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 is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.