Samantha Conner, a 44-year-old mother of two and paralegal, fell behind on rent in 2019 after she struggled to maintain consistent employment following a mental health crisis. When her landlord and a county constable came to evict her, she didn’t know she wouldn’t be able to take anything with her. “Being 16 days late on rent didn’t warrant them taking everything that I own,” she said. Credit: Special to Mississippi Today

Mississippi lawmakers are working to revise the state’s eviction law after a federal judge recently ruled it unconstitutional.

Rep. Nick Bain, R-Corinth, authored the new bill — which gives tenants a seven-day grace period after a judge orders their removal — to rectify issues with the current statute.

The bill also allows tenants who are being evicted because they are behind on rent to stay in their home if they pay all past due rent and fees by the court-ordered move out date, something that was not guaranteed in the existing law.

Currently, Mississippi’s law offers no grace period to tenants, which means that a renter may be forced out of their home on the day they lose in court, but also that a landlord may immediately seize all their belongings.

“If we don’t pass it, we will not have a constitutional eviction statute in Mississippi,” Bain said. “So it attempts to do that, puts a Band-Aid, and I think there’s going to be, maybe next session, a broader bill to address landlord-tenant altogether.”

Bain’s bill has passed the House and is awaiting full Senate approval.

U.S. District Judge Michael Mills ruled the law unconstitutional in November after a landlord in north Mississippi used it to justify taking everything Samantha Conner, a low-income single mom, owned.

READ MORE: ‘All of this is mine’: In Mississippi, landlords legally snatch all belongings from tenants during an eviction

Mills put a stay on his decision to give lawmakers time to revise the law before it would be struck down altogether.

“It’s something we’ve got to do or nobody’s going to be getting evicted,” Bain said.

Mississippi has some of the highest eviction rates in the nation. In Jackson, the capital city, between seven and eight families are evicted from their homes every day, according to 2016 data, the most recent available, gathered by the Princeton University-based research group the Eviction Lab. Of all large cities in the nation, Jackson had the fifth highest eviction rate that year.

In 2019, the Legislature revised the law to give even fewer protections to tenants facing an eviction, making the Mississippi’s Landlord-Tenant Act the harshest in the nation.

The revisions came with what Judge Mills called “unpredictable and absurd results” because of some landlords’ severe interpretation of the law.

The law reads, “If the judge grants possession of this premises to the landlord and you do not remove your personal property, including any manufactured home, from the premises before the date and time ordered by the judge, then the landlord may dispose of your personal property.”

Many states Landlord-Tenant statutes across the country spell out what landlords may do with a renter’s left-behind belongings, a necessary legal guideline in the case of abandoned property. But Conner’s apartment manager, Kevin Casteel, used the law to prevent Conner from taking her belongings as she left her apartment on the day of her removal.

“That’s a common occurrence with a lot of the laws that we pass, is you have these bad actors who unfortunately sometimes cause the whole state to pay the price, or innocent people to pay the price,” Bain said.

Conner’s lawsuit, which asks the judge to award her damages considering all that she lost, including family photos and keepsakes that cannot be replaced, is still pending. But knowing that her efforts resulted in changes to state law is part of her victory, Conner said.

“I think that this is going to enable people and may give other people the courage to be able to go forward and maybe seek out some justice,” Conner told Mississippi Today in December. “… They can use this law now to say that, ‘Hey, you cannot do this to people.’ People matter. We have feelings.”

Bain said the Legislature may look at a bigger overhaul of Mississippi’s complex, hodge-podge eviction statute next year. The law is supposed to provide a consistent framework for how renter removals work across the state: How many days after a missed rent due date a landlord may file an eviction, notice requirements, and how long after a court judgement a landlord can file a warrant of removal.

But tenants, landlords and judges have faced confusion about Mississippi’s law, and differing interpretations have caused varying outcomes for renters across the state.

“It’s a cumbersome, a very clunky, for lack of a better word, clunky statute,” Bain said.

READ MORE: Federal judge finds Mississippi eviction law unconstitutional after ‘Kafkaesque nightmare’ removal

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Anna Wolfe, a native of Tacoma, Wa., is an investigative reporter writing about poverty and economic justice. Before joining the staff at Mississippi Today in September of 2018, Anna worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide daily newspaper. She also worked as an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity and Jackson Free Press, the capital city’s alternative newsweekly. Anna has received national recognition for her work, including the 2021 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the 2021 Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the 2020 Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the February 2020 Sidney Award for reporting on Mississippi’s debtors prisons. She received the National Press Foundation’s 2020 Poverty and Inequality Award. She also received first place in the regional Green Eyeshade Awards in 2021 for Public Service in Online Journalism and 2020 for Business Reporting, and the local Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2019 and 2018 for reporting on unfair medical billing practices and hunger in the Mississippi Delta.