COVID-19 has made in-person court too risky, but eviction hearings continue — virtually

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Hinds County Justice Court Judge Frank Sutton swears in attendees in his virtual courtroom on Sept. 15, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic made in-person court too risky, but eviction hearings continued.

Hinds County Justice Court Judge Frank Sutton’s pixelated visage appeared on the electronic devices of about a dozen Jackson area residents on Tuesday morning.

The tenants were ordered to appear in court — virtually — to answer for unpaid rent to their landlords ranging from roughly $800 to $6,000.

Sutton raised his right hand before the webcam and asked the attendees to swear to tell the truth. Palms flashed across each of the frames dotting the black screen. Spotty connection at times made their voices sound auto-tuned.

Hinds County had determined in-person court hearings during a deadly pandemic too risky. But evictions continue.

Across the county, property owners have filed 260 evictions and 78 warrants of removal — one of the final steps in expelling a renter during an eviction — since Sept. 1 alone.

The Mississippi Landlord-Tenant Act allows property owners to file an eviction three days after rent is late. When that happens, state law almost always calls for the judge to evict. Judges themselves have little leeway to prevent evictions, though they have the option of offering an additional three-day grace period for the tenant to come up with the rent.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued a nationwide eviction moratorium that took effect Sept. 4, but it only works if the tenant asks for it, which means they must be aware it exists. 

The renter must produce a declaration to their landlord to invoke the CDC order, which protects low-income renters who are at risk of homelessness from being evicted or removed from their homes.

Even then, the moratorium doesn’t erase rent debt, and the tenant may still owe thousands once the moratorium lifts — currently expected at the end of the year.

Out of several renters who appeared in internet court Tuesday — plus the many more whom the judge evicted after they didn’t log on — just one person notified the court that she had supplied a CDC declaration form.

The woman said that her employer had reduced her hours at the beginning of the pandemic, and she’s struggled to afford her rent for several months. She had made a recent $400 payment but still owed several thousand.

The representative from Castlegate Luxury Apartments said she received the CDC form that day, but “Your honor,” she said, “that only started on the 4th of September. I’m talking about past months that she hasn’t paid anything on.”

Sutton granted an eviction anyway, essentially stating in the record that the tenant owes money to the landlord and no longer has permission to live in her apartment. Justice court judgments are limited to $3,500, regardless of how much the tenant owes.

Housing experts acknowledge that an eviction moratorium simply kicks the can down the road and robust rental assistance is needed to alleviate the current crisis, including for property owners who are struggling to pay mortgages.

The housing affordability problem existed pre-COVID-19: More than one-in-six families in Hinds County were spending more than 50% of their household income on housing before the pandemic hit, according to County Health Rankings, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program.

Mississippi ranks eighth in the nation for evictions, according to the Eviction Lab, a Princeton-based research team that compiled every eviction record in the country from 2000 to 2016. In Jackson, ranked fifth-highest of all large cities in the nation, between seven and eight families are evicted daily.

Where some other states have designated housing courts, Mississippi law offers little avenue for mediation, so tenants must face justice court judges, elected officials who are required to have no more than a high school education.

During the hearings this week, property managers, appearing on screens at their desks, rattled off indistinguishable dollar amounts — past due rents and late fees — while the judge tried to decipher the chopped audio.

The representative for a rental firm called Capitol Property Investments held up a blurry number written on a piece of paper while the tenant, sitting in her vehicle, silently looked on. Tenants do not receive court-appointed legal representation at these hearings.

Sutton asked the young woman in her car if she agreed with the amount, $1,100, her landlord said she owed. “Yes sir,” she said.

“All right, we good. Y’all have a good day,” the judge said, signaling that the landlord had won the case.

After a pause, the landlord asked: “Hey, could I get immediate possession, sir?”

Immediate possession gives landlords permission to file a warrant of removal, which begins the physical process people most associate with the term “eviction,” immediately. Judges may grant this permission the same day they order the eviction. Or they can give a grace period up to three days, in which the renter may get caught up on rent, before the landlord is allowed to request physical removal from the county constable.

The law previously built in a 10-day grace period, but the Legislature amended the law in 2019 to make these removals quicker. In each case a landlord requested it Tuesday, Sutton granted immediate possession.

“Yes sir, yes sir,” he said.

“Judge!” the renter reacted. “No! I have my—”

“Listen, listen, listen,” Sutton cut her off. “Earlier, beforehand, I asked you did those numbers sound right. You said yes. So that’s a judgment for the plaintiff. But when he asked for immediate possession, then you want to holler. Tell me what’s up.”

“I’ve got the funds. I’m one of those on unemployment,” she said.

“Wait a minute. All you got to do is pay him. You got the money; you gotta pay him. He just want to make it documented that you owe him. That’s all,” the judge said, sounding confident she wouldn’t be removed from her home.

“The deposit for unemployment just hit. It just hit today,” she explained.

“Oh, you’re good,” he said. “… Just get with him and y’all work it out.”

Because tenants typically do not have a lawyer walking them through the process, and conversations in court can be short and vague, renters who wish to stay in their homes have little power when they approach their landlords after an eviction.

In many cases, an eviction filing is simply a way for landlords to record a tenant’s debt in the court record, even if they eventually work out an agreement and the renter remains in the property.

More than 30 people — mostly rental property managers and their tenants — joined a group video call with Hinds County Justice Court Judge Frank Sutton, who at times had trouble hearing muffled testimony from plaintiffs and defendants during a roughly two-hour hearing.

As directed in law, a judge almost always rules in favor of the property company; the court essentially acts as their collection agency. Even if no one loses their home, the judgment harms the tenant’s rental and credit record and further disadvantages some of the state’s most financially vulnerable.

One woman in court Tuesday told the judge that she lost the employment she had recently secured when the pandemic hit. She hadn’t been on the job long enough to qualify for unemployment.

“So, I couldn’t pay it,” the tenant said. “I don’t know what she wanted me to do.”

“Those conversations can’t be discussed like this,” Sutton responded. “Those need to be in a different setting. But I mean that’s something management and you have to work out. They only bring people to court when there’s an outstanding balance, to make sure it’s documented what the actual amounts are due. Now anything to deal with COVID, you need to get with her and she’ll have to explain it. She’s capable of explaining.”

“Maybe she can point you to some agencies that can help accommodate your situation,” he added.

The young woman did not want to be named in this story, but she told Mississippi Today after the hearing that her property manager, East Village Estates, had not told her about the state’s multi-million dollar Rental Assistance in Mississippi Program (RAMP) funded by federal pandemic relief.

She asked if she’d be given some time to move or some help finding somewhere to go.

“All that weighs in the balance with her,” the judge responded.

Late that afternoon, the tenant and property manager still hadn’t talked through a solution.

Mississippi Today reporter Erica Hensley contributed to this story.