Racist ‘Landlord From Hell’ Tortured Tenants During Pandemic, Lawsuit Says

·13 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Handouts/Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Handouts/Getty

His Black tenants say he allegedly referrers to them as “n----s” who should “go back to Africa.” At least one white tenant says the man called her a “n----r lover” and warned her to “pay your bills like other white people.”

David Merryman, the 56-year-old owner of dozens of rental properties in Southeastern Virginia worth over $5 million, has had over a dozen arrests in the past two decades for threats and assaults, been cited hundreds of times by local city governments for code violations, and was suspended repeatedly from a local housing authority for dilapidated Section 8 rentals, according to city records obtained by The Daily Beast and court filings.

“He most definitely was a landlord from hell,” one tenant told The Daily Beast.

Recently, complaints from mostly Black, female tenants about Merryman’s behavior and subpar housing in Newport News, Virginia, made it to the desk of Attorney General Mark Herring.

On Thursday, Herring filed an $8 million housing discrimination lawsuit against Merryman for his alleged “horrific” treatment of tenants and a pattern of abusive, racist, and sexist behavior. The lawsuit is the first of its kind in Virginia, Herring told The Daily Beast. Housing advocates in the told The Daily Beast the state is thin on protections for renters and they hope the lawsuit will set a new tone for slumlords.

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“This is an important case and a big step in Virginia,” Herring admitted to The Daily Beast.

When confronted with claims about a long history of using racist language towards the low-income, mostly Black tenants he rents to in Virginia, Merryman’s response to The Daily Beast is: “I used to date a Black girl.”

Merryman declined to respond specifically to horrendous things he’s accused of saying.

Bianca Wilson, a Black community organizer in Hampton who told The Daily Beast she’s known about Merryman for years, said the new lawsuit made her cry—particularly because his racist tactics were being put in the spotlight. “I am just so happy Virginia is finally taking a stance and saying, you know, we do have a problem.”

The AG’s suit against Merryman alleges that he rented “substandard” units to tenants in Newport News and promised to make repairs on the homes after they signed their lease and paid their deposit. But instead, he never made good on those promises.

When tenants complained about leaks, sewage problems, or severe structural or electrical issues, Merryman allegedly began a campaign of “abusive, racist, sexist and otherwise unlawful behavior,” the suit said. When Black tenants reported issues, the suit alleges he dropped the n-word with abandon and allegedly told complaining tenants, “that’s how you Black people act” and “that’s the problem with you Black people.”

There have been “dozens” of calls to the police by Merryman’s tenants, asking for protection after alleged instances of him threatening them, stealing property, or attempting to illegally evict them, the suit said.

The suit also claims at least one tenant has gotten a protective order against him.

The Newport News Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

When Merryman was first told about the lawsuit by The Daily Beast on Thursday, he pushed back on the idea that he targets or harasses tenants. That is, he said, unless harassing them means trying to get them to pay back rent. He said he doesn’t target Black renters in particular, but said many of his tenants who happen to owe him money are Black.

“It just so happens I have no white people that are behind on their rent. Is that a coincidence or is that just weird?” he told The Daily Beast. “I don’t know what the pattern is called. Black Lives Matter?”

Merryman told The Daily Beast that only four tenants have protective orders against him. He said those orders have nothing to do with his bad behavior and rather were only drawn up after he tried to get them to pay their rent. He blamed the protective orders for why he still has outstanding code violations in Newport News. “When a protective order is taken out, you can’t text them, call them, go on your own property, you can’t do anything.”

According to records obtained by The Daily Beast, since 2018, Merryman has had 188 code violations on properties he owns in Newport News. Currently there are 35 outstanding violations and four pending in court. And court filings from his federal case show that his alleged failure to keep up his properties and harassment of tenants has been an issue for two decades now.

One white tenant, 24-year-old Samantha Feeley, told The Daily Beast a horror story about her time renting from Merryman.

She says that when she signed a lease to rent one of his properties in Hampton, Virginia, in January 2020, she didn’t realize what she was getting into.

