Locked out

Alfred Perry got word on Labor Day weekend. He’d just thrown one of his signature cookouts in the courtyard of his apartment complex in Las Vegas.

It was the kind of laid-back life he came southwest for. A Chrysler retiree from the Detroit suburbs, Perry enjoyed the warm weather and lights of Vegas as he was driving through over three years ago. He decided to stay. As luck would have it, he said, he had enough left from his pension and Social Security checks when Dan Wright offered him a studio apartment downtown. Perry put down the first month’s rent and a deposit and moved in shortly after.

But when a relative told him to come back to the Midwest to handle a family emergency that September of 2022, Perry didn’t hesitate. He had paid that month’s rent, he said, and set out on the long trek to fetch his 5-year-old son, whose mother was in crisis.

When Perry arrived back home with the boy about a month later, his keys no longer opened the door.

Wright had been having issues with Perry over visitors to his apartment. So Perry was anxious that Wright wanted him out. The night Perry came back in the wee hours, he said, he and his son stayed with a neighbor. The next day, he said, Wright refused to let him back in.

Alfred Perry filed a complaint saying he was locked out of his Las Vegas apartment in the fall of 2022. He and his son ended up sleeping in his Jeep.

Perry and his son started living out of his Jeep.

Previous convictions for drug possession made finding a new apartment difficult. Months passed with the pair living out of Perry’s car. Someone reported the situation to law enforcement, a spokesperson for the North Las Vegas Police Department said, and officers pulled Perry over to do a welfare check on his son. Officers arrested Perry on charges including child neglect and driving without a license and turned his son over to Child Protective Services.

Perry said he spent a year trying to regain custody.

“I take my share of the blame for having my son out there like that,” Perry said. “But if Dan hadn’t locked me out, I’d still have my son today.”

Perry filed a complaint saying Wright had locked him out illegally. That’s when a landlord turns off utilities, changes locks, or otherwise keeps tenants from their home without first getting a judge’s consent.

Protections against these kinds of extrajudicial evictions date back centuries. Today, lockouts are criminalized in six US states, punishable by imprisonment, and are banned by civil statutes, enforceable by fines and civil suits, in those states and 39 others.

But a Business Insider investigation has found that in cities across the United States, complaints about lockouts are on the rise. Tenants in crisis are mostly stuck calling the police, who rarely take action against property owners who may have broken the law, BI found.

Some police departments even instruct responding officers not to get involved, leaving tenants to face sudden homelessness despite civil and criminal laws intended to protect them from precisely that fate. The absence of a federal law banning lockouts, a patchwork of state laws, the lack of police action, and an uphill battle for tenants in court have together allowed many landlords to lock tenants out with impunity.

The nature of illegal lockouts means they are hard to track directly. To gauge how often they happen, BI reviewed thousands of 911 calls, housing complaints, and court records and found evidence suggesting that illegal lockouts have increased in recent years.

Their rise comes as half of all US renters — more than 22 million households — are facing financial stress over housing costs, spending more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities, a burden that makes it easy to fall behind on rent, and catastrophic to be abruptly thrown out into a tight rental market.

The rise in lockout complaints also came as more investors sought to cash in on residential property management and ownership during the pandemic. Some of them were inexperienced first-time landlords who may have been unfamiliar with landlord-tenant laws. Others were corporations and private-equity firms.

Read more from our series on illegal evictions:

When renters get locked out, they may never get back in

Unprotected at the margins of the rental market

Landlords have a variety of motivations for wanting a tenant out, from unpaid rent to simply not getting along. Even if their reasons are legitimate, landlords in most jurisdictions are required to go to court to seek an eviction and provide a tenant with notice of the eviction filing. Bypassing that system is illegal in most states, whether the landlord’s grievance is justified or not.

The lack of due process in a lockout means someone like Perry never gets to show a judge his rent was paid up or prove that he’d followed the rules of his lease. And the lack of notice robs tenants of a window in which to line up alternative housing.

