't stopped all landlords from trying to remove tenants. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Twenty-one-year-old Ruby Jensen (ph) moved from Idaho to California last year hoping for a fresh start. She met a guy, and they rented a room in a house in Los Angeles. Things went OK for a while. Then, in June, the landlady contacted her angry about the condition of the house.
RUBY JENSEN: She sent the text saying that, I need everyone to move out of the house. I'm going to be moving my family back in.
ZARROLI: By then, Jensen's fiancee had lost his job as a restaurant dishwasher because of COVID. Money was tight, and they were reluctant to leave. Things quickly turned ugly. Jensen says the landlady turned off the water and gas.
JENSEN: She just kept coming over to the house. And that's when she started demolishing the kitchen. She tore up the sink, the stove, everything, the floor, everything.
ZARROLI: Jensen's landlady didn't respond to requests for comment. Tenant attorney Aimee Williams says all this happened at a time when most evictions were barred in California. But she says some landlords have tried to remove tenants anyway.
AIMEE WILLIAMS: You know, I'm getting crisis calls saying, the landlord's at my door. They're saying that they want to come in with the locksmith. That definitely has increased my workload.
ZARROLI: Williams says one reason this is happening is confusion. Federal, state and local governments have imposed eviction bans - some have lapsed, others haven't. It's not always clear what buildings are covered.
WILLIAMS: Most tenants and most landlords just don't know or understand those laws, that that's not legal.
ZARROLI: When Bobby Parker (ph) was evicted from his New Orleans apartment, he didn't know a moratorium was in place. He'd fallen behind on rent after a hospital stay, and his landlady charged him late fees. But he'd lost one of his jobs and couldn't pay them.
BOBBY PARKER: When I came back from work that Monday, which was the 24 of March, she set up there and had them change all my locks on my door. I went and tried the back door - same thing, key wouldn't fit in.
ZARROLI: A woman who answered the landlady's phone hung up when asked to comment for this story. Parker says the next couple weeks were tough. Locked out of his place, he couldn't get his medicine or his work uniform.
PARKER: I called the police for two days. They never came. And when they did came, they said there isn't anything they couldn't do about it.
ZARROLI: Parker spent two weeks sleeping outside. Then a judge ordered his landlady to let him back into his apartment. In New Orleans, tenants can challenge evictions in court, but housing activist Andreanecia Morris says they're usually reluctant to do so. If they lose it can be hard to find another place. They may face court costs.
ANDREANECIA MORRIS: There's a severe consequence to that tenant and to their future if they end up with a court-ordered eviction.
ZARROLI: Morris says apartment owners aren't always to blame. In New Orleans, most people rent from small mom-and-pop landlords, and a lot of them are having trouble, too.
MORRIS: For every terrible landlord who is, you know, acting outrageously, there are dozens of landlords who are also struggling themselves.
ZARROLI: Morris thinks the government needs to help renters financially affected by COVID, but a stimulus bill is stalled in Congress. Meanwhile, illegal evictions go on. Ruby Jensen ended up leaving her place after her kitchen was torn out. It was traumatic.
JENSEN: I'm trying to do the best that I can because I just can't figure out how to put everything together with everything that I'm going through right now.
ZARROLI: Her fiancee went back to his old restaurant job for a few days, then the restaurants were closed again. Today the couple lives in a motel. They're looking for a new place to rent - a place they can stay in for good.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News.
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