Forced out her home with 24-hour notice, mother of four navigates eviction process, wins appeal — a rarity for Mississippi tenants

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Cynthia Wilder spent hours at the courthouse writing letters, collecting documents and soliciting legal aid and two months after she was forced to move her family out of their home, she won an eviction appeal.

After a half-year of bouncing between family and friends’ houses, Cynthia Wilder is finally settled into her new home — a modest ranch-style four-bedroom house she shares with her four children. In what she says feels like divine intervention, she’s unpacking in a house she knows well, or at least the feel of it.

Nine years ago, she lived in the same West Jackson subdivision in a house with the exact same layout as the one she just moved into. She fondly recalls memories and says her kids have pined for since, but life got steadily more difficult since then. Her ex-husband was sent to prison, her son was diagnosed with special needs and shuffled around schools, and she felt like she could never quite catch up with life’s demands — and was eventually evicted onto the streets with only 24 hours notice.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Cynthia Wilder and her family have settled into their new home.

In April, when Wilder, 38, saw the “warrant of removal” notice — a formal warning from county court demanding she vacate the property — attached with bright pink duct tape to the front door of the home she was renting, she didn’t even know she had been evicted. She says she never received a summons to go to court. Even though she didn’t know to go, her no-show triggered a default judgement of an automatic eviction the month prior. By early April, a Hinds County constable had alerted her that she had 24 hours to move out — the first she had heard of her eviction for failure to pay rent. Records show she paid both February and March rent, and her former landlord did not return calls for comment.

She scraped together savings to rent a moving truck and storage unit, and moved her family out of their home during an early spring thunderstorm and tornado warning. She would eventually lose all of her furniture to mold and mildew. After the storm drenched all of her belongings during the unexpected, quick move, the belongings never dried out while sitting in the cool and damp storage unit.

While an automatic eviction used to mean the tenant had some time — usually 10 days — to pack up, find a new place and move out, Wilder was one of the first cases under a new law on Mississippi’s books. At the end of March, Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill into law that wiped away the 10-day grace period and allowed for immediate evictions once a court ruled in a landlord’s favor, which is the most frequent outcome. Wilder was formally evicted three days after the law took effect.

But because she never received the summons to go to court once the landlord filed for a formal eviction, she says — a common complaint among those evicted and the lawyers who defend them — she didn’t know she was being evicted, didn’t know it had formally gone through, and didn’t know to expect the constable’s demand that she leave.

Unfamiliar with the state’s eviction laws, Wilder had no idea how to approach an appeal process, but spent hours at the Hinds County Courthouse writing letters, collecting documents and soliciting legal aid. Two months after she was forced to move her family out of their home, she won an eviction appeal. The county appellate court found she did not violate her lease and was unlawfully evicted. Though by that point she was long gone from the house, the appeal meant that she did not owe back rent or fees from the case.

Wilder, who represents a rarity when it comes to eviction appeals, says even though she was far out of her comfort zone, she persisted knowing she was right. “People feel like they can’t go through the judicial system,” she said, but she went to the courthouse day after day, learning and filing paperwork. She’s good at record-keeping, which helped, and the persistence paid off. “I just showed my face every day.”

Data and anecdotes reflect that it’s rare for a tenant to win an eviction case, though no statewide entity aggregates the data. Mississippi’s lax landlord-tenant law tends to protect the landlord over the tenant — even allowing for tenants to be evicted multiple times from the same home. Landlords in Mississippi can begin the eviction process after a tenant is three days late on rent, and there are no built-in eviction protections for neglected landlord repairs. The state hears all eviction cases in justice courts without the added mediation layer of housing courts, such as those employed by some cities and states.

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Cynthia Wilder credits her faith and support from friends and family in winning her eviction appeal.

Because eviction data collection is uncoordinated across courts, it can be hard to pinpoint patterns and demographics of those affected most by evictions. But, by correlating data from Princeton’s Eviction Lab researchers found that Southern states and cities, with higher proportions of African American families, were disproportionately affected by high eviction rates. Generally, Southern states also have more lax tenant protections.

While the overall eviction rate in the U.S. has decreased since last decade’s recession, Mississippi’s has increased. The state has the eighth highest eviction rate in the country. Jackson ranks fifth for most evictions among large cities.

In a co-investigation with WLBT, Mississippi Today found multiple evictions from the same home — usually used by landlords as leverage not to remove the tenant, but to collect late rent — were commonplace, frequently resulting in a cycle of late fees and court fees for renters.

Wilder’s eviction, even though it was overturned, triggered another process that she says spiraled out of her control. Her Section 8 housing voucher was revoked — a process that would take the next six months and two stints at family and friends’ houses to reverse.

Ten days after she rushed to move out of her house in 24 hours and find a new home, she got a letter from the regional housing authority alerting her that her voucher would be terminated the following month, due to the eviction. She needed to file an appeal there too in order to keep her voucher — a lifeline to secure stable housing for herself and four children on her part-time housekeeping job.

After she won the eviction appeal in June, she successfully reinstated her voucher and extended the deadline to find housing to mid-August. By that time, she had enough of a lead on a new house to show the local housing authority office paperwork to extend the voucher by one more month. By October, she was all moved in and trying to acclimate back to normalcy after a tumultuous year for her family.

She credits her faith with successfully fighting the eviction. This was her first time losing a home and she felt overwhelmed learning the court and appeals process, she says, but she stuck with it and prevailed. But without the kindness of her support system, she questions if she would have had the strength to keep fighting the eviction. “If it weren’t for them,” she said of her pastor and his family who opened up their home to her family, she wouldn’t have had a roof over head, been able to fight the eviction, and “we wouldn’t know what love is.”