They didn't pay rent and stole the fridge. Pandemic spawns nightmare tenants

Nitin Bajaj and Nimisha Lotia stand with their kids inside the empty and damaged apartment unit earlier this month in Los Angeles. The former tenants had lived there for months without paying rent.

Just before the pandemic, Nitin Bajaj and his wife, Nimisha Lotia, rented an apartment they own in Los Angeles to two young women.

“They were really nice to talk to,” Lotia says.

But as soon as the pandemic hit, the new renters, both in their late 20s, stopped paying the rent. Lotia says the young women sent them an email saying that COVID-19 had created a financial hardship and that the city had just imposed an eviction ban — so the renters couldn’t be evicted.

“No further explanation,” she says. “No calls or nothing, just an email, and I think a snapshot of what the city rule was.”

Across the country, more than 20 million Americans lost their jobs as the pandemic took hold. Many fell behind on rent. Eviction moratoriums at the local, state and federal level clearly helped millions of people keep a roof over their heads as they struggled financially. But some other renters took advantage of the protections.

Lotia says she’s not sure whether the renters lost their jobs or not. But things started to get weird after they stopped paying the rent. The young women stopped talking to them on their way in and out of the house.

“They didn’t make eye contact,” Bajaj says. So that went on for a few weeks.

“Then I lost my job due to COVID,” Lotia says. “And that was a major hit as well because there were two streams of income that had just stopped coming in.”

Nitin Bajaj and his wife Nimisha purchased this small apartment building almost 10 years ago. The family has gradually fixed it up, removing bars from the window and painting it. Early on, Bajaj had to drag a dismantled abandoned van out of the yard. “There was a bumper here, and a door there,” he says.

Bajaj and Lotia aren’t big corporate landlords with massive real estate holdings. They’re immigrants from Mumbai, India, who bought a small rundown building with four units nearly 10 years ago. They were starting a family and couldn’t afford a traditional single-family house. So they live in one apartment and rent out the others.

Over the years, they’ve slowly turned it into a nice home. They painted it, replaced all 42 of the windows and removed the security bars.

The rental income helps keep the family afloat. Bajaj works for an education nonprofit, and after Lotia lost her job, living on his salary was tough. So the couple rented out their own home, the apartment where they live, and moved 80 miles away to a much cheaper house out in the desert.

Lyra Bajaj, 11, and Reva Bajaj, 9, play near a cabin their parents built for them after clearing out and fixing up their apartment building in Los Angeles.

Lotia says their kids couldn’t even go outside it was so hot. “They were very angry with us,” she says. “They’re just 9 and 11 so leaving their friends, their life just completely changed like upside down within a couple of weeks.” Months went by and the renters still weren’t paying any rent.

Meanwhile, pressure was building from housing advocates and landlord groups for Congress to do something to prevent a wave of evictions. And last December, lawmakers passed an emergency rental assistance program. In all, it would be $47 billion to prevent evictions and pay back rent. And that would help both renters and landlords.

“It was great to hear,” says Bajaj. “I started looking for information.”

Nitin Bajaj surveys the damaged empty kitchen earlier this month. The stove the tenants took with them has been replaced, but there is still much work to be done.

But distributing rental assistance money turned out to be a slow process. And the tenants had lots of complaints, even though they weren’t paying rent. They called the city if they thought the plants near a walkway needed to be cut. They even called a city inspector because they didn’t like how the new dishwasher was working.

“I was just appalled and I was like, seriously?” Lotia remembers. “I’m already going through so much and that was adding to it. There was so much more stress.”

Eventually, this past spring, the rental assistance program in Los Angeles started taking applications. Bajaj says he was told that the renters needed to supply some documents.

“So we reached out to the tenants and said, ‘Hey, could you guys please do that?’ ” He says they tried emailing, calling, approaching them in person, but, “they would just not talk.”

Nimisha Lotia recalls how the problem tenants apparently had no money for rent but no problem with making constant complaints.

Finally, in July, the renters left unexpectedly in the middle of the night.

They must have had a pretty big truck because when they moved out, the couple says, they stole some rather large objects. Nimisha remembers walking through the apartment the morning after they left.

“When I reached the kitchen, I noticed, why does this look so open?” Lotia says. “Like, why is it looking so empty and bright? And then I realized, oh, the fridge is missing! Then, oh, my god, the other appliances are missing!”

The couple says the renters stole the refrigerator and the gas stove. They even took the dishwasher they had complained to the city about.

The damage left by the tenants went from floor to ceiling, leaving Bajaj and Lotia with a long to-do list before they can rent out the unit again.

There was also considerable damage to the apartment including cigarette burns on the vinyl floors. The tenants hadn’t paid rent in 16 months, which added up to $32,000 in lost rent. NPR reached out to the tenants; they did not respond to requests for comment.

So, the couple has been calling the city rental assistance program to try to get reimbursed. After all, Congress has approved $47 billion for rental assistance.

“We spoke to 17 different agents, two supervisors, it was very frustrating to not get any kind of answer,” Bajaj says.

Eventually they were told they couldn’t qualify for any help, because for landlords to get paid, renters need to cooperate with the program.

Across the country, other landlords are discovering the same thing. The same rule applies at all 500 state and local programs distributing that money from Congress.

There are a couple of different reasons for that. Fraud prevention is one. Also, policymakers don’t want landlords to be able to just evict lots of people and then collect the back rent. Preventing evictions is a primary goal.

Noel Andrés Poyo is a deputy U.S. Treasury secretary who oversees emergency rental assistance efforts nationally. He says it’s difficult to allow landlords to get help without the cooperation of renters and stay within the rules of the law passed by Congress.

Nitin Bajaj, with his youngest daughter Reva Bajaj, 9, in the background, has found that the federal rental assistance program has been unable to assist them.

But he says, that may change. “Right now, Congress is engaged in a process of looking at the original legislation and whether some updates can or should be made,” Poyo says.

So, Congress or Treasury might soon come up with a workaround for landlords like Bajaj and Lotia. The couple says that because the government imposed eviction bans for so long, it’s only fair that landlords in a situation like theirs be able to get some of this money from Congress.

“You just cannot be black and white,” Lotia says, “like we’re just not going to help the landlords at all.”

Meanwhile, the couple is hoping one way or another they can recoup the $32,000 in back rent, which would help them buy a new refrigerator for their rental unit.