The busiest housing court in Georgia is planning to resume eviction hearings next month for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The reopening comes as Fulton County faces a backlog of nearly 2,000 cases. As tenants continue to have few options for work, advocates predict many in those cases will be forced to move.
Chief Magistrate Judge Cassandra Kirk said the decision to proceed with eviction cases followed the latest order from the state Supreme Court. It instructed lower courts to develop plans to restart certain hearings with public safety in mind.
“Part of our reopening plan is understanding what the court is required to do,” Kirk said. “And that is what we are doing.”
Dispossessory cases are among those that must follow a specific timeline under Georgia law. Evicting a tenant who hasn’t paid rent normally should take 21 days in the court system.
When Fulton County courtrooms reopen to landlords and tenants the week of June 22, Kirk said the setup won’t be normal, however. The court is asking people to wear masks and to sit 6 feet apart.
She said there will also be a virtual option for people who don’t feel comfortable coming to court and have the technology to participate in a hearing over video call.
But while the court is making some changes for the new public health reality, the judicial system won’t be adapting to the economic crisis that’s come with the outbreak. Hearings still can and will result in eviction.
Tenants say they’ll just have to watch that outcome unfold. Work remains hard to get and, in some cases, hard to get to with public transportation limited because of the virus.
“I haven’t received my unemployment yet,” said a renter named Mellissa Blalock. “You can’t even really get a job right now because everyone say they on hold.”
Blalock lives in southwest Atlanta with her two kids. She’s also pregnant. She said her living conditions have been bad for a while. Her apartment floods, which makes the carpet smell like mold.
Before the pandemic, while she was asking her apartment complex to fix the problem, management filed eviction against her for not paying $102 in rent.
Now, with the outbreak, Blalock’s situation has become worse. Her cleaning work has been interrupted. She can’t find a new job because she doesn’t have anyone to watch over her kids, who have been out of school.
She said right now she can barely get food for her family let alone pay back the complex.
“I guess I’m just going to have to roll with the punches right now because that’s all I can do,” she said.
Because Blalock’s case began before the outbreak, it will be one of the first the court addresses when it reopens. Her landlord has not responded to a request for comment at this time.
As executive director of the nonprofit Star-C, Audrea Rease has been working to prevent evictions, but she recognized that many landlords are in impossible situations.
If tenants don’t pay, landlords could fall behind on the expenses they have to cover, especially if they don’t qualify for mortgage relief. And Rease said she doesn’t hear any cities calling for a reprieve in property taxes.
“It’s almost like our society is expecting landlords to carry all of the residents, to be that backstop to keep people in their homes, regardless of their ability to pay,” she said.
Star-C partners with landlords near several different schools around Atlanta to match their tenants’ rent. Her nonprofit will be at the Fulton County Magistrate Court the week that it resumes eviction cases.
The Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation which funds a legal help center for tenants at the courthouse will also be increasing its hours to 40 hours a week.
The court is opening the first week of June 22 for landlords who both filed their cases before the public health emergency began and are interested in mediation.
If they can’t work out an agreement with tenants, hearings in those cases that predate the pandemic will begin the week of June 29. Then, the following week of July 6, Fulton County’s marshal service can begin removing tenants from properties.
After July 6, the court also will address cases that started during the virus outbreak.
Eviction filings have declined significantly since late March. At that time, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which barred property owners with government-backed loans from pursuing evictions.
But landlords who appear to be free from those restrictions continue to request evictions. In total, the court has seen more than 1,500 new filings during the pandemic. Fulton County handles about 45,000 eviction cases every year.
Eviction hearings have been on hold since March 13 when the Georgia Supreme Court originally issued a statewide judicial emergency. It directed all courts to stop non-essential hearings in order to prevent the spread of the virus in courtrooms.
As the magistrate court resumes some of those hearings, Kirk said judges will be following the laws for evictions as written by the Georgia State Legislature.
However, she said that doesn’t mean the court isn’t sensitive to the challenges that the outbreak has created for both tenants and landlords.
“It is a misstep to say that we are not human and understand where we are in this pandemic,” Kirk said.