Feeley said she’d just arrived from Indiana and was desperate to get a home for herself and her children so she signed even though the home had noticeable leaks, water damage, and rotting parts. “It was my first time getting a place on my own,” she said, “I didn’t know what all to look for.”

Nonetheless—and just as the AG suit alleges is a pattern for the landlord—she said Merryman promised to fix all the issues once she signed the lease. But he never did.

As the COVID-19 pandemic started to take over the country, Feeley learned she was pregnant. With little information about how she might be affected by the deadly virus, she left her job at a resort hotel. During the first brutal months of the pandemic she said she continued paying rent thanks to help from unemployment. But in August, when the son she was expecting was stillborn, she said she fell behind a couple months due to funeral expenses that put her in a financial hole that was hard to climb out of.

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She said she knew Merryman was eligible for assistance to cover any missed rent. There was also a federal eviction moratorium in place.

But nonetheless, Feeley told The Daily Beast she began to receive harassing text messages from Merryman.

In Sept. 2020, after Merryman had allegedly shown up at her home demanding rent money, Feeley said Merryman texted the phone of her boyfriend, who she was living with at the time and who is also white. Feeley said she responded to the messages.

According to screenshots shared with The Daily Beast, Merryman texted her boyfriend to demand rent payment. Feeley responded that they couldn’t pay because “our job has been impacted by Covid,” the text messages show, “Hence the whole reason why the president has issued a ban on evictions we are going through a pandemic.”

In response, Merryman wrote, “Fuck that your [sic] still working and your [sic] white,” according to the screenshots, later adding, “Don’t give me that n----r shit.”

According to the screenshots, Merryman texted that “all my white people” were paying rent and “pay your bills like other white people.”

“But then again you have a bunch of n----r friends it seems like,” he texted after. Adding, “So Maybe your a n----r love.”

Merryman did not respond to questions about this text exchange.

Feeley told The Daily Beast the language in the exchange was not out of the ordinary for Merryman. She also said she wasn’t surprised to learn his treatment of her was similar to the way he treated his dozens of other tenants, according to the AG’s suit. “None of that surprises me,” she said. “He is a monster.”

Feeley posted screenshots of the messages on Facebook in September 2020. Among the people who saw the post was Wilson, the Hampton community organizer who said she’d already heard for years from other tenants in the Hampton and Newport News area about Merryman’s unscrupulous ways.

Wilson created a Change.org petition, calling for a federal investigation into his allegedly discriminatory practices. She told The Daily Beast it was later sent to McKinley Price, the mayor of Newport News. “I started the petition because we have enough going on in the community as it is,” Wilson told The Daily Beast, “we don’t need an actual landlord to be disrespectful and discriminatory against tenants.”

Price declined to comment. Members of the Newport News City Council and the City Attorney’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.

But the city is aware of Merryman—in the past, the landlord has tangled with Black city employees, according to the AG’s suit.

Merryman allegedly told Black city employees in Newport News that they were only inspecting his properties because “Black lives matter,” the suit says. It also says Black employees have seen and reported Merryman for referring to his Black tenants as “n----s” and some of those Black employees called police when they visited property owned by Merryman to ensure they’d be safe.

In 2019, Merryman had a public spat in city hall with the Newport News director of code compliance, Harold Roach Jr., the Daily Press reported. Merryman and Roach allegedly argued over what he believed to be the city’s targeting of him for his dilapidated properties. In a video of the confrontation, Roach accuses Merryman of calling him the n-word multiple times on the phone and seems incensed. “All you have to do is lay your hands on me,” he says. The Daily Press reported that Roach was later suspended for the incident.

Roach declined to comment for this story.

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Despite the new lawsuit hanging over him, Merryman told The Daily Beast he was pleased that he allegedly has “dozens” of evictions in Newport News scheduled in the coming weeks.

