CARROLLTON — Judges in at least two Georgia counties are refusing to acknowledge a federal order meant to protect most tenants from eviction because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The magistrates in Carroll and Coweta counties are not halting evictions because of the order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says losing housing may cause the spread of COVID-19.
"The CDC, as far as I know, has no control over Georgia courts," Carroll County Chief Magistrate Alton Johnson told WABE-FM.
Katie Duren said her family fell behind on rent at a townhome south of Villa Rica after she and her husband lost work during the pandemic and neither was approved for unemployment.
After several months, Duren’s landlord filed for eviction. Her family filled out the CDC form seeking protection, but when they showed up for court, Johnson told Duren that Carroll County doesn't honor the CDC order.
“He should have just ripped it up and threw it in the trash because that’s how I felt when he said that,” Duren said.
Johnson said he doesn't believe the CDC's authority overrides state law. Asked why most other Georgia magistrates have come to a different conclusion, Johnson said he didn’t know.
“I think that if the federal government wanted to do this correctly, they would have done it by passing a law,” Johnson said, “and properly compensate those that are out of resources or money.”
He said the eviction moratorium seems to violate landlord rights. He acknowledged that Congress passed $25 billion in rental assistance at the end of December, but said that the funding was not available yet.
“When you have somebody who owes a mortgage, is it fair for that individual to bear the burden of what should be a government’s responsibility?” Johnson asked. “That’s the way I look at it.”
Johnson said he could be wrong in his reasoning and said he wishes the state would send down more instructions.
Under the first federal moratorium, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a rule for magistrate courts to follow. Landlords had to swear that the eviction ban, which only covered those with government-subsidized loans, did not affect them.
The state Supreme Court said it would be improper to weigh in on a judge's interpretation of the CDC order unless a case arrived on appeal. Johnson said he has invited tenants to challenge his decisions to a higher court.
But that can be harder than it sounds, said Susan Reif of the Eviction Prevention Project at Georgia Legal Services. She said state law requires tenants pay rent while an appeal is pending, or they could still be evicted.
“Most of our clients, when they realize they’re not going to be able to remain in possession, have to focus their energies on finding housing and alternative arrangements for their family,” Reif said.
Tenants who must leave despite CDC protections have little recourse at the federal level.
They could wait to see if the U.S. Justice Department will enforce the CDC moratorium. The order said violators could face a $100,000 fine.
Johnson ordered Duren's family to leave the property and pay back $5,000 in rent. A few days later, Duren and her husband tested positive for COVID-19.
Because of the diagnosis, her landlord, who declined comment, allowed them to remain in their townhome for another two weeks. Duren said they were still sick when the six of them moved into their SUV. It was two nights before they got enough money for a Villa Rica hotel, where they’ve now stayed for a month.
“The CDC, which is federal, said that if we did all of these things that we couldn’t be evicted,” she said. “But this one county decided that they could make their own rules.”