The pandemic has put many families in an unstable housing situation for the first time, and thousands across Missouri are currently facing eviction. The vast majority of them do not have legal counsel to help them through an often difficult process.
Nationwide, as few as 1 percent of tenants, compared with 90 percent of landlords, have access to an attorney during eviction proceedings.
Some local Missouri governments have directed some of their federal relief money to provide lawyers for low-income individuals. But those efforts have only scratched the surface of the need.
Understanding this trend, the nonprofit law firm ArchCity Defenders recently published a 32-page illustrated guide on how people can represent themselves when facing an eviction.
“For the past year, far too many tenants have been in limbo and unable to get consistent and accurate information about what is happening in the courts,” said Jacki Langum, director of advocacy for ArchCity Defenders.
The guide starts with that first encounter with the landlord. Is there a way to work together to keep the case out of the court system? It provides information to resources for local rental and utility assistance, which could help tenants and landlords prevent a legal battle.
When a landlord sues, the tenant will receive a summons from the court. The guide provides a copy of what this form looks like and breaks down what all the information on it means — including the judge’s name, the reason the landlord wants to evict the tenant and the court date and time.
There are a few different types of eviction lawsuits, the most common being a “rent and possession” suit.
“They are filed because the landlord believes you owe them rent money,” the guide states. “These cases move faster than almost any other type of court case so it is important that you appear in court on your court date to defend against the lawsuit.”
How can tenants prepare for their court date? The guide lists some crucial documents that tenants should bring to court. Or if the hearing will be held remotely, they need to provide this evidence to the court in advance. Those documents include a copy of the lease agreement, proof of rent payments, and copies of any correspondence between the tenant and the landlord about repairs and maintenance.
“You should also plan to spend several hours in court,” it states. “The amount of time you will spend depends on the number of cases being heard that day and many other factors outside of your control. You will need to stay in the courtroom until you resolve your case, have a trial, or get a continuance (new court date) from the judge.”
Court procedures during the pandemic can be particularly confusing, even for lawyers. The guide provides information about what certain terms mean, how tenants can assert their rights, and what options are available for settling the case without the stain of an eviction judgement on a tenant’s record.
Data from Eviction Lab show more than 24,000 eviction cases have been filed against Missourians since March 15, 2020. The Eviction Lab has also been tracking evictions in the state’s two largest metropolitan areas. There have been 6,909 filings in the St. Louis region, and in Kansas City there have been 4,301.
However, those two areas have actually seen a decrease in the typical number of evictions filed in the average year, while several more rural counties have experienced a 100 percent increase or higher over the last four weeks, according to the Eviction Lab.
The geography of changes in eviction filings
Studies also show that Black renters are disproportionately impacted by evictions. For example in St. Louis city, eviction is twice as prevalent among renters in majority-black census tracts than among renters in majority-white census tracts.
St. Louis’ circuit courts were the only ones statewide that issued local eviction moratorium orders, in addition to the CDC’s order. The city’s moratorium is set to expire on May 31, and the order in St. Louis County was lifted in April. That means that it’s mainly the federal moratorium keeping many people in their homes across the state, housing advocates say.
The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a tutorial video and tips on how to evoke the CDC’s order if a tenant is facing eviction.
However, the CDC’s order is currently on shaky legal ground. Earlier this month, a federal judge struck down the pandemic eviction moratorium put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Within a day, the U.S. Department of Justice had appealed on behalf of the CDC, keeping the moratorium in place for now. Housing advocates and families across the country are closely watching the appellate court — which could make a decision in this case any day.
“It was just a glimpse of what was ahead,” said Lee Camp, an attorney for ArchCity Defenders. “For a moment, we all knew what it will feel like eventually, when we don’t have these protections. Families are going to be displaced, and they’re going to be displaced into the street.”
This article by Rebecca Rivas is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.