In Perry’s case, Wright claimed that Perry left voluntarily, with his possessions. “I know the laws — I don’t mess with them,” Wright said.

But Wright has a history of wrongful evictions, according to documents from the Las Vegas Justice Court: In 2022, his LLC was ordered to pay back nearly $900 for turning off the electricity on another tenant in Perry’s building, and in 2020, he was ordered to restore access to a renter at another property after a judge found he’d illegally removed her.

Of the 2022 case, Wright said one of his employees got “overzealous”; of the other case, he said he’d tried to let the tenant back in.

“Just because tenants file something, it doesn’t mean something is true,” he said.

A judge never decided who was right in Perry’s case. His complaint was tossed on a technicality. He’d missed the window to file.

Tenants and their advocates say lockouts are extraordinarily disruptive. People often miss days of work or lose their job as they prioritize finding somewhere to stay. Children fall behind academically or have to leave school altogether. Losing everything means starting from scratch, straining savings to pay for motels or to replace furniture, clothing, or medications.

“It is such a traumatic thing for a family to be locked out without warning,” Charlie Bliss, the director of advocacy at Atlanta Legal Aid, said. “It’s the beginning of a real bunch of trouble.”

‘I’m sick of calling the cops’

Lockouts largely happen out of public view.

But research shows they may be widespread. In 2015 a Princeton sociology professor, Matthew Desmond, surveyed Milwaukee tenants and found a ratio of two informal forced removals to every one where landlords went through a formal court process and got a judge’s eviction order.

To piece together how often lockouts occur, BI sought records left in the wake of these illegal eviction attempts from police departments and housing agencies in eight large cities that have a high proportion of renters or tight housing markets, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Las Vegas. We obtained 911 call logs and audio, police reports, bodycam footage, arrest data, and housing complaints.

Lockouts briefly gained visibility during the coronavirus pandemic, as landlords sought to bypass a federal moratorium on evictions. But the expiration of the moratorium has not resulted in the abandonment of these illegal tactics.

Our investigation unearthed hundreds of cases in which data shows that the police did little to nothing when answering emergency calls for help with an illegal eviction.

The landlords rarely faced consequences.

In South Chicago, a landlord was ticketed for changing the locks on a tenant in January 2023; the ticket was tossed and he was let go with a verbal warning. On Christmas Day 2022 in Phoenix, a woman who called 911 said her landlord was hooking up her trailer to his red Chevy truck in an effort to evict her. When the police called her back two hours later, they couldn’t reach her. The incident was closed as “no action required.”

911 records from the winter of 2022-2023 indicate that a pregnant woman in Jersey City’s McGinley Square neighborhood was locked out of her apartment for five days. She said she was stuck doubled up with her grandmother in a local YMCA.

“I’m sick of calling the cops and nobody doing anything,” she tells a 911 dispatcher, frustrated after describing her situation multiple times to different police officers and call takers. “I’m freezing, I haven’t took my prenatals in days, changed my clothes in days.”

The first time she called 911 about being locked out, her landlord said it was because he did not want her dog in the house. He sat in the entrance to the apartment, undeterred by police officers telling him he could be arrested.

Lockouts are a crime in New Jersey. But the officers didn’t arrest him or give him a citation, telling him to let the woman inside and take her to court. The landlord locked her out again two months later for four days, she reported to 911. A different pair of officers responded; bodycam footage shows them trying to reach the landlord by phone after the tenant says he’s blocked her number. Then, they tell her to get a locksmith. She called 911 again not long after, saying the locksmith had asked for cash but her cash was locked inside her apartment. It was a Catch-22.

Bodycam footage shows an officer again trying to call the landlord, but the call goes straight to voicemail. One of the responding officers calls a sergeant over, who says there’s nothing else they can do. Jersey City officials did not respond to requests for comment.

If she breaks back into her own home, the sergeant says, she’ll shoulder the risk.

“We’re advising against it, but you’re a grown woman,” one officer tells her. “What you do is what you do — it’s on you.” Meanwhile, with her uniform locked inside, the Jersey City woman says she missed days of work.

