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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Eviction moratoria change court process and tenant-landlord communication, culture

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Eloundis Daniel, 43, would have been homeless about a year ago, if not for the eviction moratoria that prevented her from being removed from her home for nonpayment of rent.

However, on Aug. 2, two days after a moratorium established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expired, there was nothing stopping the judge at Center Township Small Claims Court from telling her she must move out of her current residence by Aug. 10, or she would be evicted. In fact, she could have been given less time, but she got lucky and received a little over a week.

Without a place to go, Daniel faced the possibility of living on the streets — along with her 2-year-old grandson. She said as soon as she got some money, she was going to buy a tent so they could have some shelter while sleeping by abandoned buildings and garbage cans.

“Just a small one. Just for us,” she said the day of her eviction hearing. “Nothing too big.”

However, because of cases like Daniel’s and the rise in COVID-19 infections, the CDC installed a new moratorium on Aug. 3 that will end Oct. 3. Separate from the moratorium that expired on July 31, this 60-day eviction ban covers counties that have substantial and high levels of COVID-19 spread, which is approximately 90% of the U.S. population and 80% of U.S. counties. Marion County is one of those.
However, the latest order could face legal challenges with the Supreme Court, which determined the Biden administration could not use executive action to extend the previous moratorium.

Now, Daniel is excited but confused. She enjoyed the protections she was given under the previous CDC moratorium and some of the additional changes that resulted from it, such as an elongated court process and the disruption of the systematic eviction process. But she doesn’t know if she is evicted or not and, if she isn’t, how long she will be protected.

Changing the transactional process

Indianapolis historically has a high eviction rate. According to a study released by Princeton University in 2019, the Circle City had more evictions than Chicago and Los Angeles combined despite having only a third of Chicago’s population.

This is in part because the evictions court process is transactional, said Brandon Beeler, Housing Law Center director at Indiana Legal Services. The tenant misses a payment, gets a warning — and possibly a fee — and then, if the payment is not made up by a certain date, the landlord files an eviction with the court. In court, there are not civil public defenders in Indiana, leaving many tenants without legal representation and a lower chance of winning their case. Many cases are given about five minutes apiece if the defendant shows up, Beeler said. If they don’t appear, the plaintiff is immediately granted possession of the property, which takes about 30 seconds.

Also, Indiana state legislation favors property owners over renters, said Amy Nelson, executive director for the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana.

At least some of this changed with the two moratoria — a state one that went from March 19, 2020, to Aug. 14, 2020, and the federal eviction moratorium that started in September 2020 and expired July 31, 2021.

The main change was the disruption of the unemotional, systematic process of eviction — meaning tenants who missed rent payments did not have to worry about immediately being evicted.

In many ways this was a good thing. Judges issued fewer evictions. Tenants, such as Kristyn Jackson, had more time to get their money together and search for rental assistance, which increased in availability because of COVID-19, without also moving out or finding new housing. Landlords had to be more open to creating payment plans with tenants.

More people had housing. Jackson had housing and a payment plan. Daniel had housing for her and her grandbaby.

Landlord-tenant relationships

The previous moratoria also changed communication between landlords and tenants. Before, both suffered when tenants didn’t pay rent because property owners and managers didn’t get paid, and tenants were evicted. However, during the moratoria, qualified tenants kept their housing if they didn’t pay rent, but landlords and owners didn’t get a pay day.

So, landlords had to reach out more to tenants because, for the first time, property managers had more to lose. They also were required to provide tenants written notice about the moratorium if they planned to evict.

While some larger companies could afford the loss, owners with fewer properties who relied on rent payments for income didn’t have that luxury. Paul Rees, founder of Dawn ’till Dusk Property Management and property manager, said over the past year he has set up more payment plans with renters and provided information to tenants regarding rental assistance.

Rees is willing to negotiate and work with people so they can get to the end together, but it is time consuming. He went from working eight-hour days to 14-hour days.

“I don’t know if I woke up and felt my age, or I woke up and I realized I am doing a hell of a lot,” he said.

As of now, he only plans on filing one eviction for properties he manages. He said he feels lucky to have so few and he knows others have not fared so well.

Joseph Atha, president of Property Management Inc. Indianapolis, said he has many “mom and pop” property owners who have not been paid by multiple tenants for the past year but still must pay property taxes, insurance and maintenance fees.

Atha said the disruption of the systematic approach to paying rent is harmful because now the process is emotional and not standardized. Under the normal system, all tenants are given the same specific instructions in their lease agreement on how to operate in their housing unit, leaving little room for favoritism and a resulting Fair Housing Act violation. It also holds tenants accountable for paying to stay in housing, which, in the system that currently exists, is a commodity and not a right.

In a way the system in place before the moratorium allowed landlords to operate like doctors in a hospital, keeping them from constantly dealing with the emotions so they can get through their daily tasks.

Also, not sticking to the system allows tenants to rack up more debt, whether they are paying that to landlords before the final moratorium expires or in the damages hearing following an eviction hearing. If tenants can barely afford rent and then have more time to hang on to that money, it can be hard to hold out for rent when other emergencies and necessary purchases pop up, leaving that debt to grow. Marion County tenants currently owe more $83 million in back rent, according to Surgo Ventures, a nonprofit tracking back rent and evictions during the pandemic.

Changes in the courts

Even though qualified tenants could not be evicted for nonpayment of rent under the recently terminated CDC moratorium, landlords were still able to file evictions and the courts could evict tenants for other reasons, such as damage to property. So, evictions court continued, although the process was different.

During the past year, courts in the nine townships went virtual to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Lawrence Township Small Claims Court Judge Kimberly Bacon said more tenants showed up and continue to show up for online court, but this virtual platform also prevented those tenants from communicating with landlords or attorneys before or after the case, which they could have done in normal court. She and Warren Township Small Claims Court Judge Garland Graves said many people, especially tenants, were unaware of the moratorium. To prevent people from being unnecessarily evicted under moratorium guidelines, Graves read those guidelines and requirements before evictions court began.

In virtual and in-person court, the dockets were less full. Also, many court cases, though they increased over the course of the previous CDC moratorium, were continued to another date, and then another and another and another.

What comes next?

Now, after the new moratorium has been established people don’t know what is coming next. Although it is more or less a continuation of what has been going on for the past year, landlords, property owners, courtrooms, judges and tenants were prepping for July 31 to be the last stand.

The situation is different than when the CDC established the first federal moratorium in September 2020, so it’s hard to tell if the current patterns under the previous moratoria will continue or change rapidly.

Daniel was praying for a miracle to happen within the week she had to move out. As of now, she is unsure if her prayers were answered.

But if the moratorium applies to her, it will be, and she will be thankful for the help. But, just like a lot of people, she is still confused.

Contact staff writer Madison Smalstig at 317-924-5143. Follow her on Twitter @madi_smals.

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