Efforts to pause evictions sow confusion in era of coronavirus

Jazmine White stands outside her Kingsley Village Apartments Saturday in Austell March 21, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Jazmine White stands outside her Kingsley Village Apartments Saturday in Austell March 21, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Jazmine White was in a crowded eviction hearing in Cobb County the day before Georgia's chief justice declared a judicial emergency and directed lower courts to cease nonessential operations.

That day, the 29-year-old mother of two said she was given seven days to move out of her apartment. She had recently lost her income as a bartender due to the coronavirus shutdown, and both her children were out of school.

Later, she heard evictions had been frozen. But since the court had already ruled against her, she was afraid to draw attention to herself by reaching out for clarification.

“I don’t even know if I have the strength to figure out what to do next,” she said. “Maybe if they felt more empathy they would know how important it is for us to know exactly what’s going on.”

Efforts to pause evictions across Georgia are bringing relief but also sowing confusion amid a sweeping judicial emergency, ad hoc executive orders and contradictory statements from the federal government.

Since the judicial emergency was announced March 14, most courts in metro Atlanta appear to have suspended eviction proceedings in the interest of focusing on more essential functions related to public safety. But landlords can still file for eviction in most if not all jurisdictions, and local law enforcement agencies each have their own interpretation of how to handle evictions that have already been issued.

On Friday, a group of nine Georgia-based housing and legal scholars from Georgia Tech, Emory, and Georgia State University published a set of policy recommendations aimed at addressing urgent housing needs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Evictions and foreclosures during this emergency will contribute to overcrowding in homeless shelters, increase the number of families doubling up during the pandemic, expose high-risk individuals to the virus, and contribute to mortality and morbidity as well as the burden on our health care system,” they warned.

The group urged stronger protections for tenants and direct financial and operational support for renters, landlords and shelters.

In Fulton and Dekalb counties, evictions are carried out by both the Sheriff and the Marshal. All four agencies confirmed they are not carrying out evictions at the present time due to the coronavirus.

DeKalb Marshal Richard Berkowitz said he suspended all such operations until further notice last Monday.

“The court’s issues do factor in, but it’s purely humanitarian at this point,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to displace people with what’s going on.”

In Gwinnett County, evictions are being handled by the sheriff’s office on a case by case basis, said Deputy Shannon Volkodav, the office’s spokesperson.

The Cobb County Sheriff’s Office refused to answer a direct question about whether it was still carrying out evictions.

“We are following the guidelines set forth in the statewide Declaration of Judicial Emergency,” spokesman Glenn Daniel wrote in a statement.

Housing advocates say freezing evictions is a start, but even attorneys are confused about implementation and say more needs to be done.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty with renters and a lot of advocacy groups that are trying to figure out what’s happening with the courts,” said Lindsey Siegel, an attorney for Atlanta Legal Aid, which represents people facing eviction. “We never want people to lose their homes, but especially now, it’s incredibly unsafe for those families and the community at large.”

Siegel said some of the confusion stems from the language of the various legal orders themselves and how they are interpreted by different agencies, and some of it from the way the policies are rolled out to the public.

Last week, for example, President Donald Trump announced that the Department of Housing and Urban Development “is providing immediate relief to renters and homeowners by suspending all foreclosures and evictions until the end of April.”

But the actual policy that was published only protects single-family homes with Federal Housing Administration-backed mortgages. It does nothing for the vast majority of renters.

Around the same time, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued an executive order calling on government partners, including the Atlanta Housing Authority, to cease evictions for 60 days.

The AHA only has authority over properties it owns, however. Many Atlantans who receive housing assistance have what are called “section 8 vouchers,” which they use to rent from private landlords.

Siegel said AHA can do more by relaxing its strict work requirements at a time when many people are losing hours or losing jobs altogether. She also called on the agency to expedite rent adjustments for tenants who have lost income, a process that normally takes several months and requires significant paperwork to prove the change in income.

In response to a list of questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about how AHA is accommodating tenants during the public health crisis, an agency spokesperson referred a reporter to its website.

The website says the mayor’s eviction moratorium does not apply to private property owners, including those who rent to AHA tenants. It also says the authority’s office will be closed until the end of the month. It instructs tenants who have lost hours or a job as a result of COVID-19 to submit an interim request form with evidence of the job loss or reduction in hours once the office reopens on March 31.

“People who lose their jobs will need a break in their rent as of April 1, so there’s really no time to waste,” Siegel said. “Providing paperwork to the Atlanta Housing Authority shouldn’t be the priority; it should be providing immediate relief.”

Private landlords appear to be taking different approaches. Some have told tenants they have to come up with a full month's rent, while others have expressed some noncommittal willingness to be flexible.

Steven DeFrancis, CEO of Cortland, which manages large apartment complexes across the metro area, said in a statement that any resident experiencing hardship due to recent events related to COVID-19 should reach out directly to their property managers.

“All Cortland communities are committed to working with their residents as we all navigate this evolving situation together,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Cobb, White appears to have won a reprieve.

Chief Magistrate Court Judge Brendan Murphy explained that eviction is a two-step process, and that even after a landlord wins a case, he or she has to come back to the court seven days later for what’s called a “blue slip,” and those are not being issued.

“Any writ from before the judicial emergency that the landlord has not gotten a blue slip yet, nothing can be done on that writ by the Sheriff’s Office,” Murphy said. “I’m going to do everything within my legal authority to ensure that public health and safety are met during this critical time of the judicial emergency.”

The emergency is set to last until April 14 but could be extended, he added.

White was relieved when when she found out from a reporter, and later confirmed with the court, that her case was on hold. She said many of the charities, churches and other organizations she has reached out to for help were either not answering or at capacity.

“It really does take away a lot of the stress in terms of figuring out what my next priority is, because it wasn’t necessarily getting my kids’ homework done and now it can be,” she said. “It buys me some time.”

Monica DeLancy, a tenant advocate from South Cobb who is running to represent the area on the county commission, said the coronavirus was merely making a bad situation worse for people who were already struggling.

“Even after this pandemic in over, the issue at hand is that people cannot afford to live,” she said. “Even if they get 60, 90 days [to delay evictions], they’re still going to be in the same place.”

Reporters Arielle Kass and Ben Brasch contributed to this article