A key deadline in eviction cases came and went this week. And housing advocates worry thousands of tenants around metro Atlanta may not have known.
Normally, when tenants get an eviction notice, they must respond within a week. This is their opportunity to tell the court what their defense is.
But as Lindsey Siegel of Atlanta Legal Aid said, these are not normal times. In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Georgia’s Chief Justice delayed deadlines, including those related to eviction.
“So when somebody would normally have seven days to answer, in some cases, they may have had three months or more,” she said.
Now that delay is finally over. Siegel said for many tenants, their answers are finally due–or they were. The new deadline the state set was earlier this week.
Siegel’s office is unsure that news reached tenants, though. Some received eviction notices months ago before the new deadline was announced, and even some court websites didn’t list the updated date.
“We’re very concerned that tenants do not know that their answers may have been due on Tuesday,” she said.
The answers don’t only represent tenants’ chance to provide defenses against their evictions. Siegel said they’re required for the tenants to qualify for hearings, which could make a big difference now.
In typical circumstances, hearings can hold up tenants’ evictions by a couple of weeks as they wait for the court process to play out. But during the pandemic, hearings may buy tenants even more time.
Many courts have paused in-person hearings. For example, in Fulton County, the court doesn’t expect to hear cases in person at least until November. So if tenants file answers, they can postpone their evictions until then.
If tenants don’t give the court any answer, they simply lose their case.
“Then, the landlord can apply for the writ of possession and will not have to wait for the courts to reopen for hearings before getting the eviction,” Siegel said.
Many may be in that position according to an analysis of court records by the Metro ATL Eviction Data Collective, which includes researchers from Georgia Tech, the Atlanta Federal Reserve and the Atlanta Regional Commission.
The group found landlords in Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett Counties filed nearly 6,000 eviction lawsuits since the start of the pandemic in mid-March. So far, tenants submitted answers in less than a fifth of those cases.
Siegel said tenants who missed the deadline still may be able to file their defenses. She recommended they call her office.