Tenants Struggle To Navigate Eviction Court Appeals

Jul 31, 2018

The 11th day of the month is a daunting one for many people struggling to make rent. It’s when eviction notices are typically filed. Last year, 30,000 notices were filed in Mecklenburg County, according to state court data.

Once a renter receives an eviction notice, they can move out, or fight the eviction in court.

On a recent Monday, the district court hearing room where eviction cases are being held is busy. People of various ages sit on benches just outside the courtroom, conferring with attorneys and family members and going through paperwork. Inside most seats are taken as renters and their landlords wait to be called.

All of these people have had their cases heard before a magistrate. This is the primary appeals stage. A common theme is that they all try to convince the judge that they are not deadbeats trying to get out of paying their rents. Nearly all are hardship stories, like cancer treatments preventing them from working; failed businesses; landlords who wouldn't accept partial payments.

But judges don’t take those kinds of things into account when deciding eviction cases. Josephine Bailey found that out when she presented her case before Judge Rebecca Tin. She told the judge that shortly after she moved into a single-family home in south Charlotte with her four children, her mother became ill and Bailey took a leave of absence from her job to take care of her.

“I went on FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act),” Bailey said. “They don’t pay you. They only hold your job.”

Bailey fell behind on her rent of $850 a month by several thousand dollars. She says she made two payments totaling more than $5,000. But then she says the landlord did not make the repairs on the home she requested, so she did not pay the full balance.

“We stay in the cold because the furnace was broken on the house," Bailey said. "We stay in the cold almost three weeks, then my kids and I have to buy heaters to heat the house up. There’s water all over, there’s rats because the house is not sealed.”

Bailey thought she could withhold the rent balance until her landlord fixed the problems. That’s true in some states like South Carolina and New York, but not in North Carolina. Bailey lost her case.

“I thought because I gave them the money they would try to negotiate to fix the property,” Bailey said. “We always negotiated and they never say get out but now when I complain about the condition of the property they decided to do immediate eviction.”

A few other tenants testified that when they complained about poor conditions, landlords who had worked with them in the past on late payments, suddenly moved to evict them. In Mecklenburg County, a UNC Charlotte Urban Institute report found that 25 people are evicted every day.

Like many people facing an eviction, Bailey did not have an attorney. The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute report found that 82 percent of landlords in 2016 went to court with an attorney to question and cross-examine witnesses similar to a regular trial. Tenants usually struggle with this part of the process and on this day, the judge often stepped in to keep the tenants on track. 

Kenneth Barrett also represented himself but did not call any witnesses. Barrett says he has rented a single-family home for $1250 a month since 2015 with the intention of buying it. He told the judge that near the end of last year his financial business started to struggle and he couldn’t pay his rent.

"I’d paid good up until then,” Barrett said. “I showed them a settlement that my wife has gotten and she had proof of that and we were gonna use that to get the rent caught up. I thought the judge would honor that.”

But judges don’t take into consideration future income sources. They want to know if you have the rent that day or not. Barrett did not. The judge ruled against him.

“I don’t think the settlement was fair," Barrett said. "Why not work with me when I show you I have the money coming.” 

Barrett said he’d like to appeal the decision but is not familiar with the process and would need help. When asked where he would go if he does not appeal and has to move, Barrett said he didn’t know. He became overwhelmed at this point. Tears ran down his face as he leaned against the wall next to his wife, who tried to comfort him.

There were happier outcomes for tenants. Several negotiated settlements with their landlords just before their cases were called and the eviction was dismissed.

One case that took about an hour to complete involved a local affordable housing developer. Christoper Dennis, the owner of E Fix Housing Solutions, filed to evict a woman he says was two months behind in her rent, of $550 a month. She insisted that even though her rent was due on the first of the month, Dennis verbally agreed to pick up her rent because she was disabled. And it would be due on the 27th of the month when she received her disability check. Dennis disputed that claim.

“If you have a number of properties and a number of rent dates is convoluted and I can’t pick up rents,” Dennis said. “We never said it would be an agreement for rent date.”

The judge ruled against Dennis but for a different reason. A housing code inspector, who the tenant called, found a long list of violations on the property — inoperable windows, damaged lights and heating equipment, unsound flooring, holes in walls and other problems. The judge ruled that the condition of the property warranted a reduced rent. Dennis received $50 for each month of back rent and the tenant will be charged that amount until the home is fully repaired.

“I think it’s a little unfair today. When we bought the properties we made tenants and owners know that the properties were not up to our standards and we would do renovations. And we went and did all of the major repairs,” Dennis said. “A lot of tenants who don’t want to pay or can pay call code as a way to say, 'oh something’s wrong.' It’s just a tool because if they had repairs that need to be made, we would have been happy to make those repairs."

In many of the cases scheduled on the day this WFAE reporter attended, a lot of the tenants didn't show up. Urban Institute researchers found that 84 percent of tenants are no-shows. Those cases are dismissed and evictions are ordered.