Lockout calls on the rise

In Jersey City, where a residential lockout can result in a criminal misdemeanor, a city clerk said he would be surprised if more than a handful of tenants had called 911 over an illegal lockout. In response to a records request, the same city clerk later identified 90 emergency calls alleging illegal evictions in 2021 and 2022. In Atlanta, a public-information officer at the Atlanta Police Department said officers did not get involved in such cases and initially identified only 13 calls over three years in response to a freedom of information request. They later found more than 2,000 such calls.

The Atlanta police did not respond to subsequent requests for comment.

Of the cities we examined, only Chicago dispatchers had a specific label for 911 calls reporting an illegal lockout — a code that was introduced recently, in 2021. Some departments had categories for landlord-tenant issues, while others lumped calls about wrongful evictions under umbrella terms such as “disturbance.” A few cities had no relevant categories at all. In these cities, BI requested service calls to 911 filtered by keywords such as “lock out,” “shut off,” and “landlord” dating back to at least 2020.

BI excluded calls with sufficient information to show they were not pertinent to a lockout. The analysis shows that calls to the police for help regarding illegal evictions haven’t fallen since the federal COVID eviction moratorium was halted by the Supreme Court, in response to a challenge by landlords, in August 2021. Instead they have roughly held steady or increased. In Atlanta, the volume of these calls rose each year from 2020 to 2022. And in Houston, calls mentioning lockout keywords went up from 2021 to 2022.

Tallies based on police calls are likely an undercount, tenant advocates say. Some renters don’t know lockouts are illegal; others are hesitant to call the police or report an illegal eviction to the city for a variety of reasons, including distrust of the police.

Data from other agencies showed a similar increase. BI examined more than 41,000 housing complaints from 2020 through 2023 to the Department of Housing in Los Angeles — the same kinds of complaints cited by city council members in 2021 when passing an ordinance to prohibit landlords from using harassment and coercion to force out tenants. We found that these complaints rose 71% from 2020 to 2023. The volume of housing complaints illustrates how difficult it can be to track off-the-book evictions. For 2022, the Los Angeles Police Department turned over about 1,000 calls made to the police with keywords related to illegal lockouts or utility shutoffs. For the same year, complaints to the housing department totaled more than 11,000.

In Nevada, a state law lets tenants who were wrongfully evicted sue their landlord to get back into their unit. The number of such cases in one Las Vegas courts has modestly increased year over year, rising from 300 cases filed in 2020 to 353 in 2023. Texas has a similar law. In Harris County, petitions over lockouts and utility shutoffs — mostly from Houston — nearly doubled from 2019 to 2023, data shows, going from 88 cases to 153.

David Leibowitz, a spokesperson for the Arizona Multi-Housing Association, a group representing landlords and management companies, said that while the association does not condone self-help evictions — another term for a lockout — he didn’t know whether the problem is pervasive.

“People call the police for all sorts of reasons,” Leibowitz said. “Statistics are hard to come by in the legal circumstances — now you’re talking about these illegal situations and it’s even harder.”

Lockouts by corporate landlords

Advocates for both landlords and tenants say, in their experience, unsophisticated mom-and-pop landlords are more likely to lock out their tenants. Buoyed by low interest rates in 2021, many new investors — perhaps unfamiliar with landlord-tenant law — purchased apartment buildings, only to find that profits had not kept up with debt obligations or the cost of regular maintenance.

But aggressive tactics to remove a resident are not confined to small landlords who may lack familiarity with the law. A congressional investigation into four major corporate landlords published in July 2022 found that they had collectively filed more than 14,000 evictions at the height of the pandemic, despite a federal eviction moratorium. The investigators describe the eviction filings as “aggressive” but not unlawful. Spokespeople for two of the landlords named in the report — Invitation Homes and Pretium — reiterated the latter finding in response to BI’s queries.

