Many state and local governments have decided it isn't safe yet to hold in-person eviction hearings in court during the pandemic. But apparently it's OK for people to be put out on the street during the outbreak if you do it after a Zoom call.
That's what's happening in some states as eviction moratoriums expire, and courts hold remote hearings for people who can't pay their rent.
"My company closed due to the pandemic," Deanna Brooks told the judge in a Zoom hearing this week in Collin County, Texas. She said she has had trouble getting documentation to collect unemployment because her former employer has been unresponsive. So she hasn't paid rent since April. "I haven't been able to get unemployment or anything."
Brooks is a Navy veteran and says she has a heart condition. The judge postponed her case until next week to review whether she is covered by a limited moratorium in Dallas, where she lives. NPR contacted Brooks after the hearing.
"I'm scared," she says. Brooks told NPR she has no friends or family she can move in with and has been in and out of the hospital with heart trouble. "They'll throw everything I have outside on the street," she says. "I have nowhere to go. I feel like very depressed, very stressed out, and I don't know what to do."
Her landlord, Estates on Frankford, declined to comment.
Renters may have special protections from eviction during the outbreak. But the rules are complicated and differ from state to county to city. And it's rare that tenants have a lawyer to help them.
In the Collin County video call, landlords who didn't connect to the hearing had their cases against tenants dismissed by the judge. If tenants failed to dial in or couldn't, that cleared the path for their landlords to evict them.
"I'm going to go forward with this one because I don't have her here to tell me anything," Judge Charles Ruckel told one landlord whose tenant wasn't on the call. "All right, you have a default judgment of possession, back rent and court costs."
A default judgment basically means the tenant didn't show up, the landlord provided the required documentation of unpaid rent, and the eviction can move forward. That happened to five people in this one Zoom call hearing.
For some people, connecting to a Zoom call might be easier than getting to the courthouse. But, some legal experts say, for others, the virtual hearing might deny their right to due process, which includes the right to be heard.
What if someone doesn't have a decent smartphone or computer, or online access?
"A missed call for not being able to log into a remote hearing is the equivalent of failing to appear," says Emily Benfer, a professor at Columbia Law School. So the inability to connect to the call may not just be the loss of basic rights, she says, it "could also be the difference between housing and homelessness."
Today, the lab is announcing a new tracking system to monitor evictions during the pandemic. And already with some moratoriums expiring, Desmond says eviction filings are rising.
"In Milwaukee, for example, evictions are up 38 percent last week from where they should be on a typical week in June in Milwaukee," he says.
Alieza Durana with the Eviction Lab says many Americans are not protected by an eviction moratorium. "In more than half of U.S. states, there are little to no protections in place," she says.
Housing advocates say expanded federal unemployment benefits have been helping millions of out-of-work Americans pay rent. But those are set to expire at the end of July. Many experts predict a tidal wave of defaults and nonpayment of rents if those aren't extended or replaced. Durana and Desmond say evictions should not be the answer.
Some landlord groups agree. "We should be working to help those who have been impacted by COVID-19, through robust government assistance," says Paula Cino, a vice president with the National Multifamily Housing Council. The group is calling on Congress to pass emergency help for renters and landlords alike.
Meanwhile, the zoom-eviction hearings continue. After NPR reached out to Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas to ask about pandemic-related protections for someone in Deanna Brooks' situation, she contacted the group and it decided to represent Brooks in her remote eviction hearing next week.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Eviction moratoriums are now expiring in parts of the country, and some courts are now using Zoom calls to hold remote eviction hearings for people late on their rent. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: An eviction hearing in Collin County, Texas, this week was like many other Zoom calls full of first-timers - audio problems, general confusion.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Did it freeze?
CHARLES RUCKEL: Let me see. Who's got the Galaxy phone?
ARNOLD: That's the judge, who's trying to figure out who's who with a bunch of different people on the call.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, I'm sorry. I was talking. Can you hear me now? Hello?
RUCKEL: Wave your hand.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes. I'm...
ARNOLD: It would be almost kind of funny, except that what's at stake here is not. Renters are in this Zoom hearing with landlords who want to evict them, renters like Deanna Brooks.
RUCKEL: And, Ms. Brooks, any legal reason you're behind on your rent?
DEANNA BROOKS: Yes, sir. My company closed due to the pandemic, and you had to have a letter from your employer to prove that you were affected by the corona. And I was getting the runaround. I haven't been able to get unemployment or anything.
ARNOLD: The judge said since Brooks lives within the city of Dallas, he wanted to review the current rules on evictions there, so her case got moved to next week. Her landlord declined to comment. We followed up with Deanna Brooks after the hearing. She's a Navy veteran, and she says she has a heart condition, and she says she has no friends or family that she can move in with.
BROOKS: And I'm scared. They'll throw everything I have outside on the street. I'm going to start to cry.
ARNOLD: It's a nightmare that nobody wants to go through. And a lot of times people, don't know what their rights are. Renters may have protections right now, but the rules are complicated and differ from state to county to city. And in the Zoom call hearing, people who did not dial in and their landlord did, they were just out of luck.
RUCKEL: I'm going to go forward with this one because I don't have her here to tell me anything. You have a default judgment of possession, back rent and court costs.
ARNOLD: Default judgment - that basically means you didn't show up. We're giving your landlord the right to evict you. That happened to five people in just this one Zoom call hearing. Now for some people, doing the Zoom call might be easier than getting to the courthouse, but some legal experts say that for other people, this could deny their right to due process, which includes the right to be heard. What if somebody doesn't have a decent smartphone or computer or online access? The elderly can have trouble connecting on video calls. Emily Benfer is a professor at Columbia Law School.
EMILY BENFER: A missed call or not being able to log into a remote hearing is the equivalent of failing to appear. Remote. hearings may not only be the loss of basic rights; they could also be the difference between housing and homelessness.
ARNOLD: Deanna Brooks, the Navy vet in Dallas, is worried herself about not having a home.
BROOKS: I have nowhere to go. I feel, like, very depressed, very stressed out, and I just - I don't know what to do.
ARNOLD: So these Zoom call hearings are happening because it's not safe enough to gather in court, but apparently it's OK for people to be put out in the street in the midst of a pandemic.
MATTHEW DESMOND: I say that's cruel. That's a cruel situation.
ARNOLD: Matthew Desmond heads up Princeton University's Eviction Lab. Today he's announcing a new tracking system to monitor what's happening amidst the pandemic. And already with some moratoriums expiring, he says, eviction filings are rising.
DESMOND: In Milwaukee, for example, evictions are up 38% last week from where they should be on a typical week in June in Milwaukee.
ARNOLD: And with millions of Americans still out of work due to COVID, he says evictions should not be the answer here. Some landlord groups agree. Paula Cino is a vice president with the National Multifamily Housing Council.
PAULA CINO: We should be working to help those who have been impacted by COVID-19 through robust government assistance.
ARNOLD: Like, she says, an emergency plan from Congress for renters and landlords. Meanwhile, the Zoom eviction hearings continue, but law professor Emily Benfer expects legal challenges. Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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