Ghost Tenants

Nowhere is the nation’s affordable housing crisis more evident than in the rise of a phenomenon known as “ghost tenants,” or people attempting to live in government subsidized affordable housing, secretly, off lease.

At Spring Garden Apartments, the number of people caught in this illegal arrangement jumped to 10 last year from three in 2014 and just one in 2013.

The problem of “ghost tenants” is world wide and likely affects all types of apartments, as people double-up to save money on rent or take in a family member who has no place else to go. Though the problem is hard for landlords to spot and even more difficult to quantify, a recent article on estimated that the actual “population living in New York City’s publicly owned housing units could be 25 to 50 percent larger” than the official count of 400,000 residents in the city’s public housing units.

The problem has been fueled by growing demand for affordable housing amid skyrocketing rents.

In Fairfax County, for instance, there are just 26 units of affordable housing for every 100 eligible extremely low income housing seekers, according to the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research group.

Enterprise Income Verification, the main database tool that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires landlords to use to ensure that only qualified low income families are eligible for affordable housing, isn’t really helpful in catching ghost tenants since these tenant are off the books and never provide personal information that a landlord can check.

So catching ghost tenants often becomes a game of cat-and-mouse or happenstance.

Some ghost tenants are outted by the mail carrier questioning whether to leave mail for an unfamiliar name; others are caught by maintenance staff when they carry out apartment inspections or repairs.

But some residents, perhaps unaware that ghost tenancy is illegal, behave as if they are the official tenant. We have had several come in the rental office after being locked out of their unit, for instance, and ask for a front door key.

“Well let’s see, we don’t recognize your name; do you live here?” is our usual response, before a lease violation notice is sent to the official tenant.

Like other Section 8 housing complexes, rents at Spring Garden Apartments are based on income. So when an individual moves in or out, the household income is reassessed and the rent—which is 30 percent of total income—is adjusted accordingly.

In the end, ghost tenancy spooks the real tenant more than the “ghost.” Punishment, ranging from eviction or a big increase in rent, is more often levied against the official tenant, not the person living in the unit illegally.

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