But Kristi DesJarlais, a spokesperson for Invitation Homes, took issue with the characterization of the company’s practices as aggressive. Words like that are not “accurate words to describe a company following a legal process,” she said by email.

The investigators also found evidence that one of the companies, The Siegel Group, had engaged in “potentially unlawful practices,” including instructing managers to threaten residents with calls to Child Protective Services, replace a functioning air-conditioning unit with a broken one, or threaten to tow their car to get them to move out.

Counsel for The Siegel Group, a real estate investment firm that services multifamily units and extended-stay apartments in several Western states, confirmed in an email to the congressional subcommittee leading the investigation that the company used lockouts instead of evictions in some states.

A July 2022 report on pandemic evictions from a congressional subcommittee singled out The Siegel Group as deploying extralegal tactics. Siegel disputes the findings.

Sean Thueson, the general counsel for The Siegel Group, said the company’s email only confirmed lockouts were used at hotels or motels “under state law that specifically authorize lock outs” and said “each individual property handles its own lock outs / evictions and follows the laws of the specific state.”

When asked about specific cases in which tenants were granted judgments after wrongful evictions in Las Vegas, Thueson said that The Siegel Group had been improperly named and bore no responsibility.

In Las Vegas, BI found more than one in three landlords facing illegal-lockout claims are companies, including The Siegel Group and such major players as Progress Residential, the largest corporate landlord in the Nevada county and a subsidiary of the investment firm Pretium, and Invitation Homes, the single-family rental company founded by Blackstone. (Blackstone sold off its remaining shares of the company in 2019.)

BI found a similar pattern in Harris County, home to Houston, where about one in three tenant filings alleging lockouts from 2019 through 2023 named corporate landlords, including Progress Residential. (Some related to commercial tenants.)

Of the complaints against Invitation Homes and Progress Residential, none were upheld, according to justice courts in Texas and Nevada, whether because the lockouts were deemed legal, because no one showed up to a hearing, or because the tenant had been locked out by a family member.

“At no time has Invitation Homes ever evicted a resident without pursuing the action by legal means and obtaining a court order,” DesJarlais of Invitation Homes said. “We cannot and will not unilaterally evict a resident from one of our homes.”

“Progress Residential complied with applicable laws,” a company spokesperson said by email. “Any implication of the contrary is false.”

In March, Minnesota’s attorney general settled a lawsuit for $2.2 million with Pretium, Progress Residential, and other related companies over chronic disrepair and illegally terminating people’s tenancies at hundreds of single-family homes. While Pretium requested to be dismissed from the case, and denied any wrongdoing, Assistant Attorney General Katherine Kelly said there was no question Pretium was involved in the management of the units.

“They knew about it,” she said. “They didn’t stop it, they let it go on.”

Corporate landlords have recently come under fire for other potentially illegal tactics. For example, in the past several months, attorneys general in Arizona and Washington, DC, have sued RealPage over claims it had assisted landlords in systematically jacking up rents above market price, an arrangement state officials described as a “rent-setting cartel.”

“The lawsuits are wrong on both the facts and the law,” Jennifer Bowcock, a spokesperson for RealPage, said by email. “The complaints are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how revenue management software works and the significant benefits that it offers for residents, property managers, and the rental housing ecosystem as a whole.”

Enforcement failures

The right to due process during an eviction is one of the country’s oldest laws. Based on English criminal statutes that date back to the 1300s, some American colonies banned extrajudicial eviction tactics even before they formally joined the Union, considering violators a threat to public safety.

At least as far back as the 18th century, courts were involved in the adjudication of landlord-tenant disputes and tended not to support a tenant’s immediate eviction, recognizing the hardship it would entail.

“Few things are more likely to lead to a brawl than an evicting landlord, throwing out his tenant by main force,” William Prosser, author of the seminal work “Handbook of the Law of Torts,” argued in 1941. “The public interest in preserving the peace would seem to justify the temporary inconvenience to the owner.”

