Late fees compounded tenant’s woes
Woman facing eviction struggled as penalties exceeded monthly rent
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?
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.
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.