WREG investigates: Court records show spike in evictions ahead of CDC moratorium

Investigations

JONESBORO, Ark. — Amy Beckett is a wife and grandmother. She and her husband have custody of two of their grandsons.

“I feel like I’ve let those kids down, I let them down. They were given to us so we could give them a better life,” said Beckett.

But it’s that very sense of stability Beckett says was wiped away by an eviction.

“My husband just abruptly lost his job,” she explained. “He’s a carpenter. He was getting ready to move on to the next house. A contractor called and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got to shut everything down.’ So our expected income from that point on just immediately stopped.”

When the Jonesboro, Arkansas couple fell behind on rent, Beckett said the landlord texted her husband a picture of a Notice to Pay or Vacate. WREG found a copy of the document in online court filings dated March 25, 2020.

It reads in uppercase font, “THIS IS NOT AN EVICTION NOTICE.”

“Even when we called him, he says, don’t worry, it’s not an eviction. It’s not an eviction notice,” Beckett said.

However, an eviction filing is what followed. Records show Beckett’s landlord filed a day later, on March 30. In Arkansas, it’s titled a Complaint in Unlawful Detainer.

“I think two or three days after we got the eviction notice, we actually had the money to pay him,” Beckett said. “I texted him, I said, ‘Hey, I have the money to pay this. Can we resolve this this way? I can give it to you or I can give it to to the attorney on this.’ And he never responded.”

Beckett filed responses in court, including an Answer and an Objection to Writ of Possession. The family moved out, but moving on, she says, has been a challenge.

“It’s scary because it’s, everything just changed in an instant,” she said. “You know, there’s times we actually had to go to the food bank just to get stuff to eat.”

Later in the spring, other renters were spared Beckett’s fate. Many renters were able to escape eviction through federal and state moratoriums.

Although Arkansas didn’t do the latter, courts in Crittenden and Craighead counties weren’t hearing eviction cases.

Lynn Foster, a retired legal professor from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, created a database to track evictions across Arkansas since the start of the pandemic. 

“Our evictions went way, way down in April, from the number that they were usually at,” Foster said. “But since then, they’ve been creeping back up and we’re seeing more and more and more every month.”

Foster’s latest data shows eviction filings increased by 40% from July to August.

Lee Richardson, executive director of Legal Aid of Arkansas, said roughly 20% of the housing cases coming into the agency are now COVID-related, and attorneys saw a sharp increase in eviction filings in the late summer months.

Crittenden County saw a 225% increase in the number of evictions filed from June to July, Richardson said. Craighead County saw a 150% increase.

“Probably more importantly, in Craighead County, we had a 300% increase in writs of possession being filed, which is when a judge or a clerk issues an order to have the police basically put someone out of the home,” Richardson said. “So they went from nearly nothing to, it was a 300% increase.”

LoTanya Kirk’s landlord filed an eviction in June.

WREG searched, and according to at least two databases, it appeared Kirk’s Jonesboro apartment complex was covered by the CARES Act, which would have stopped an eviction.

However, attorneys with Legal Aid said further digging proved only a sister complex was eligible.

Of the online court filings WREG reviewed, Kirk was one of the few tenants who filed an answer.

Kirk’s was handwritten. She read parts of it to WREG over our Zoom call.

“I became unable to continue to work due to having a history of having blood clots in my lower extremities,” she said.

The letter goes on to explain that her boyfriend, a truck driver who was also on the lease, lost wages too.

“We were able to pay April and May rent. We owed late fees for both months when we tried to pay rent, we were locked out of the system,” she said.

Kirk was referring to their June rent which she says could have been paid on time, but after late fees, court records showed the couple owed more than double their monthly rent, for a total of more than $1,400.

“Once we get there. I told her I had the money to pay the rent, but I didn’t have all the money to pay the late fees,” explained Kirk.

“It can become depressing,” she said. “I think I have maintained pretty good with not getting too low into that depression.”

Kirk says they moved out, put their stuff in storage and moved into a hotel before getting cleared for a new apartment.

However, we might soon hear fewer stories like Kirk’s.

On Sept. 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an order halting evictions nationwide until the end of the year.