Today, however, illegal evictions are often left in the hands not of experienced judges but of undertrained police officers who sometimes abysmally fail to protect tenants’ rights.

In four of the major metro areas BI examined, agencies explicitly direct tenants to call the police if they’re locked out. So does guidance for New Jersey’s superior courts.

In Los Angeles, which is governed by a state directive encouraging law enforcement to treat lockouts as a criminal offense, the city’s Housing Department website instructs tenants to “call the local police at the closest precinct to help with re-entry.” Welcoming Atlanta, a program of the mayor’s office in Atlanta, where police typically treat lockouts as civil matters, directs people to “call your non emergency police line and report them as a trespasser,” referring to the landlord. “The police officer should tell them that they must leave the property or face charges for criminal trespass.”

But even in places where the police are clearly responsible for responding to an illegal eviction and taking action against the landlord, many officers choose not to get involved.

In cities across the nation, calls about a lockout very rarely lead to a police report, BI’s analysis shows. For the rest, officers took some other course of action, whether persuading landlords to let a tenant back in, referring the tenant or landlord to another agency — or simply leaving landlords off the hook.

BI reviewed 8,268 911 calls about lockouts received as far back as 2020 in four cities — Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, and Miami — that included information on how police departments resolved them. BI also analyzed data on 911 calls in Phoenix from January 2020 through 2023 coded simply as landlord-tenant disputes.

Of 3,600 calls to the police in Chicago from February 2021 to July 2023, 17% led to a police report. Police officers filed even fewer reports elsewhere.

In Phoenix, where lockouts are civil violations, most landlord-tenant 911 calls were tagged as “no action required” and only 14% led to a police report.

Atlanta, Miami, and Houston were in the single digits. In Atlanta, 9% of lockout calls from January 2020 through early 2023 ended in a police report. Houston police officers wrote reports after only 8% of calls from 2021 to early 2023. And Miami police officers wrote reports for 8% of calls in 2022.

Police departments in Atlanta, Miami, and Chicago did not respond to detailed requests for comment.

The Houston Police Department issued a statement saying officers were trained in identifying criminal versus civil matters and officers were guided not to enforce the latter.

A Phoenix police spokesperson, Donna Rossi, said by email that calls about lockouts “could refer to both legal and non-legal situations” and that “police involvement would end if no crime has been committed.”

The lack of reports stands in sharp contrast with enforcement of other, often less consequential, property crimes like shoplifting.

Police data from the start of 2020 through the end of 2023 in Phoenix shows an inverse ratio. While only 14% of lockout calls led to a police report, 86% of calls about shoplifting did. The Council on Criminal Justice has found that the median cost of shoplifted goods in 2021 was $100.

Even in Chicago and Los Angeles, where the police are explicitly mandated to stop illegal evictions — up to and including making an arrest — BI found a similar pattern.

From 2020 through the end of 2023, Chicago police officers made eight arrests of landlords accused of illegally locking out tenants. By comparison, they made more than 6,300 arrests of people suspected of shoplifting merchandise worth less than $300 over the same time period.

The police ticketed a Chicago landlord in April 2023 for “leaving a tenant with no power.”

“If it’s illegal to steal a candy bar from a store, why is there seemingly no consequence for turning someone’s heat off?” said Sara Heymann, a community organizer in Chicago who advocates on behalf of tenants who are experiencing a lockout.

Though California issued guidance directing law-enforcement agencies to treat illegal eviction as a crime, police officers rarely make arrests, according to LAPD arrest data. BI tallied more than 41,000 housing complaints — which can range from landlords giving insufficient notice in the course of a formal eviction process to landlords locking tenants out or cutting off utilities — from January 2020 through the end of 2023 in Los Angeles. Yet over the same time period, the LAPD arrested only six people under the main statute cited by the attorney general as having to do with an illegal eviction.

An investigation by The City found this pattern in New York City, where the NYPD made just 39 lockout arrests in 2020 and 2021 out of more than 2,600 complaints.

