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Maggie Lee Columns

Fulton courts aren’t acting on evictions — for now

Maggie Lee

by Maggie Lee

Coronavirus has stopped Fulton courts from acting in eviction cases, though a lot of landlords can still file paperwork to get started on the process.

But there are more requests for rental assistance than nonprofits can handle. Tenant advocates want more done to keep people in their homes, or in their extended stay motels, and out from under fear of quick removal and mounting fees.

The Magistrate Court of Fulton County hit “pause” on eviction cases last month and the county Marshal Department also stopped serving papers.

But Ayanna Jones-Lightsy at the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation said some Fulton landlords are hiring private processors so some folks are still getting eviction notices.

A proper legal eviction notice will have a line at the bottom that says the defendant should file an answer by some date, Jones-Lightsy said. If it doesn’t have a date, it might not be proper.

Fulton County’s downtown courthouse is still open for some business, though Magistrate Court has hit pause on eviction cases. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Tenants need to know that in Fulton County, they will have until 48 hours after the court suspension is lifted to answer properly served eviction paperwork, she said.

(Right now, courts are scheduled to resume normal business on April 14, but that’s expected to be delayed until at least May 14 in line with a new Supreme Court of Georgia order.)

“If they were properly served … they should file their answer electronically, which comes with a fee, or, the court is open and they can go down to the courthouse and there’s also the Housing Court Assistance Center,” said Jones-Lightsy, who is co-director of AVLF’s Safe & Stable Homes Project. (The assistance center is open part-time. Check HCAC’s website for the latest.)

Now there are some protections for folks who live in different kinds of subsidized housing. Local public landlords including Atlanta Housing and Invest Atlanta aren’t supposed to file for evictions until May 8 at the earliest, per an executive order from Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Renter protections are also in place for housing that’s federally subsidized, under the new CARES Act. That temporary ban on eviction filings also covers folks who rent a home from a landlord who has a federally backed mortgage on their house.

But it’s also possible that landlords might not know the law, might not understand the law, or might dispute it.

Jones-Lightsy said that Fulton folks who do get an eviction notice and they think they should be protected by Bottoms’ order or the federal law should say so in their answer.

She also had a couple more comments for renters: If a landlord hasn’t brought you to court, they can’t change your locks while you’re gone or cut off your utilities. That’s a “self-help” eviction, and it’s not legal.

Her advice to tenants? Carry around a drivers license or mail that shows where you live and keep it with you. If the locks are changed without a court-ordered eviction, call the police.

Another piece of advice: even if you can only pay part of the rent, do pay it and get proof that you paid. It’ll be easier to make up partial rent later, and it proves that you’re trying in good faith to pay.

But unemployment is getting as high as it’s ever been, and plenty of people are getting an idea of the size of the crisis already.

Keeva Kase is CEO of Buckhead Christian Ministry, which provides several services like debt payment and emergency help with rent and utilities. Their vision is an end to homelessness and hunger. Demand for their help is surging.

“From March the second to March 28 … we had 120,000 calls, which amounts to about 5,000 calls a day, up from about 700,” Kase said Monday.

“And even when it was just 700, that was too much.”

BCM got a $250,000 check from Fulton County on Monday, part of $10 million Fulton commissioners approved for nonprofits working to relieve the effects of coronavirus. And like BCM, all the nonprofits are getting overwhelmed with calls.

With the money, Kase said, “we’re going to focus on what we do best, which is direct rental assistance.”

But handling the crisis is going to cost so much, and can have so many ripple effects, that it will take some some policy changes to work, not just nonprofit funding.

In letters to the Fulton and DeKalb chief magistrates last month, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms praised both for putting a pause on eviction proceedings but also asked them to halt the filing of evictions paperwork in the meantime.

The pause “still leaves families vulnerable to being evicted – and potentially becoming homeless – soon after the order expires,” Bottoms wrote in the DeKalb letter. “Furthermore, it allows landlords to file evictions that leave stains on families’ records that can be difficult to overcome when applying for apartments or rental homes in the future.”

More than 135 nonprofits and political leaders, headed by AVLF and the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice are urging Gov. Brian Kemp to sign an executive order that would end filing of eviction paperwork across the state, that would waive rent late fees and protect residents of extended-stay motels.

It’s got to be done fast, their letter says, because the dangers of displacement during a pandemic and the public health consequences are too great to risk delay.

Kemp is looking for some news to come from Washington, D.C. and in the meantime advises people to talk to their landlords.

“I know help is on the way from Washington,” Kemp said in a Wednesday press conference at the state Capitol.

“Mortgage companies and business owners, they’re in the same boat too,” he said. “I know … a lot of financial institutions are holding off people making their payments if they have renters that haven’t paid. I think that’s a great move by those financial institutions, but I would just tell people … just tell tell your landlord your situation. And I’m sure they’d be willing to work with you.”

Resources:

Fulton County’s Housing Court Assistance Center is a free legal clinic which helps tenants understand their rights under Georgia law. It’s in the downtown courthouse in room TG-100.

Fulton Magistrate Court page for filing electronically in landlord-tenant cases.

Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation

Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice

Georgia Legal Aid

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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