The Mississippi House passed a bill Tuesday that will eliminate the grace period tenants previously had to vacate their homes once evicted.
The new legislation will amend the state’s Landlord-Tenant Act to remove the 10-day waiting period between an eviction judgement and a warrant of removal. The 10-day grace period was a longstanding policy to give tenants who were behind on rent and had been formally “evicted” by a judge, but not yet locked out of their house, time to either catch up on rent or pack their things and move. The bill is set to go to Gov. Phil Bryant to be signed into law.
The grace period allowed tenants and landlords time to either agree on a payment schedule, or give the renter time to pack and move. If after 10-days the tenant was still not caught up and had not yet moved, the landlord could request a warrant that triggers law enforcement to lockout the tenant and physically remove them.
Sen. Angela Burks Hill (R-Picayune) says she introduced the bill to clarify some legislation she introduced and was passed into law last year that tried to expedite the removal warrant process. “It was to clarify the confusion that arose from not addressing (the grace period) in every section of the law.”
Tenants, landlords and judges alike expressed confusion over the law last year and largely interpreted it differently, resulting in tenants in different districts seeing different eviction outcomes.
“You can’t look at (eviction) in a vacuum, you have to look at it in the context of: No. 1, our affordable housing crisis; No. 2, the increasing problem with homelessness; and No. 3, the public policy of Mississippi for the last 30 years, which has been the exact opposite of what this bill says,” said John Jopling, housing campaign director and attorney for Mississippi Center for Justice. “And the new evidence that’s come out about all of the harm, not just to the individual, but to society that flow from an eviction.”
Mississippi has some of the highest eviction rates in the country. Jackson ranks fifth highest among large cities, Horn Lake is seventh for mid-size cities and the state overall is eighth highest for evictions per capita renters, according to Princeton University-based research group the Eviction Lab. Lawmakers on both sides of the bill agree that this new law will make it easier for landlords to evict.
Mississippi Today’s previous investigation found that most court-rendered evictions do not result in constables forcibly removing renters. Most evictions proceedings are handled informally in Justice Court hallways, or with the tenants — knowing that a warrant is coming — moving out once the eviction is rendered. This new law will expedite the removal process by allowing landlords to request the warrant of removal immediately upon an eviction judgement.
Because Mississippi’s tenant protections are among the most lax in the country, most cases that wind up in court result in evictions. If a tenant is three days late on rent, they will likely be evicted, regardless of neglected housing repairs or personal circumstance that resulted in defaulted rent — issues that are settled in housing courts in many states.
The new law will give judges discretion to allow tenants three days to vacate, but the tenant must petition for that and show that the three days would “best serve the interests of justice and equity”. Most tenants are not represented by legal counsel, and previous investigations show tenants come to the eviction process outweighed by the landlord in protections and resources.
“Somebody who can’t afford to pay their rent can’t afford to have an attorney to defend them in Justice Court,” said housing attorney Jopling. “You put the burden on them to prove justice and equity, but they’re not even going to know that burden is there or that that opportunity is there. So (this bill is) saying the default amount of time is zero. Zero hours, zero minutes, zero days (to get out).”
Most evictions are for non-payment of rent, and most tenants know they are behind in rent and use the court proceedings to ask for more time to catch up or collect their belongings. The new law says that once an eviction judgement has been granted to the landlord, the tenant can no longer pay the rent and the removal warrant must be issued upon landlords’ request — effectively stopping any mediation.
“Quite honestly people are not in the business of having rental property for charity, they have to protect their investment and I think that by the time you’ve gone through the court proceeding and all, that still allows time (for tenants),” Hill said. “Many of them are getting that (three days) and more now, they’re getting that now. This just clarifies that they can’t be left in the property indefinitely.”
Advocates argue that the clock on “late rent owed” should not start until a judge makes an eviction determination. With the new law, tenants will get three days at most to move — if they successfully prove injustice — once that determination is made.
“Often tenants will go to court expecting to show the landlord is wrong. They may not have had payments credited, they may have made repairs they’re entitled to be reimbursed, they may have been denied use of the premises due to issues which were the landlords fault,” said Jeremy Eisler, attorney with Mississippi Center for Justice.
“Under this statute they can be locked out before they get home from court, and all their belongings seized and destroyed. It is a travesty.”
Rep. Brent Powell (R-Brandon) defended the bill to the House this week and said the purpose is to expedite the process and “give landlords relief.”
Rep. David Baria (D-Bay St. Louis) said this bill flies in the face of previous efforts passed that give tenant families more rights to stay in their home and catch up on rent. “We are substantively changing the rights of the tenants to be able to catch up on rent and keep their family in place where they’re living,” he said just before introducing an amendment on the floor.
His amendment was a compromise between current law and the new bill, which would have solidified the three-day grace period instead of leaving it up to a judge’s discretion. The proposal did not make it onto the bill, which passed along party lines with all but three Democrats voting against and all but one Republican voting in favor.
“That’s what this is about, making sure the rent is paid. And if they can catch up on rent and stay put, isn’t that better than putting families out of the street? I’ve got 10-day notices on bills I’ve owed, but it took me 11 to pay it, but I wasn’t in jeopardy of losing my house — that’s the difference here,” Baria said.
By the time the eviction process is triggered and a case goes to court, tenants have had “ample time” to catch up, said Powell, who is a landlord and acknowledged during debate to having a “pecuniary interest in the legislation” and that he did not consult with justice courts and state housing law clinics on the bill.
Center for Justice advocates and others say statutory changes that address failure to pay rent are band-aids on symptoms of a larger problem — lack of affordable housing for renters living in poverty, who pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities and are considered “rent burdened.”
More than 110,000 “extremely low income” tenants rent across Mississippi, meaning their income is at or below the poverty line or they cannot afford the federally set average affordable rent for their area. There are 57 affordable units for every 100 renters in need, according to the National Coalition of Low-Income Housing, and of those most in-need over 80 percent pay more than half of their income on rent — a policy metric determining extreme lack of affordability.
Advocates say policies making it easier for landlords to evict will only add to the affordable housing problem and make it harder for families to start over.
“How can somebody get their spouse, their children, their furniture, their medicine, their bedding, family photos, all the things you would have to have or want to have to remake their household, how could you do that in half an hour? You can’t,” reiterated housing attorney Jopling. “And the Legislature understood that 30 years ago and so they made a reasonable decision (for the 10 day grace period), that there has to be some latitude. But this law wants to just completely override that.”
Other states are considering adding tenant protections in face of high eviction rates. The Georgia House passed a bill this month that would give tenants eviction protection if the landlord failed to make necessary repairs.