By Sean Keenan
Local leaders aren’t oblivious to the gentrifying impacts the Atlanta Beltline has had on the neighborhoods through which it weaves, but the economic side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated a housing crisis that’s for years displaced people from their homes.
“We believe that the Beltline brings a lot of positive health and economic and transportation benefits to the neighborhoods that it connects, but we also know that both renters and homeowners can feel like they’re being pushed out through the rising housing costs — especially during the pandemic,” said Atlanta Beltline Partnership (ABP) executive director Rob Brawner during an eviction prevention workshop hosted by the multi-use trail project’s nonprofit arm on Monday.
ABP officials invited attorneys from the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF) to provide a crash-course on what goes into eviction proceedings and how renters can avoid being forced from their homes along the Beltline and elsewhere in the city.
First and foremost, AVLF staff attorney Ayanna Jones-Lightsy wants people vulnerable to eviction to know that a landlord cannot displace them without a court order. And during the eviction process, a landlord can’t change the locks, put tenants’ belongings on the street or cut off their utilities; those are things only an agent from a magistrate court or a county sheriff can do.
But what does the eviction process look like?
First, the landlord must demand the tenant vacate by way of a “notice of termination of lease” or “intent to terminate,” according to the AVLF presentation. But that doesn’t mean a renter has to get out; it just kicks off the process.
Next, the landlord needs to file for a dispossessory warrant that explicitly spells out why they’re trying to evict and how much money they’re owed for rent or other fees. From then on, the landlord can’t accept rent payments unless they’re willing to back out of eviction proceedings.
Then, the tenant must be served a court summons from a sheriff or process server, and although the evictions you might see on TV shows that as just a note taped to the door, these agents can only serve eviction notices that way after they’ve tried to hand them to an adult signatory on the lease; a child can’t legally accept the summons.
After that, the onus is on the tenant to provide an answer to the dispossessory warrant, usually within seven business days of being served. The response can include a tenant’s defense and/or counterclaims, meaning they can argue that the eviction effort is illegitimate for reasons such as a landlord violating the terms of the lease. For example, the renter could have some leverage if the landlord neglected to make requested repairs to the property.
Then comes the hearing, a part of the process that’s been somewhat stunted during the pandemic. Before COVID-19, there were hearings daily, and the tenant and landlord could meet with an independent third party and try to mediate the situation without proceeding with the eviction. That mediation sometimes yields a consent agreement between the two parties that would void the eviction filing.
These days, though, Fulton County’s magistrate court isn’t doing in-person hearings until at least November, and until then, a Zoom hearing is only applicable if both the landlord and tenant agree to it. If one or both parties decide not to participate in the webcam hearing, that essentially puts a stay on the whole ordeal.
If there is a hearing, and things don’t go the tenant’s way, the judge could grant a Writ of Possession, meaning the resident has a week to move out.
That situation, though, could also be avoided if the renter takes advantage of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) eviction moratorium. It’s important to note, however, that the CDC protections don’t just apply automatically; people must be proactive about getting the benefit.
AVLF attorney Darrius Woods recommends people threatened by eviction file a declaration form with the CDC and ensure their landlord gets a copy — and that they keep a record of sending the document to their landlord.
Not everyone is eligible for the CDC benefits, though. Only individuals making less than $99,000 annually or households who file taxes jointly that earn less than $198,000 a year can utilize the moratorium.
Additionally, those people must affirm that being evicted would make them homeless or force them to “double up” with family or friends, and they’re expected to have applied or attempted to apply for rental assistance programs. But, according to the National Housing Law Project, “any tenant with any passable reason for not having applied (e.g., unaware of the funds, did not qualify, funds ran out before tenant could apply, tenant was not delinquent at the time the funds were available, etc.) should still be able to claim ‘best efforts.’”
The CDC protections will also shield people from eviction if a judge has granted a Writ of Possession to a landlord. “If a Writ of Possession is granted, and a sheriff shows up at your house, you should be able to show them the copy of the declaration and prove that you submitted it, and they should leave,” Woods said.
The moratorium, though, is expected to last only until the end of the year, so it’s crucial for people to understand that back rent will still be due eventually, and that there are programs that provide rental assistance to people in need.
One of those initiatives is the new $22 million rental relief program offered by a partnership between the City of Atlanta and United Way of Greater Atlanta. Woods also recommends people dial 2-1-1 to learn more about the options afforded them.
And if you’re threatened with eviction, SaportaReport would like to hear from you. Feel free to reach out to me ([email protected]) with your experiences, thoughts and concerns.
The eviction workshop detailed above is one of ABP’s virtual home empowerment workshops, which can be viewed here.
(Header image, via Kelly Jordan: An Atlanta home from which people were removed.)