/COVID-19 made in-person court too risky, but eviction hearings continue — virtually

COVID-19 made in-person court too risky, but eviction hearings continue — virtually

Tenants were required to appear in court (virtually) to answer for unpaid rent to landlords. The amount ranged from approximately $800 to $6,000. Sutton raised his right arm in front of the webcam, asking the tenants to swear that they were telling the truth. Each frame on the black screen was dotted with palms. Sometimes their voices sounded auto-tuned due to poor connection. Hinds County deemed in-person court hearings during a deadly epidemic too risky. But evictions continue. Since Sept. 1, property owners in the county have filed 260 and 78 warrants for removal, which are the last steps to expel a renter. Property owners can file an eviction under the Mississippi Landlord-Tenant Act three days after late rent. The judge is required to evict the tenant if this happens. Even though judges have limited leeway, they can offer a three-day grace period to the tenant for them to pay the rent. The nationwide eviction moratorium was issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control on Sept. 4. It only applies if the tenant requests it. To invoke the CDC order, the renter must provide a declaration to their landlord. This protects low-income renters from being evicted from their homes or taken away from them. The moratorium does not erase rent debt. Tenants may still owe thousands of dollars after the moratorium expires. This is currently happening at the end the year. One person, out of many renters who appeared at internet court Tuesday — and the many others whom the judge evicted because they failed to log on — informed the court she had submitted a CDC declaration form. According to the woman, her employer had cut her hours in the wake of the pandemic and she has struggled to pay rent for the past several months. Although she had paid $400 in recent months, several thousand remained owing to her. Castlegate Luxury Apartments representative said that she had received her CDC form on that day. However, she stated, “Your honor,” “that started on September 4th.” Sutton gave her permission to evict the tenant, basically stating that the tenant owes money and that she no longer has permission for her to live in her apartment. Justice court judgments are only limited to $3500 regardless of the amount owed by the tenant. Experts in housing acknowledge that an eviction ban is a temporary measure. However, it does not stop the problem from recurring. Strong rental assistance is required to address the current crisis. This includes for property owners with low incomes who may need to borrow money. Pre-COVID-19, the housing affordability crisis existed: Hinds County’s more than half of all households spent more than 50% on housing before the pandemic. This was according to County Health Rankings, an Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program. According to the Eviction Laboratory, a Princeton-based research group that compiles every eviction record from 2000 through 2016, Mississippi is ranked eighth in the United States for evictions. Jackson is the fifth most evicted large city in the country. Between seven and eight families are being evicted each day. Mississippi law does not allow for mediation in states that have housing courts. Instead, tenants are forced to face justice court judges. These elected officials must have a minimum of a high school diploma. The hearings were held this week. Property managers, who appeared on screens at their desks, rattled off indistinguishable amounts of dollars — past due rents, late fees — while a judge attempted to decode the audio. Capitol Property Investments’ representative held up a blurry number on a piece paper, while the tenant sat in her car, staring at the screen. These hearings do not provide legal representation for tenants. Sutton asked the young lady in her car whether she was willing to pay $1,100 that her landlord had imposed on her. She replied, “Yes sir.” “All right, we are good. The judge declared, “Y’all have good day,” and that the landlord had won. After a pause, he asked the landlord: “Hey sir, could you get immediate possession?” This allows landlords to file a warrant for removal. This initiates the physical process that many associate with “eviction.” This permission may be granted by judges the same day as the order for eviction. They can also give a grace period of up to three days in which the renter might be liable for rent before the landlord can request physical removal from the county constable. The law had previously provided for a 10-day grace period. However, the Legislature amended it in 2019 to allow for faster removals. Sutton gave immediate possession to each landlord who requested it Tuesday. He replied, “Yes sir. Yes sir.” Virtual eviction 2020: In the midst of a pandemic it’s unsafe enough to hold court in person but evictions go on. pic.twitter.com/mLrowqNxh7 — Anna Wolfe (@ayewolfe) September 15, 2020 “Judge!” the renter reacted. “No! “No! “Earlier, before, I asked you if those numbers sound right. You answered yes. That’s a judgment in favor of the plaintiff. However, he requested immediate possession. Tell me, what’s the matter? She said, “I’m one of those who are on unemployment.” “Wait a minute. You just have to pay him. He has the money, you just have to pay him. He wants to prove that you owe them money. The judge stated that was all, sounding confident that she would not be expelled from her home. “The unemployment deposit just hit. She explained that it just happened today. He said, “Oh, you are good.” “… Get with him and y’all work it out.” Renters who want to remain in their homes after an eviction are often unable to reach their landlords because they don’t have a lawyer to guide them through the process. Also, conversations in court can sometimes be brief and vague. An eviction filing in many cases is simply an avenue for landlords to record a tenant’s debt in the court records. Even if the landlord and the tenant reach an agreement, the landlord will still have the right to do so. A judge will almost always rule in favor of the property company. The court acts as their collection agent. Even if the judge does not lose their home, it can affect the tenant’s credit and rental record. It also disadvantages those most financially vulnerable in the state. One woman testified before the judge Tuesday that she lost her job when the pandemic struck. She hadn’t worked for the company long enough to be eligible for unemployment. The tenant stated, “So, it’s impossible to pay it.” “I don’t know what she wants me to do,” the tenant said. “Those conversations cannot be discussed like that,” Sutton replied. These conversations need to take place in a different environment. However, I do mean that it is something management and you must work out. To make sure that the correct amounts are documented, they only take people to court if there is an outstanding balance. You must talk to her about COVID. He said that she is capable of explaining. Although the young woman didn’t want to be identified in the story, she said that East Village Estates, her property manager, hadn’t told her about the multi-million-dollar Rental Assistance in Mississippi Program, (RAMP), which is funded by federal pandemic relief. She wanted to know if she would be allowed to move, or if she could get help finding a place to live. The judge replied, “All that weights in the balance with me.” The tenant and the property manager didn’t reach a compromise until late that afternoon. Erica Hensley, a Mississippi Today reporter, contributed to this article.