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St. Louis judge halts city evictions until Oct. 3, following CDC’s order

ST. LOUIS – St. Louis City Circuit Court has halted evictions for city residents through Oct. 3, mirroring the federal eviction moratorium issued this week.

The new federal prohibition on evicting renters behind on their payments covers those living in counties with high or substantial rates of community COVID-19 transmission, or places with more than 50 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents.

The city falls under that category, according to 22nd Circuit Court Presiding Judge Michael Stelzer’s Aug. 6 order. 

Both local and federal orders followed intense public pressure by St. Louis activists, including U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis, who camped out on the Capitol steps for several days in protest of Congress’ not extending protections for vulnerable tenants.

“For five days, we’ve been out here, demanding that our government acts to save lives,” Bush tweeted Tuesday. “Today, our movement moved mountains.”

On Monday, local activists held a rally across from City Hall, demanding that the city’s department of human services end its delay and backlog of rental assistance applications. 

The rally ended with protesters’ voicing their demands via megaphone in the mayor’s office lobby. The demands included that the presiding judge extend the moratorium so more rental assistance could get into the hands of struggling families.

“While the city courts extending their moratorium to Oct. 3 is a temporary fix, it is a Band-Aid solution,” Kennard Williams, a lead organizer for Action STL who led the rally on Monday.  

Williams said their demands also included mandatory mediation before eviction filing, and for rental assistance programs and services offered to people in the courts. These align with recommendations that a statewide task force of attorneys and advocates recently sent to the Missouri Supreme Court chief justice and presiding judges in St. Louis and Kansas City.

“The objective should be focused on stopping eviction wherever possible,” he said. 

In St. Louis, 126 evictions have been ordered, and the sheriff’s office previously had planned to enforce about 30 evictions per day starting Aug. 9. More than 3,000 eviction cases are pending on the docket, Mayor Tishaura Jones said.

On Monday, the city began providing direct payment to tenants for housing assistance and using local funds to expedite applications.

In early July, the nonprofit law firm ArchCity Defenders filed a “writ of prohibition,” alleging that Steltzer and St. Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts’ office had violated the CDC’s first eviction moratorium order.

The CDC’s order states that people facing eviction can fill out a declaration form and present it to their landlord and sheriff deputies to stop their eviction. However, the writ contends that a resident, Charitie Stewart, had an eviction judgment made against her and sent a signed copy of the CDC’s “Eviction Protection Declaration” to her landlord and is awaiting a response to her federal rental assistance application. However, the court told her she had to appear in court again or she would be removed from her home. 

By doing this, the writ states that Stelzer and Betts were creating an “extra-judicial process” that violates state and federal laws.

A court spokesman said the circuit court would have no comment on the pending litigation. Betts couldn’t be immediately reached for comment Friday morning.

Williams was among a group with Action St. Louis that knocked on nearly 2,000 doors of city residents who had eviction judgments against them, in an effort to help them get rental assistance and educate them on their rights under the CDC’s moratorium. Williams said Stewart’s case was not the first time he’d heard of the issue. 

“They were coming up with steps for people that have to do these things that were in no way part of the CDC moratorium,” Williams said. “They were still evicting people illegally. I don’t know how many people got evicted in the process, but it’s a lot of people.”

This article by Rebecca Rivas is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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