Merryman said he believed the evictions were part of the reason his tenants in the city have been complaining about him. He also said he believes their complaints are being trumped up and said his tenants didn’t want to get back to work. “It seems mighty strange that the Attorney General’s Office, days before dozens of tenants are rightfully due to be evicted,” he said, “I get hit with a lawsuit saying that I’m a crazy landlord.”

Merryman insisted he is also trying to catch up on his own pandemic-related hit thanks to what he says is nearly $1.3 million he’s owed in back rent. The rent relief program, he said, has been slow to pay. He also said he’s been hampered by the alleged unwillingness of his tenants to submit information for the relief applications. “Yes there is a pandemic, I totally understand it,” he said. “But in the meantime, I’m struggling to pay my own mortgages.”

He said the AG’s suit, the most high-profile action against him in a long history of tangling with local governments, was a “ruse” to go after a landlord who believes in the “system.”

“I think people need to get back to work,” he said. “Of course people are mad, of course they’re gonna say I called them this or I called them that. I’d be mad too if I had to find a new place.”

Merryman told The Daily Beast that instead of the Attorney General using his resources to investigate him, he should investigate the government for continuing to allow renters to get moratoriums on rent due to pandemic hardships and unemployment benefits. “It shouldn’t take a guy who owns 90 rental houses to figure out, duh, if everybody would get back to work and if Congress would get people working, they could pay their rent and they wouldn’t be going belly-up.”

His logic is particularly ironic, given that in 2014, Merryman pleaded guilty in federal court to claiming nearly $30,000 in fraudulent unemployment benefits in 2009 and 2010, despite the fact that he earned over $250,000 a year in income and was managing a stable of high-earning rental properties in the state, according to federal court filings.

Merryman did not respond to questions about the case.

According to filings by prosecutors, Merryman’s most lucrative assets were his rental properties, which were valued at over $5 million and earned him an income of $50,000 by 2015. This was despite multiple suspensions from participating in a Section 8 program because of violations over a decade “involving the condition of the properties and the defendant’s abusive treatment toward tenants,” prosecutors wrote. The suspensions revealed “abusive treatment of tenants and individuals,” a trait that prosecutors wrote was seen in his criminal history that included “extensive contact” with police between 2004 to 2013 and 15 arrests related to threats and assaults.

(In 2017, one of Merryman’s arrests made headlines after he chased two teens with his car because he believed them to be guilty of stealing it earlier, the Daily Press reported.)

Although prosecutors wrote Merryman was not convicted of the many charges against him by 2015, they believed they were evidence of “temper problems” and proof of a pattern of “advantaging himself by disadvantaging others.”

Merryman’s alleged behavior sounds familiar to Victoria Horrock, an attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia who represents mostly low-income tenants in disputes against landlords. Arguments about “lazy” tenants not wanting to work have become common in disputes with landlords during the pandemic, she said. This despite the fact that landlords themselves often take advantage of the same sort of assistance— including a rent relief program aimed at helping landlords pay back rent for tenants experiencing hardships because of the pandemic.

Along with extra funds to help renters and landlords, Horrock said the pandemic has also created more “bad actor situations” because of the eviction protections put in place that have been largely non-existent in Virginia previously.

A 2018 Princeton study looking at 82 million eviction records in the United States between 2000 and 2016 found Virginia had the fourth highest eviction rate. It also found that five cities in the state were in the top ten for evictions in large cities, with Newport News, where many of Merryman’s properties are, ranking number four on the list.

After the expiration of the CDC’s rent moratorium, Horrock said the state has rules in place until June 2022 that continue to protect renters who can prove pandemic-related hardship. Landlords also can’t evict anyone before first applying for rent relief.

Nonetheless, Horrock said landlords who don’t want to wait on state funds take things into their own hands by letting homes fall into disrepair and creating hostile situations to force tenants to move. Often, she said, they get away with these tactics with little punishment. The AG’s lawsuit against Merryman is especially satisfying, she said.

“The tenants affected in the lawsuit are the type of tenants that experience the vast majority of housing issues in the state,” Horrock said. “To see the attorney general try to protect those tenants and their housing rights is pretty huge.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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