“We respond to the calls as best we can if it’s within what we can enforce,” an LAPD spokesperson, Detective Meghan Aguilar, told BI, but she declined to answer questions about the department’s training on responding to lockout calls and its enforcement of criminal laws banning lockouts.

‘What’s your plan for tonight?’

Records show relying on the police for help on lockouts is a gamble.

In bodycam footage BI obtained of police responses to 911 calls about illegal evictions, officers’ behavior appears almost improvised. Some recognize a lockout as illegal and direct landlords to the courts for a lawful eviction. But others don’t appear to know the law, even in states where the police are tasked to uphold it. Some resort to searching the internet for guidance.

In one Jersey City incident in December 2022, a police officer appears to misunderstand a judge’s order “staying” a lockout — a decision that the eviction may not be enforced — as meaning the tenant should “stay” locked out.

In another February 2023 case there, a baffled tenant asks officers responding to her 911 call whether her landlord could legally lock her out: Yes, they can, the officer wrongly says. New Jersey law states that even after a legal eviction is granted by a judge, only a court officer can remove the tenant.

Tenants’ outcomes vary dramatically according to which officers happen to respond.

In two separate instances in 2021 and 2022, the Jersey City police conducted criminal investigations into landlords accused of locking out tenants or shutting off their utilities. In one case, a landlord cut the building’s electrical wiring, leaving multiple families without power, heat, or fire protection for days. He received two court summons for the offenses. In the other, a woman said she came home to a padlock on her door and about $10,000 in missing property, including clothing and appliances. But the police could find no record of an arrest in connection with the event.

Other landlords were let off easy.

In January 2023, a woman identified as Misty Skinner called the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department after she and her daughter were locked out of their home in Spring Valley, on the outskirts of Las Vegas.

Wearing only a fleece jacket on a day with a low temperature of 34 degrees Fahrenheit, bodycam footage shows Skinner telling police officers her landlord demanded they leave within 24 hours. Scared, she and her daughter left, she says, but now they can’t reach the landlord to arrange to gather their belongings, including her daughter’s nebulizer.

Police bodycam footage captures the night Misty Skinner and her daughter were locked out of their home in Spring Valley, Nevada, in January 2023 as temperatures neared freezing.

“What’s your plan for tonight?” one of the officers asks her.

“I don’t have a plan — this is our plan.”

“Do you have a car?”

“No, I do not, or we would be in our car, waiting.”

“Do you have money?”

“No, I don’t have money, ’cause we spent our money for two nights on a B&B.”

Skinner says her landlord, Levi Wilhelm, lives next door. As they walk over, one of the officers tells the other to look up “illegal lockout” on his phone. In the footage, lights are on in the house and cars are in the driveway. But there is no response when officers knock on his door.

“It’s gonna be on her,” one of the police officers says to his partner.

“So what do we do now?” Skinner says, her voice breaking. “It’s not right. It’s not fair.”

“Do you have any friends?”

“I don’t have anybody here,” she says, wiping tears from her cheek.

The officers say that since she hasn’t been formally evicted, they won’t arrest her if she breaks back in, say, with a rock. “I’ve had these before where we’ve actually supplied them crowbars from the tac vehicle to get inside their homes,” one officer says.

Then the officers think better of her breaking in, expressing concern that Wilhelm could return and become violent.

They approach two neighbors to ask whether they’d let Skinner and her daughter come inside for a couple of hours. When the neighbors refuse, the officers advise Skinner to head to a gas station to warm up and give her a card to document the incident. Nevada has a procedure to let tenants back into their homes quickly in the event of an illegal lockout, but police officers direct her to the wrong agency. Records show the incident was closed that same night without a police report. Wilhelm filed an eviction with the courts 10 days later. He did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment.

In bodycam footage of another lockout call four months earlier, a different pair of officers respond. This time, the officers coach the tenant on how to break down his door and stand by as he does it. The Las Vegas Metro Police declined to comment.

