When the COVID-19 pandemic settled into the United States four months ago, one of the issues that emerged was the need to address evictions. With more than 40 million people unemployed due to layoffs, small businesses shuttering and major companies filing for bankruptcy, a rise in the eviction rate seems inevitable. This is exasperated by the fact that most Americans do not have enough money saved to be able to cover expenses for three months.
The Georgia State Law Center for Access to Justice has been keeping a close eye on how eviction courts are responding during this time. Center director, professor Lauren Sudeall, along with sociology professor, Daniel Pasciuti, are working with Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and a number of other organizations to track whether or not courts across the state are accepting eviction filings and/or issuing writs of possession. In April, they published a report, “Courts in Crisis: Exploring the Impact of COVID-19 on Eviction in Georgia,” with a summary of the findings.
“My research focuses on how marginalized and lower income people understand and interact with the court process,” Sudeall said. “That is always a concern, but like so many other things, it has been exacerbated by COVID, as policies and procedures are constantly changing.”
The Center for Access to Justice has conducted research on various access to justice issues in the rural South, including eviction court in Georgia. Throughout the state, courts are decentralized, so procedures vary from place-to-place. This means that a person facing eviction in Dougherty County may face a slightly different process than they would in Athens-Clarke County, for example.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Georgia Supreme Court has issued three emergency judicial orders to alter or suspend certain court proceedings. However, the emergency order does not dictate how eviction cases should be handled, so implementation varies across counties. The study notes that some courts are continuing to issue judgments and writs, and a majority have continued to accept eviction filings. This means that when eviction hearings continue, judges will have to address the cases they had prior to COVID-19, plus new filings.
Sudeall and Pascuiti plan to assist with a second report focused on how Georgia courts will proceed when they reopen. In some parts of the state, courts already schedule cases individually. In some larger counties, they have calendar calls with dozens of people in a courtroom one day. Right now, it’s unclear whether those hearings will take place remotely, or in-person.
“Often the only way to find any of this information is to contact each court individually,” Sudeall said. “There are upwards of 900 trial courts in Georgia. No one is keeping track of all the changes happening on the ground and it can be difficult to figure out what is happening.”
With judges facing a backlog of old cases, plus an onslaught of new ones, Sudeall said she is concerned that landlords will feel pressure to go outside of the system. Landlords may be more likely to engage in illegal evictions, where they change the locks or put renters’ belongings on the street without any due process.
The most significant conclusion from the report is that: “Families suffering economic losses may now also lose the ability to shelter in place, jeopardizing their safety, security, and their children’s educational progress (as homes now also function as schoolhouses).” This is exactly what the team at Georgia Appleseed is concerned with preventing. Executive director Michael Waller hopes that this research will serve as a tool to empower judges, landlords and tenants.
“We want to give people good information to support them as they’re trying to figure out how to respond to an eviction action by their landlord,” said Waller. “We also want courts to know what other courts are doing. If there are courts that are trying new things to successfully keep people in their homes—because that is the goal ultimately—to keep people in their homes, and increase access to stable and healthy housing for low-income families across the state.”
Written by Kelundra Smith