/System doesn’t work for anybody’ Repeat evictions take toll on tenants, courts and landlords

System doesn’t work for anybody’ Repeat evictions take toll on tenants, courts and landlords

The courthouse overlooks downtown Jackson and offers a glimpse of a process that is repeated all too often for many renters: defendants and plaintiffs sit down and wait for the eviction cases. The Mississippi’s first step in the judicial system is called justice courts. They hear small claims civil cases such as traffic offenses and misdemeanor criminal cases. These courts are not of record and most defendants are not represented. Local judges are also elected. They are efficient, however. It’s also where the majority of Jackson evictions take place. According to the Eviction Laboratory, a Princeton-based research group that compiles every eviction record for the country, Mississippi is ranked eighth for evictions. Jackson is fifth for cities of 100,000 or more. Eviction Lab researcher Lavar Edmonds says that evictions can be costly for tenants, landlords and the courts. The underlying problem is a lack of affordable, stable housing. He says, “So you have that combination with an overburdened judiciary system.” It’s not all black and white. There aren’t a lot of predatory landlords. This system doesn’t work. Landlords aren’t getting rent, residents who want to live there don’t have enough money and aren’t having a decent standard living. So why are we okay with this system? The Mississippi Landlord-Tenant Act permits an eviction to take place within three days of rent being late. An eviction judgment in justice court gives landlords leverage to collect unpaid rent and threatens to prolong the process if they request a removal warrant. To recover unpaid rent, many landlords rely on the court system to collect. This creates a paper trail of unpaid rental, late fees, court costs, and attorney fees that leaves tenants reeling. Even if they are not evicting tenants, eviction judgments can be followed and can tarnish their credit and rental record. Edmonds describes the eviction court process as “Court fees, late fees, attorney fees… it’s an endless spiraling thing” These little pricks can snowball into being insurmountable, and it’s not clear how tenants already struggling with rent to avoid eviction without a stronger, more sensible policy initiative. He says that even though tenants are not actually evicted, repeated judgments can start a cycle that makes it more costly to stay in the home. There is confusion about the distinction between an eviction judgement and a removal. Mid-July in DeSoto County, which has the third highest eviction rates among Mississippi counties behind Hinds or Tunica, a landlord questions Judge Larry Vaughn about how long it takes to remove the tenant from the eviction judgement. Vaughn stated that he tried to convince landlords to allow the ink to dry on this order, but he has on occasion executed warrants of removals the same day. He issued an eviction judgement for the tenant on Sunday and told the landlord that he could apply for a removal warrant Monday morning if he didn’t get the tenant to leave. The eviction judgment was valid if the tenant paid and the landlord was satisfied. However, the removal did not take place. They will likely be brought back to court if the tenant is late again. According to John Jopling, a Mississippi Center for Justice attorney who has represented tenants in justice courts for more than 30 years, repeat eviction judgements were common in Mississippi Today’s analysis of evictions. This is partly because the justice court is not designed to arbitrate all claims equally. The eviction process has not changed much over the years, even though the affordability of housing has changed. In DeSoto County, there were 27 repeat evictions of a single tenant. This was an eviction judgement on paper but not an actual removal. Jopling claims that tenants he represents are the fortunate few. Most tenants don’t show up at court without representation, and it can be confusing. Many of these cases are settled in the hallway just outside the courtroom. Even if the tenant and the landlord agree on a payment plan and agree to a payment schedule, the landlord will usually issue an eviction judgement. This is a stamp that affirms that the plaintiff received a monetary judgment and provides a paper trail for the landlord in the event the tenant fails to keep their word. Some settlements are better than good judgments. Vaughn says that some settlements can be better than others depending on the shoes you are wearing and which side you are on. Vaughn stated that although I don’t advocate settlement, it is something I support. Experts agree that the Mississippi eviction process favors the landlords over tenants. However, it can be time-consuming for both. It’s easy to start the eviction process in Mississippi and is relatively inexpensive compared to other states. Jopling states that a combination of late fees, lack of uniformity and affidavit forms for landlords, as well as virtually no legal representation for tenants, tilts the balance in favor of landlords. While most justice courts offer forms that assist landlords in tenant removal, there is no equivalent for tenants. Jopling states, “The question is: If self-help forms are available for landlords who appear without lawyers, why should self-help forms not be available for tenants who appear to defend themselves?” Although hearings can be brief and the judge may allow for a trial if there is disagreement, most tenants are aware that they are behind on rent and just want to have more time to collect the full amount. Judges may ask for additional information to determine if the landlord is willing to agree to a payment plan. The law requires that eviction be ordered if rent is not paid on time. A tenant who claims his paychecks were cut off when he changed from temporary service to full-time work said that he was welcome to go to trial. The plaintiff would have to prove their case, but if rent is not paid, the trial would not be very long.” Vaughn made reference to the nature and scope of the eviction statute. Vaughn said that work injuries and the inability to save money are not “personal” issues and were not relevant to the case. Most justice courts operate in a similar way. Jopling states that when someone goes to court alone, they usually lose and have a judgment against their name that will follow them for the rest of his or her life. This can make it more difficult for them to find a place to call home. Jopling says that although evictions are not actually removals, many landlords won’t rent out to tenants if they have had a prior eviction or a eviction in the past three years. Mississippi has recently updated its laws regarding evictions. A landlord must wait ten days following the eviction judgement before removing a tenant. A justice court judge could have set the date for removal indiscriminately before July 2018. According to the Mississippi Center for Justice however, the new rule can be interpreted and applied in different ways across the state. A tenant’s decision on whether or not they are evicted will depend on where they live and the judge they see. Mississippi should think about this: What is it about Mississippi’s justice system that allows for such different outcomes based on similar facts? He said that people get lost thinking it’s an argument between the haves and the have-nots. “It often falls into these stereotypes with little data.” “It’s important to have data because there is no uniformity between counties in justice court outcomes.”_x000D