Police training materials from multiple departments describe their role as keepers of the peace during a lockout, rather than enforcers of the law. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of housing activists in Los Angeles began to break tenants back into their homes before calling the police, since they’d noticed that whoever is inside the residence when the police show up is often the party who will stay inside.

“Folks are left to their own devices as far as getting themselves back in,” Jeffrey Uno, managing attorney for the eviction-defense center at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said. “There are punishments on paper, but in reality, they’re being ignored.”

Training failures

BI found training for police officers on how to respond to a lockout is spotty. Some departments, such as Miami’s, said they didn’t have any training materials on lockouts.

In Las Vegas, officers are trained on how to identify a squatter and on the criminal charges for breaking into a vacant property, but the guidance makes no mention of the laws surrounding illegal lockouts or the remedies they can offer tenants. Other departments effectively direct cops to turn a blind eye.

The Phoenix Police Department instructs officers to “not take enforcement action” after observing violations to the state’s landlord-tenant laws.

The Atlanta Police Department treats calls about evictions as civil matters and tells officers to “not render any aid or assistance in official capacity to either party” in civil disputes.

The Atlanta police declined an interview request, directing BI to the county marshal. Maj. Deirdre Orange, a spokesperson for the Fulton County Marshal’s Department, said marshals don’t get involved in any eviction that isn’t ordered by a judge.

In Avondale, Arizona, a policy manual says cops are to “persuade” people to comply with the law when it comes to tenant-landlord violations, but not to make any arrests.

But Daniel Benavidez, a community resource officer with the Avondale Police Department, said officers are trained to identify criminal behavior when responding to these calls. “One of our roles is to make sure that people are protected in their homes,” he said.

“If someone removes someone from a home without lawful authority, that would be kidnapping,” he clarified. “It could be stealing, it could be criminal damage, it can be criminal impersonation, fraudulent scheme. It could be any type of crime.”

In a subsequent email, Sgt. Jenny Chavez said the department referred callers complaining of lockouts to the county constable.

Training for police officers on how to respond to a lockout is spotty. A police manual in Avondale, Arizona, says cops are to “persuade” people to comply with landlord-tenant law but not to make any arrests.

In at least one case, police training openly undercuts state law-enforcement directives.

In July 2022, the California attorney general issued new guidelines on the illegality of lockouts to police departments and sheriffs statewide, directing officers to tell landlords to let tenants back into their homes. The state doesn’t have a law explicitly criminalizing lockouts, but the bulletin emphasizes that lockouts violate other criminal laws and directs officers to “intervene to enforce the law and stop self-help evictions.”

Nevertheless, an LAPD training bulletin, updated just two months after the AG bulletin, tells the police that while tenants behind on their rent will “very often” be locked out by their landlords, “officers lack the legal authority to demand that the landlord allow re-entry to the tenant.”

A spokesperson for California’s attorney general, Rob Bonta, did not make him available for an interview. The LAPD declined to comment on its training bulletin in light of the AG’s guidance.

Only one department, in Jersey City, turned over training materials that detail how to enforce lockout laws. BI separately obtained a Chicago police training video, in which Eric Carter, then the first deputy superintendent, lays out that the police department “can use its authority to compel landlords to end unlawful threats or actions.”

“Officers can and should respond to lockout complaints,” John Bartlett, the executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, says in the video. “It is a common misunderstanding that lockouts, like most landlord and tenant disputes, are a civil matter in which the police cannot intervene. That is not the case.”

“Both landlords and tenants are suffering through hard times, and the temptation to resort to unlawful threats and actions has never been greater,” Carter says in the video.

A patchwork of laws

Complicating matters is a patchwork of disparate states laws governing what constitutes an illegal eviction — and the penalties for violating the law.

In Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming, no laws are in place that explicitly ban lockouts. In Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York, lockouts are a crime carrying penalties of up to six months in jail; with the attorney general’s directive, California became a sixth state with criminal penalties.

A diagram from the Texas Justice Court tries to explain the convoluted process by which a locked-out tenant can seek a speedy order of reentry.

