Late fees com­pounded ten­ant’s woes

Woman fac­ing evic­tion strug­gled as penal­ties ex­ceeded monthly rent

The Dallas Morning News - - World - By SARAH MERVOSH Staff Writer smer­vosh@dal­las­ Twit­ter: @smer­vosh

Sachara­zonta Root­ers hob­bles around her dim apart­ment, tal­ly­ing ex­penses on a yel­low le­gal pad. The walls are empty, her suit­case is packed. Any day, her land­lord might evict her.

For months, Root­ers said, she has jug­gled ne­ces­si­ties: Should she pay her rent, or pay for her medicine? Should she pay rent, or buy food? These are the kind of ques­tions you ask your­self when you live off $750 a month.

Root­ers, 55 and dis­abled, gets by with the help of a Sec­tion 8 hous­ing voucher. That means that she pays less-than-mar­ket rent to a pri­vate land­lord; the fed­eral gov­ern­ment cov­ers the dif­fer­ence.

Even so, last year she started strug­gling to pay her por­tion of the rent: $173, plus util­i­ties.

Root­ers’ fam­ily wants to pay the land­lord what she owes. What they can’t un­der­stand is why her land­lord has legally charged her $190 in late fees each month — even in months when she paid her rent in full.

In Texas, land­lords of­ten charge hefty late fees, which can start at as much as $100 and ac­cu­mu­late per day af­ter that. And un­der the stan­dard Texas lease, money you pay can go to­ward fees, leav­ing you short on the rent.

This lays a trap for poor peo­ple who don’t have ex­tra money or le­gal re­sources: Once they get be­hind, it’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to catch up.

“I see it all the time,” said Nel­son Mock, a lawyer at Texas RioGrande Le­gal Aid and an ex­pert on hous­ing. “Peo­ple fall into a deep pit that’s very dif­fi­cult to dig them­selves out of.”

That’s es­pe­cially true, he said, when a land­lord rents to some­one with a hous­ing voucher, then charges late fees higher than the ten­ant’s rent.

What the law says

Un­der Texas law, late fees are sup­posed to re­flect the ac­tual dam­age to land­lords. This year, state law­mak­ers con­sid­ered — but did not pass — a bill that would have capped late fees for voucher hold­ers at 5 per­cent of their por­tion of the rent.

Root­ers’ con­tract al­lowed for steep late fees, her lease agree­ment shows.

City Gate Prop­erty Group, the com­pany that man­ages her apart­ment com­plex, says it en­forces late fees be­cause the com­pany has its own bills to pay and needs to re­ceive rent on time. Still, City Gate pre­vi­ously tried to work with Root­ers by of­fer­ing a pay­ment plan, and even waived four months of late fees back in March, said Ni­cole McQuarry, the com­pany’s re­gional man­ager.

“We’re not heart­less,” she said. “We’re just do­ing our jobs and try­ing to make sure ev­ery­body pays their rents.”

The Dal­las Morn­ing News re­viewed a ledger of Root­ers’ rental his­tory, court records and other pa­per­work pro­vided by her fam­ily, and also con­firmed as­pects of her story with the apart­ment com­plex and the courts.

If Root­ers gets evicted, ex­perts say she’ll prob­a­bly lose her hous­ing voucher — the life­line that keeps a roof over her head.

Then where will she go?

Home life

Root­ers’ life cen­ters on her two-bed­room apart­ment in far north­east Dal­las. It’s hum­ble, but homey, fur­nished with old, boxy elec­tron­ics and a wall­pa­per bor­der that Root­ers hung to match her burnt-red sofa and love seat.

Aside from spe­cial trips to watch the Mav­er­icks play the Spurs twice a year, Root­ers spends most of her time at home. She passes the days tidy­ing up the apart­ment and watch­ing vam­pire movies with her two cats.

She tot­ters around on a cane, weak­ened by chronic pain and and an au­toim­mune dis­ease. She’s had four strokes, she said, and doc­tors can’t fig­ure out what’s wrong with her heart.

Be­fore her health prob­lems got so bad, she had worked as a cus­tomer ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tive for in­sur­ance and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies.

Since then, she hasn’t been a per­fect ten­ant. Records show past land­lords took her to court over missed rent. The prob­lems per­sisted even af­ter she got her hous­ing voucher in the early 2000s.

She moved into her cur­rent apart­ment in 2009; that’s the long­est she’s ever lived in one place in her adult life. And un­til re­cently, Root­ers in­sisted, she al­ways paid her rent each month — even if a few days late.

Start of prob­lems

When you live off less than $25 a day, it doesn’t take much to up­end your fi­nances.

Root­ers re­called how her phone com­pany and a mail or­der cat­a­log dou­ble-billed her for a to­tal of $120, and how this small mis­take wreaked havoc on her bud­get.

