Many Missouri tenants lack legal counsel during eviction proceedings

Advocates warn pandemic-related evictions will leave lasting scar on tenants’ rental history

By: - November 23, 2020 5:55 am

Disabled veteran Eddie Logan was facing an eviction in August, but attorneys from the St. Louis nonprofit law group ArchCity Defenders helped settle his case. (Photo courtesy of ArchCity Defenders.)

When disabled veteran Eddie Logan learned his landlord had filed for his eviction, he began gathering evidence of what he considered the property’s “derelict conditions” to fight it and represent himself.

He had less than a week to prepare for a hearing on Aug. 17 that, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, was going to be held remotely via Zoom. 

The St. Louis city court mailed Logan a notice with instructions on how to submit his evidence ahead of his virtual hearing, and after rounding up 10 exhibits, he took them to the court building, as instructed. 

But when he arrived at the courthouse, he says he was turned away by staff and told he wasn’t allowed to deliver the exhibits in person. 

Logan called an eviction hotline and was told he was doing the right thing and to try to submit to the court again. He did, twice, and both times was refused.

He mailed his exhibits express, but they didn’t arrive in time.

In the end, 22nd Circuit Court Judge Mark Neil refused to continue his case to allow the exhibits to arrive. Logan says he had no way to refute the landlord’s claims.

The judgement was filed against him that day and he was ordered to be evicted from his home, along with paying the landlord $2,839.51.

Logan filed a lawsuit on Aug. 21, arguing that he was denied his due process because of a technology barrier.

But the bigger issue Logan faced, tenants rights advocates say, is that he didn’t have access to an attorney that could have helped guide him through the process. 

And he’s not unique. Tenants are far less likely to have legal representation in eviction proceedings. 

With a potential COVID-19 fueled wave of evictions on the horizon, advocates worry the situation may get far worse — and will have lasting effects. 

Sarah Owsley

“If you lost your house in 2008, you are probably not able to be a homeowner now,” said Sarah Oswely, policy and organizing manager for Empower Missouri. “What we don’t want to see is all these tenants who are facing evictions because of the pandemic not be able to rehouse themselves later. And that’s what’s going to happen with all these folks.”

The National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel estimated that as few as 1 percent of tenants across the country have access to an attorney during eviction proceedings, compared to 90 percent of landlords. 

In order to decrease evictions during the pandemic, several states and cities, including St. Louis and Kansas City, have allocated federal COVID relief funds towards legal representation for tenants.

And some places, like Baltimore, are passing “right to counsel” legislation to ensure that every person has the right to the equivalent of a public defender in eviction hearings. 

In Logan’s case, he finally obtained an attorney to intervene and file a lawsuit. In the end, the judge set aside the judgement against Logan on Aug. 25 and gave him a new hearing. His case is almost settled without an eviction judgement on his record.

“The evidence is clear: Tenants have more success when they have attorneys,” said Lee Camp, an attorney with ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit law group, who represented Logan. 

Right to counsel

The group KC Tenants leads a protest against evictions on Oct. 15, outside of the 16th Circuit Court of Jackson County in Kansas City (photo courtesy of Christina Ostemeyer).

It’s much more expensive to evict someone than to keep them housed, said Steve Conway, chief of staff to St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson.

It costs the city about $60 a day for a hotel room for an unhoused individual. For 90 days, that’s $5,400. Three months rent is at most $3,500, Conway said.

“Once you become homeless, you are at risk of being permanently homeless,” Conway said. “With early intervention, you can get them back into where they have permanent housing.”

This is why that city allocated funds to Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council (EHOC) to fund seven attorneys between the two organizations to represent low-income defendants through December 30th.* The city also funded an eviction mediation program.

Several states ― including Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Vermont ― have secured CARES Act funding to expand tenant representation. Some allocated Emergency Shelter Grant Program funding toward tenant representation. 

The Missouri House approved a budget proposal that allocated $18.7 million in the Emergency Shelter Grant Program funds for homeless prevention. It still needs approval by the state Senate and the governor’s signature.

