Eviction is not a new problem. It is a difficult, painful, process in which a tenant may be left having no place to live. It is a problem that has been exacerbated in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in the past 50 years, the primary and most rapidly growing problem for renters has been affordability. In most cities, the median rent far exceeds what the medium income.
I would like to address the following three issues when it comes to the eviction problem in America: The legislation, the fast-and-easy court process of eviction, and the lack of resources ($$$) allocated to individuals facing it. Luckily, we have organizations like Legal Aid in Atlanta that are working hard to keep people in their homes. I sat down with Legal Aid attorney, Margaret Kinnear, to ask about what a normal day on the job looks like under these new circumstances.
“A lot of Zoom meetings,” she admits. “People are calling and needing help. We determine if we can assist them by representing them or referring them. Our unit focuses on subsidized housing. Most of the City of Atlanta is in our office’s jurisdiction. We do eviction cases. Sometimes the Atlanta Housing Authority has someone with a Section 8 voucher or a housing choice voucher. If they are terminating the voucher, we might represent the person in an administrative hearing. Sometimes we just give advice. The best thing you can do for someone is to tell them the truth about where they are. But it’s really hard.”
I asked Kinnear if the low-income individuals who need legal assistance, know about Legal Aid. “I think we are known in certain areas and complexes. The courts have notices posted about us and there are other ways to access the information to find us. We’ve been doing Facebook Live events and under non-pandemic circumstances we do community outreach. Lawyer in the Library is one example of that,” Kinnear says. “This kind of situation always brings people to us that maybe six months ago would never have hear of us, but also six months ago would not have qualified.”
“We are working on having the courts send out information to folks. We’ve asked that any notices of hearings being sent out have the contact information of ourselves, Atlanta Volunteer Lawyer Foundation, and the rent assistance companies included with the document,” Kinnear says.
Because of the pandemic, the CDC has imposed a moratorium that bars the eviction of lower-income tenants who are unable to make rent and meet several other requirements. Certain agencies, like the Salvation Army, Fulton County Community Action Authority always have some kind of fund to assist people with rent and utilities. “Right now, there are specific grants for rent assistance for people impacted by COVID-19,” says Kinnear. “We are expecting them to go through the money pretty quickly. And a lot of those grants have to be used by the end of the year! You know January 1st is not a magic day, right?” Unfortunately, the CDC moratorium in Georgia ends at the end of the year — December 31st, 2020 — as well.
When asked what happens come January, Kinnear shakes her head. “I don’t know,” Kinnear says. “And if I don’t know what’s happening in January, then I can’t give anyone advice on what to expect other than at that point the existing moratoriums and grants are ending so try to plan accordingly. My hope is that in this time we have now, we can help as many people get stabilized as possible.”
While the CDC’s order bars eviction for qualifying tenants, it does not forgive rent or prevent landlords from charging late fees. “The eviction process in Georgia is pretty quick. Which I don’t necessarily think is a good thing. But it means that judgments against tenants are usually about a month or two of rent. And now, because of the pandemic, people are looking at seven or eight months of rent they have to pay back. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a major uptick in bankruptcy filings in a year or two,” Kinnear says.
The Solutions, Broad.
Legislation. We need better laws. Unlike other federal safety net programs, such as SNAP, Social Security, Medicaid, and Welfare, housing assistance is not an entitlement — meaning that it does not provide assistance to all who are deemed eligible. The number of low-income renters that actually receive federal housing assistance has dropped significantly as a fraction of the low-income households that need it. In the short term, we need rent forgiveness and laws that bar the various steps of the eviction process: filing, judgment, and the dreaded lock-out. In the long term, we need to challenge the legislature to ensure that federal housing assistance to keep up with renter housing needs.
We need policies that protect against gentrification. “As long as housing can be speculated on for people to make money, things will not get better,” says community organizer, Maria Lopez-Nunez. “As long as there is interest in the area, [housing] will never be anyone’s right and it will always be low-income black and brown people that suffer the most.” These policies could include reducing or freezing property taxes to protect long-term residents, limiting luxury development in gentrifying neighborhoods, and rewriting fair housing rules in a way that recognize underlying issues of power and race.
Money. Even if we get legislation prohibiting evictions — not just lockouts, but filings and judgments — landlords are due the money. Tenants will still owe this money and landlords will still be able to sue the tenants for it. More than prohibiting evictions, we need to help tenants as much as possible with the funding: rearage rent and rent they will need in the future. There simply is not enough money to pay all the rents and all the mortgages due in the United States. Tenants who live in low-income housing are individuals that live check-to-check. “I’ve seen tenants who were evicted for the lack of fifty bucks,” says one ACLU attorney. “They’re on the margin. To think that they’re suddenly going to be able to double their rent payments at the end of the moratorium is impossible without some cash infusion.”
The courts. We should reform the court process in a way that would ensure greater fairness. Kinnear pointed out that the Georgia eviction process is carried out quickly. Georgia law allows your landlord to evict you for failing to pay rent on time, as well as other reasons. Once your landlord decides to evict you, he has the option to give you a period of 24 hours to 10 days to comply with the eviction notice. The law does not require the notice to be written. If you do not comply with the eviction notice by paying the rent or moving out, the landlord may file a dispossessory affidavit, and a summons will be delivered to you. The summons requires an answer within seven days from the date of service. Once you file an answer, a hearing on the issues will be held. Once the hearing is held, the court will issue its decision. If the judge rules in favor of the landlord at the eviction hearing, the landlord “should request a writ of possession that requires the tenant move after seven days and may also demand payment of past rent owed.” The eviction process should be difficult and arduous as to provide a disincentive to landlords.
The Solutions, Narrow.
Law students could become educated in Landlord-Tenant Law and offer themselves as mediators. Just for a landlord to see someone appear on the side of the tenant can help the tenant tremendously. “[Institutionalized landlords] will fold the minute there’s a lawyer on the other side. Because out of 100 of their tenants, 99 won’t have representation so they’ll give you what you want. Big deal,” says former ACLU employee.
Not just law students, but anyone can call their representatives. “They hate hearing from you, so call them,” says community organizer, Maria Lopez-Nunez. “They’re tired of hearing from people like me. They need to hear new people demand change. Sometimes I call landlords to inform them of the law.” She laughs. “This is how we get the democratic process to work. By watching it. Popularize the law.”
Eviction is an extreme, extreme punishment for a civil dispute. Worse than that, it is an issue that compounds on itself. “I didn’t have anywhere to go, because who rents a home to a couple [referring to himself and his wife] with an eviction notice and a credit history that was damaged by just a few bad months,” my family friend recounted his job loss struggle five years back. If you’ve ever had a problem affording housing, the current system ensures that you will continue to struggle. Screening companies gather public information — including the names of anyone who has merely been named in an eviction hearing — to provide to landlords to vet prospective tenants. This is what is referred to as “the tenant blacklist.”
As long as we stay blind to the racist and classist forces working behind eviction, the crisis will not end. The burdens of our own struggles cannot relieve us of the opportunity to see others in theirs. We need to stay informed, get involved, and remember that what we do for others we do for ourselves.