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 a legal aid group in 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:
Cities and towns around the country are looking hard at how to improve relations between their communities and the police, including how to reduce encounters that lead to arrests and use of force, often disproportionately against Black people. In some places, this has renewed calls to soften laws around marijuana. And we're going to hear from one of those places next, Kansas City, Mo., where the mayor has announced a plan to completely remove violations about marijuana possession from the city code. Well, Quinton Lucas is the mayor, and he joins us now. Mayor, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
QUINTON LUCAS: It is good to be with you.
KELLY: What is your goal with this measure?
LUCAS: You know, my goal is this - to make sure that marijuana stops, which can be pretextual for any number of things, are eliminated in Kansas City. I think when we listen to the current movement going on, a lot of folks are saying we want to change how the criminal justice system works. One area of change that's important is that we need to just stop harassing people. We need to stop interfering with their ability to go about their daily lives. Blacks are disproportionately in Kansas City stopped, arrested, charged and incarcerated in connection with marijuana offenses, and I'd like to see that change.
KELLY: Now, I know this is something you all have been working on for a while in Kansas City. The city council rejected a decriminalization measure as recently as last November. What gives you confidence that you'll be able to get this done now?
LUCAS: You know, I will say very candidly - our protest movement, this moment in our country. A lot of people are saying wait a second, I need to look at the areas of privilege that I have and all of the things that before perhaps you weren't questioning or thinking about that we are now. I think when we look at policing in our country and our community we have to say, we need to actually address more issues as it pertains to the laws that shouldn't be on the books anymore.
KELLY: One more additional question. As a black man from the historically black, economically disadvantaged side of Kansas City, I wonder how is this moment - when the whole country has opened its eyes a little bit more to the issues facing black Americans. How is this moment hitting you?
LUCAS: It is really tough. It is tougher than probably anything that I have gone through externally than almost any moment in my life. When I saw the George Floyd video, I actually had to stop watching. I felt it because to be black in America is to know that any minor offense, any minor transgression - mouthing off to a cop or anyone - can mean termination from a job or, frankly, termination of your life. I grew up with lessons and stories about how you respond to police officers. I grew up with our hip-hop radio station in Kansas City. They would say, all right, if you're stopped by the cops, young men, know that you need to show your hands and all of that.
LUCAS: That was so we wouldn't get killed. It's distressing, and it's heartbreaking, and it's made all the more challenging because I'm the titular leader of the Kansas City Police Department. You know, it's something that I don't think I've actually figured out the answer to, but it sure as hell makes me want to change so much of what we're doing so that this moment isn't just forgotten. This isn't just a story about protests, riots, all those issues, but instead is about how we made a transformative change in the criminal justice system.
KELLY: Yeah. Well, I was going to ask, do you feel hopeful that there actually will be real change, that a year from now the conversation that we're having and the country might actually be in a different place?
LUCAS: Honestly, no. And I shouldn't answer that way, but no. I have grave concerns. I was a kid during the Rodney King beating and then the subsequent LA riots when the officers were acquitted. And I still remember vividly. I think I even asked my mom, like, how does that happen, right? It's on videotape. And here we are 28 years after the LA riots, and we're dealing with the exact same thing. And so I'm going to try my level best to make sure things change in Kansas City. But no, I'm not hopeful.
America has broken my heart too many times. I've seen institutions go back the same way. I see that Black kids - like I was 28 years ago - are learning the same lessons and asking why. I don't know how there's even a debate now on what we can and should change. But I also recognize as the mayor of Kansas City, probably 50% of my electorate is saying, you're doing too much to curtail police behavior, and we want you to go back to respecting them more.
KELLY: Mayor Lucas, thank you.
LUCAS: Thank you.
KELLY: That was Mayor Quinton Lucas - a Democrat - mayor of Kansas City, Mo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.