Then came more health prob­lems, which meant spend­ing more on med­i­ca­tion.

In Oc­to­ber, City Gate took over man­age­ment at the apart­ment com­plex, which got a new sign out front and a new name: Eleven600. The leas­ing of­fice ad­ver­tises “prop­erty man­age­ment with a per­sonal touch.”

The next month, Root­ers missed her rent pay­ment. She said she paid some­thing for Novem­ber, but can’t find the re­ceipt. City Gate charged her an ini­tial late fee of $50, then $10 per day for the next two weeks.

Over the next sev­eral months, Root­ers paid her rent spo­rad­i­cally: $68 one month, $100 an­other. Even though she couldn’t al­ways pay the full amount, she said, “at least I tried.”

The late fees piled up. Once Root­ers got be­hind, City Gate charged her $190 even when she paid her rent in full, be­cause she still owed rent and fees for past months.

In July, City Gate filed for evic­tion. A judge later ruled that Root­ers had to pay about $1,100 and that City Gate could evict her.

Help from fam­ily

By this time, Root­ers had told her chil­dren about her fi­nances.

Fred Root­ers, 35, works as a bar­tender. His sis­ter, 28-year-old El­iz­a­beth Root­ers, is a mort­gage un­der­writer. He said they pooled their sav­ings to pay the judge’s or­der.

“We’re not try­ing to stay for free,” Fred Root­ers said. “We’re try­ing to make things right. We just need some sort of co­op­er­a­tion.”

But the judge had not in­cluded late fees and other costs in his de­ci­sion. And when Fred Root­ers went to the leas­ing of­fice to pay up, he learned City Gate wanted the full amount: nearly $2,500.

The fam­ily had five days to come up with the money.

The Root­erses could not af­ford a lawyer and they had no con­nec­tions. They did not know they could ap­peal the judge’s or­der at no cost un­til an ex­pert sug­gested it dur­ing an in­ter­view with The News. At the very least, the Root­erses fig­ured, that could buy them some time.

So one day last month, Root­ers and her son left the apart­ment to catch a bus to the court­house. Fred Root­ers pushed his mom in a wheel­chair. They planned to pay their rent to the court while they ap­pealed.

But when they tried to flag down the bus to pick them up, it did not stop.

Ride to the court­house

Fred Root­ers bris­tled with anx­i­ety. They had to file the ap­peal by to­day, and the court would close soon.

“Call Un­cle James,” he told his mom.

As his mom di­aled the num­ber from the wheel­chair, he added: “Tell him we are try­ing to go pay so you don’t get evicted. And I’ll give him some gas money.”

Un­cle James rolled up a halfhour or so later, cig­a­rette smol­der­ing at his fin­ger­tips. His car barely had room for them amid heaps of clothes, shoes and other clut­ter, but it was a ride.

At the court­house, Root­ers filled out a form tes­ti­fy­ing that she could not af­ford to pay court costs, which would nor­mally ex­ceed a thou­sand dol­lars. She said she had $200 in her bank ac­count.

She handed the form over to a clerk and asked the only ques­tion that mat­tered: “In the mean­time, can I be evicted?”

The clerk said no, not while the case was pend­ing.

When Root­ers got home, she be­gan to cry.

A new num­ber

The next day, the re­gional man­ager for City Gate told The

News that the com­pany had re­con­sid­ered.

“Since you’ve no­ti­fied me and made me aware of her sit­u­a­tion, we are work­ing hard to help her fur­ther,” McQuarry said.

City Gate had con­tacted the Dal­las Hous­ing Author­ity to see if the gov­ern­ment could pay a larger por­tion of Root­ers’ rent, she said.

And, she said, City Gate would now be will­ing to waive Root­ers’ late fees — if Root­ers paid the rest of what she owed.

McQuarry said that adds up to al­most $1,500. She could not pro­vide a break­down of Root­ers’ debt, and it’s un­clear how she cal­cu­lated that num­ber.

The fam­ily doesn’t have that much in cash, Fred Root­ers said. He said he and his sis­ter cob­bled to­gether just enough to pay what the judge or­dered — about $1,100 — and would need a few weeks to come up with the dif­fer­ence.

He and his mother re­cently met with a vol­un­teer lawyer, who they hope will help with the ap­peal.

Root­ers doesn’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen. Her walls re­main bare, her be­long­ings packed. She can’t sleep at night, so she prays.

Pho­tos by Rose Baca/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Af­ter fall­ing be­hind on her rent, Sachara­zonta Root­ers was hit with monthly late fees that ex­ceeded the amount of rent she was sup­posed to pay.

Sachara­zonta Root­ers has her be­long­ings packed in case she has to leave the apart­ment she’s lived in since 2009.

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