State law in New Jersey establishes that even a landlord’s verbal threats can be criminal. Delaware, on the other hand, one of 39 states with only civil penalties for lockouts, bans only landlords’ removal or exclusion of tenants from their home without a court order.

Even within states, definitions vary on what constitutes an illegal eviction.

While Illinois forbids landlords from tampering with utilities, the city of Chicago goes further, forbidding landlords from threatening a tenant with removal, attempting to keep a tenant from their home, or “incapacitating” appliances unless it is to fix them.

A 2006 bill that would have defined illegal lockouts for all Illinois residents was defeated.

In the 39 states where lockouts are only a civil infraction, landlords could be subject to fines and locked-out tenants may sue to recoup their losses. Texas has a uniquely complex statute on the books that prohibits lockouts only under very particular circumstances.

That Texas statute allows some landlords to lawfully change the locks or withhold electricity, for instance, as long as they have a signed lease that outlines this power and the tenants are behind on their rent. But landlords can’t cut off a tenant’s electricity if the National Weather Service projects a high temperature of less than 32 Fahrenheit. And it’s too hot to cut off electricity if there has been a heat advisory within the past two days.

The law also states tenants can contest an electricity shutoff with a note from a health provider saying someone will suffer serious illness because of it, but that note is only good for up to 63 days.

After a legal lockout, Texas landlords must provide the new key upon request.

“Not all the landlords who do it, do it correctly,” Fred Fuchs, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, said of the law. “That other states don’t allow this or that doesn’t get you very far in Texas.”

Calls for greater enforcement

During the depths of COVID, there was a brief moment of consensus among federal officials on the importance of housing stability.

In March 2021, Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen introduced a bill in the House that would have standardized the need to go to court for an eviction nationwide during a national emergency — and set civil penalties if landlords did not comply. The act reflected a pandemic-era recognition of how important it was to public health to keep people housed. But it stalled in committee.

A year later, an effort led by Senate Democrat Michael Bennet to fund data collection on lockouts similarly stalled.

Even in the face of congressional inaction, Sarah Saadian, a policy expert with the National Low Income Housing Coalition, says there’s room for federal regulators to step in. Both the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission, she said, have a mandate to monitor abusive consumer practices and could “focus more explicitly on renters.”

In fact a White House Blueprint for a Renters’ Bill of Rights released in January 2023 notes that the FTC was exploring ways to expand its authority and “take action against acts and practices that unfairly prevent consumers from obtaining and retaining housing.”

Douglas Farrar, the director of public affairs at the FTC, declined to comment on any new enforcement measures. The CFPB also declined to comment.

Kelly, Minnesota’s assistant attorney general, said state AGs could step up in enforcing tenant laws. “Every state has the authority to protect consumers,” she said.

Fuchs from the legal clinic in Texas suggested that better police training could make a difference — as could solutions that don’t depend on the police at all. Other states could learn from the model in Texas, he said, where locked-out tenants can file a complaint with a local justice court to quickly regain access to their home. Other tenant advocates said guaranteeing the right to counsel would help tenants assert their rights.

Heymann, the Chicago community organizer, said she’d like to see education and oversight efforts targeting private landlords as well as an increased investment in public housing. She suggested landlords who’ve been found to have locked people out should face mandatory classes, or sanctions if they’re repeat offenders — including barring them from renting at all.

“Housing should not be dependent on some random person,” she said, “who gets no training whatsoever.”


Reporting: Cecilia Reyes, Rosemarie Ho

Editing: Esther Kaplan, Hannah Beckler, John Cook

Copy Editing: Kevin Kaplan

Research: Narimes Parakul, Darren Ankrom

Design and Visuals: Rebecca Zisser, Isabel Fernandez-Pujol, Randy Yeip

Data Visualization and Audio Design: Annie Fu

Illustration: Andrei Cojocaru

Photography: Bridget Bennett, Callaghan O’Hare, Alyssa Pointer, Abel Uribe

Video: Teresa Zhang, Robert Leslie

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