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U.S. House panel holds hearing on pandemic evictions by corporate landlords

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Signs lay on the ground after people gathered outside of an apartment complex with the intention to stop the alleged eviction of one of the tenants in Mount Rainier, MD, U.S., August 10, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis

NEW YORK, July 27 (Reuters) - Corporate landlords continue to evict tenants - many of them people of color - during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite a federal ban on evictions, a congressional panel was told on Tuesday.

The hearings followed last week's announcement by the U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis of an investigation into the practice, which has been the subject of several news reports, including by Reuters.

"Let me be clear, the aggressive actions of these large corporate landlords are unacceptable, and they must stop immediately," said Representative James Clyburn, the panel’s chairman.

As part of its investigation, the select subcommittee has sent letters to four corporate landlords: Invitation Homes (INVH.N), as well as private equity firms Pretium Partners, Ventron Management and the Siegel Group. The letters ask for documentation about the companies' eviction practices, as well as all internal communications and policies regarding evictions and rent assistance. Clyburn asked the firms to reply by Aug. 3.

Together, the four companies filed more than 5,000 evictions during the pandemic, according to data from the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, a nonprofit group that tracks private equity's impact on everyday Americans.

The hearing occurred just days before the federal eviction ban expires on July 31. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first implemented the ban in September, in an effort to keep millions of Americans in their homes and out of crowded shelters during the pandemic.

Housing experts say the ban's expiration will likely pave the way for evictions, and possible homelessness, for many of the 6.5 million tenants still behind on rent. The federal government has approved $46.5 billion in rental assistance but so far only $3 billion has made its way to landlords, as localities struggle to ramp up the infrastructure to get the money out.

"Many of these landlords are increasing their share of the U.S. housing market, buying up homes, apartment buildings, and mobile home communities," testified Jim Baker, Executive Director of the Private Equity Stakeholder Project. "As we enter a critical new phase of the crisis facing renters, it is important that we remain vigilant to corporate landlords’ evictions of residents."

Republican members of the committee characterized the CDC eviction ban as an unconstitutional overreach that was unfairly hurting mom-and-pop landlords; their comments also focused on pandemic-era safety net spending, which they said was contributing to inflation, as well as immigration and the origins of COVID-19.

Reporting by Michelle Conlin; Editing by Aurora Ellis

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