Missouri lawmakers previously approved $9.6 million in CARES Act funding for the program in May. As the Independent reported previously, the Missouri Housing Development Commission will begin to distribute the funds this month.

This money would mainly go towards agencies, such as Catholic Charities and others, that provide rental and utility assistance. The MHDC has also received applications from Legal Services, an agency that provides free legal aid to low-income individuals, according to the commission’s spokesman.

Gov. Mike Parson announcing last month that he will call lawmakers into special session to appropriate federal CARES Act funds. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

Roger Dyer is an attorney with Mid-Missouri Legal Services, which provides free legal aid in 11 counties in central Missouri. He’s struggling to keep up with the need for counsel, he said, because evictions cases are still proceeding even in the pandemic.

“Landlords usually do have attorneys and tenants typically don’t, so that does put them at a disadvantage,” Dyer said. “I would certainly be for a program that would put them on more even ground with the landlords.”

Last week, the Baltimore City Council approved a bill that ensures a legal representative to be designated “as soon as practicable” and no later than a first scheduled appearance for tenants facing eviction. The requirement will phase in over the next four years.

Those advocating for the bill cited a study funded by the Abell Foundation, which estimated that the city would save $35.6 million in various costs typically undertaken by the city and state to help those who have been evicted. The foundation estimated it would cost $5.7 million to provide counsel to about 7,000 tenants.

“When tenants have representation, either they stay in their homes, or they have stable housing by the end of the process,” said John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.

CDC moratorium

There’s a big misunderstanding about what local and federal eviction moratoriums do. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) nationwide eviction moratorium prevents the final act of the eviction process — the physical removal of people from their homes.

But, eviction hearings are still occurring throughout the state, and judgements are still being made against tenants — which will stay on their records and prevent them from obtaining housing after the pandemic is over.

Also, the federal moratorium does not automatically prevent evictions. Tenants have to present a declaration form that says they have been affected by the pandemic.

Dyer said last week during a Missouri Bar Association panel discussion that some Missouri judges mention the CDC moratorium and the need for a declaration form in eviction proceedings, but some don’t.

“There is a misconception out there that evictions aren’t happening,” said Camp, who was also a panelist. “And that really couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Boone County has issued 150 notices to vacate since March. In Jackson County, there have been 499 evictions executed from June to October. In Jasper County, there have been 142 evictions this year.

St. Louis County has 333 eviction judgements that are on hold and will be executed as soon as the court’s order and federal order preventing evictions lifts. 

But this doesn’t include the thousands of court filings and proceedings going on statewide. 

Since March, there have been more than 500 evictions filed in Boone County and nearly 350 in Jasper County. In Jackson County, there were about 3,500 evictions filed from March to October, and about 3,100 in the St. Louis area.

The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the housing advocacy group KC Tenants, alleging that Jackson County Circuit Court’s administrative order allows landlords to defy the CDC moratorium. They allege that the court is forcing tenants to participate in “overly intrusive and potentially retaliatory evidentiary hearings.” 

“Every tenant deserves the right to safe, accessible housing,” said Tara Raghuveer, director of KC Tenants. “The Jackson County courts are allowing landlords to strip tenants of that right by evicting them in the middle of a pandemic and economic crisis. It’s inhumane and unconstitutional.”  

On the other side of the state, Camp believes that the virtual hearings are denying many tenants their right to due process. 

While other counties including Jackson and Boone are holding both in-person and virtual hearings, the St. Louis area is only having virtual hearings. 

And just like in Logan’s case, some tenants only have the ability to call in using the phone number. They can’t present evidence because they don’t have access to video. They can’t refute evidence that their landlord’s lawyer is presenting because they can’t see it. 

“The unanswered questions regarding our arguments over the due process violations in these remote hearings have not yet been reviewed by the high courts,” Camp said, “and no precedent has been established either in our favor or against it.”

*This story has been edited to increase the number of attorneys funded in St. Louis city, as well as include an additional agency involved.

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.

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