Federal, state and local eviction moratoriums had put most of the pending cases on hold. But as the moratoriums expire and eviction hearings resume, millions of people are at risk of losing their homes.
That’s because the court process is heavily skewed towards the needs of landlords and offers few protections for tenants – a problem that has been going on for decades, as my ongoing research on the process of evictions shows.
The eviction crisis
Early in the pandemic, as states shut down their economies, tens of millions of people lost all or part of their incomes, with poorer Americans suffering the greatest losses.
Worried about a wave of evictions, the federal government and many cities and states imposed moratoriums in an effort to prevent a crisis. Some states went further and provided financial assistance directly to renters, while Congress provided aid in the form of economic impact checks and enhanced unemployment benefits.
Financial assistance to tenants is important because landlords have also been hurt by the economic effects of the pandemic. Part of preventing an eviction crisis and maintaining affordable housing means helping tenants pay their rent in order to ensure that landlords can pay their mortgages and other costs.
All this aid has helped ensure greater financial and housing stability for people affected by COVID-19. But the federal benefits have now expired, and many eviction moratoriums have lapsed or will do so soon. As a result, as many as 26 million people are believed to be at risk of losing their homes in the coming months.
Unfortunately, not even an extension of the moratoriums or financial assistance alone can solve this problem. Eventually, tenants will have to pay back their landlords and, if they can’t, will have to go to court to avoid losing their homes. In most cases, they’ll lose.
A process that favors landlords
The reason why has historical roots in land disputes from feudal England, a far cry from the modern landlord-tenant relationship.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as states began to codify eviction laws and procedures, lawmakers wanted a way to encourage the judicial resolution of disputes about who was entitled to possession of a piece of property. Some lawmakers feared that landlords would literally run tenants off of properties at gunpoint or engage other forms of extralegal self-help.
In order to require landlords to come to court instead of taking matters into their own hands, every state eventually created a “summary process” for eviction matters, which allows a landlord to regain possession more quickly than the court process would otherwise permit.
Summary process, which means it must take place without delay, sped up evictions by changing other aspects of the normal civil litigation process that had benefited tenants facing eviction. For example, many states such as Tennessee and Texas now allow eviction cases to move from complaint to trial in as few as six days, while some prohibit jury trials.
In a Supreme Court case in 1972 that upheld the constitutionality of the summary process, justices noted that having only six days between complaint and trial was not a due process violation for tenants because “tenants would appear to have as much access to the relevant facts as their landlord.”
Many tenants would dispute this characterization. Often the tenant is precluded from using common legal tactics available in civil court cases. In most states, a tenant can’t seek documents from the landlord through discovery without the permission of the judge. Judges can also deny tenants the right to assert counterclaims, even if they are directly related to the tenancy – such as the landlord’s failure to make repairs.
These concessions to judicial expedience limit the tenant’s ability to mount an effective defense against the landlord’s allegations, with the express purpose of making eviction easier for the landlord. And most tenants will not have a lawyer, while their landlords almost certainly will.
Consequences of a crisis
Tenants who go through eviction court not only could lose their homes, but the final judgment also becomes a black mark on their credit reports, making it more difficult for them to obtain safe and affordable housing in the future.
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The current court process is not designed to account for these consequences, especially on the mass scale resulting from the pandemic. And with a few exceptions, most states have not adjusted or modified the process to make it easier for tenants to maintain their homes.
Federal and state governments are debating extending moratoriums and providing additional aid as the pandemic continues to rage in many parts of the U.S. While I agree that additional relief is vital, in my view the eviction court process itself needs urgent reform.
Without changes, Americans may experience a level of economic instability and homelessness not seen since the Great Depression.
What we know so far about COVID-19 and children
President Donald Trump has been censored on Facebook and Twitter after saying children are "almost immune" from COVID-19. What do the facts say?
We know for sure children are less likely to fall seriously ill from the coronavirus, and emerging evidence suggests they're less likely to be infected too.
What's less clear is how much they spread the virus once infected.
- Children rarely become seriously ill -
Under-18s have accounted for just two percent of hospitalized COVID-19 cases and less than 0.1 percent of all deaths in the United States, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Angst-ridden Republicans should have acted when Trump put his reelection above national security concerns: conservative columnist
Writing in the Washington Post this Thursday, columnist Jennifer Rubin says that Senate Republicans are in serious trouble, especially in light of the stimulus bill they rolled out this week.
According to Rubin, the Senate GOP is in dire straits because "they have allowed the anti-government, anti-science Trump sycophants to disclaim any interest in the bill, thereby handing the reins to Democrats."
Rubin writes that some Republicans saying they want to see essential workers being taken care of in the bill are speaking up too late. "If only they they had some power in February to remove the unfit and corrupt president from office, instead of leaving him there to purge witnesses from his administration, seek vengeance on foes, force out inspectors general and botch the response to the coronavirus," Rubin writes.
Anti-mask GOP lawmaker mocks Ohio governor for testing positive for coronavirus
Notoriously anti-mask Ohio state Rep. Nino Vitale gloated after Gov. Mike DeWine tested positive for the coronavirus.
The Urbana Republican has questioned masks and opposed other public safety measures imposed by DeWine, also a Republican, and ridiculed the governor after he tested positive for the potentially deadly virus ahead of meeting President Donald Trump.