The move underscores the fact the eviction crisis could become a massive health crisis, with the CDC hoping to prevent an increase in homelessness, overcrowded shelters and potential spread of coronavirus.

“This is a pretty extraordinary and unprecedented move by the CDC that if it’s upheld by courts, will save lives and prevent potentially tens of millions of families from losing their homes,” said Diane Yentel, the resident and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Unlike the CARES Act, which Yentel says only covered about 30% of renters, the CDC’s moratorium qualifies tenants making $99,000 or less, which Yentel says represents roughly 95% of all renters.

Tenants must also prove they can’t pay rent due to a substantial income loss, and if evicted, would be forced into homelessness or tight, shared quarters.

Renters must take action to be covered by the CDC moratorium. Tenants have to fill out a declarative statement at the end of the CDC’s order and provide it to their landlord.

Do you qualify for the new moratorium? Read the NLIHC FAQ here.

It’s protection Yentel calls essential because it buys more time, but without additional funding, she says it won’t fully pay off for renters or landlords.

“So eviction moratoriums on their own aren’t enough because they create a financial cliff for renters to fall off of when those moratoriums expire and back rent is owed, and they’re no more able to pay then than they are now or at the beginning of the pandemic,” Yentel said.

She said her group will be pushing hard for Congress and the White House to get back to work and to get back to negotiations, to pass a final COVID-19 relief bill that includes these essential housing and homelessness provisions in them.

Either way, it’s help that came too late for Arkansans like Kirk and Beckett. Both are taking it day by day, still trying to stay strong.

“Learning how to deal with it, leaning on my religion and my faith,” said Kirk.

Beckett said, “You’re better than your worst day. The best way I can describe it. It’ll pass. Tomorrow’s a new day and we’ll make it better.”

Legal Aid of Arkansas has been providing education and representation to Arkansas tenants throughout the pandemic. Here are some instructions the agency provided about the new moratorium and getting assistance.

Here are ways to reach Memphis Area Legal Services.

How an eviction tsunami in Arkansas could get worse

Similar to Yentel, Foster said the CDC eviction moratorium “kicked the can down the road,” but added, “Lacking rental assistance, a moratorium is the next best thing.”

Prior to the pandemic, attorneys and tenants rights advocates had long been sounding the alarm about an eviction crisis in Arkansas due to the state’s unique statutes.

  • No Warranty of HabitabilityPrevious WREG investigations revealed Arkansas is the only state in the country without an implied warranty of habitability.

Foster explained that it means dwellings must be fit, safe, sanitary, healthy. “Arkansas does not have that requirement. So if the landlord does not make a promise to repair within the lease. The law does not impose that requirement on the landlord and the landlord has no duty to repair.”

  • Failure to Vacate – In Arkansas, tenants can also be thrown in jail for not paying rent. This no longer happens in most counties, but the law still exists.

If rent is late, even by a day, tenants technically forfeit the rest of their lease term, explained Foster.

“And if the landlord then decides that he wants you out, all that the landlord has to do is post a 10 day notice and you have 10 days to leave the premises. If you are not gone, then you have committed a misdemeanor offense,” Foster said.

Also, since that’s a criminal offense, tenants have to go to court.

“If they don’t show up for the for the plea and arraignment hearing, they’ve now committed a new crime. And that’s failure to appear,” Foster said. “And at that point, the judge will typically issue a bench warrant, a warrant for the defendant’s arrest.”

  • Unlawful Detainer is the most common eviction filing used.

WREG searched unlawful detainer filings for the months of March through August in Craighead and Crittenden counties. Our research revealed very few tenants filed answers.

In late August, Foster’s research showed only 11% of tenants had filed answers. She says, in general, the paperwork can be confusing for most non-lawyers to understand. However, Foster said there’s another important explanation behind this.

“To file an answer that, is a legal answer that a court will accept you have to pay the amount of rent into the court that the landlord says you owe.” So in order to get a hearing, in order for your case to be heard, in order for you to have your day in court, you have to come up with the amount of rent that your landlord says you didn’t pay, and pay it to the court.

Foster says many tenants file answers anyway, and judges allow it. However she says it can further complicate the process. Her research also indicates the majority of tenants don’t have attorneys.

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