Though evictions, along with other court business, have been delayed, some officials are expecting a surge of cases when the doors open again.
“Once the dust settles from this, it is our impression that we are going to have just an overflow dealing with evictions,” Ninth District Opportunity housing/program manager Michael Fisher said. “We’re trying to work creatively as much as we can before that happens with as many people as we can.”
Ninth District Opportunity is a nonprofit “community action agency” which serves the low-income community with housing help, heating assistance, emergency food assistance and more.
A judicial emergency order was extended by Chief Superior Court Judge Kathlene Gosselin April 2 to run through May 31. Trial juries and grand juries will not be held, and all scheduled civil hearings in Magistrate Court will be rescheduled once the emergency order is lifted.
Since March 14, Magistrate Court has received 70 eviction filings from landlords.
“Landlords are in a bind. Tenants are in a bind. It’s just kind of concerning on every end,” Chief Magistrate Court Judge Margaret Gregory said.
Gregory said 16 of those filed since March 14 were from individuals and the rest were filed by apartment complexes and attorneys.
“This is much lower than usual, but I expect a fairly large influx when the emergency order expires,” Gregory said.
The numbers on eviction filings fluctuate from month to month, as there were more than 500 filings between January and February, Gregory said.
“Sometimes you get a big apartment complex that will file everything at one time, and we’ll get 50 in on one day,” she said.
When the court does reopen for business, Gregory said it will start with the cases already scheduled and stagger them roughly 10 at a time per docket. Potential evictions are usually addressed on Thursday afternoons.
“We’ll probably have to dedicate at least two to three afternoons, mornings or court sessions a week until we can get those caught up,” Gregory said.
The time frames on those cases are shorter than the average civil case, which allows for a respondent to file an answer within 30 days.
A tenant only has seven days to respond, and the court has to schedule the case within another seven days.
“It’s concerning because I know a lot of folks just don’t have income to pay rent right now, but I think we’re going to see a lot more people having hearings, the reason being that they just are out of work and they can’t pay it,” Gregory said. “I have a feeling we’re going to see an increase in hearings as opposed to people working it out or default, which is when people don’t even come at all.”
To stop it from getting to the court docket, Ninth District Opportunity said it is trying to help as many people as possible through some eased guidelines by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Community Affairs.
This can be seen through rent assistance and eviction prevention.
“We can help people that are outside of the fair market rent for each individual county as long as they stay within rent reasonableness,” Fisher said.
Rent reasonableness standards are based on rents charged at comparable units in the same market where renters are not receiving government assistance, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“We can help a lot of people that are challenged now that we couldn’t have helped before because the fair market rents are what we have to use as our guidelines, and they are very restrictive, especially in this community to find affordable housing,” Fisher said, adding that this must be a coronavirus-related hardship.
Normally, there has to be a writ of possession — a court document saying the landlord can take over a property and gives a tenant seven days to vacate — before a group like Ninth District Opportunity can step in to “stabilize the situation financially.”
With courts not functioning as usual due to the coronavirus, eased guidelines allow documents other than the court orders.
Fisher said this includes a statement from the landlord intending to evict a tenant, a statement from the tenant describing their hardship and a statement from a case manager who has spoken to both parties.
Fisher said they have moved to a centralized 800 number this month to handle rehousing and eviction prevention. In the last two weeks, they have received more than 40 calls on that number.
In addition to those who may be out of work entirely, others are having their hours cut to a level that severely affects their ability to pay rent, Fisher said.
“We’re seeing not a lot of people have received their stimulus checks, which would offset some of this … at least temporarily. This is a concern that’s just going to continue to evolve and get more drastic and more damaging as time goes on,” Fisher said.
The phone number for Ninth District Opportunity is 800-822-0179, ext. 2026.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act protected those living in properties with federal assistance from eviction proceedings and fines/fees related to not paying rent for 120 days from March 27, which would be July 24.
According to the Congressional Research Service, roughly 12.3 million rental units “have federally backed financing, representing 28% of renters.”
“Other data show more than 2 million housing vouchers along with approximately 5 million federally assisted rental units. However, these data do not include every covered program and likely include duplicate properties because federal assistance can be provided to units with federally backed loans,” according to the Congressional Research Service.
Gainesville Housing Authority Executive Director Beth Brown said they are following the federal guidelines set through the CARES Act and have started distributing cleaning supplies to residents.
“If their income goes down, their rent goes down. We’ve been encouraging any residents who are experiencing a job loss or change of income to report that, and we will expedite what we call an interim recertification in order to adjust their rent for that month,” Brown said.
Of the roughly 400 residents in Gainesville Housing Authority properties, Brown said roughly 2% requested an interim recertification.
They have not seen a large change in nonpayment of rent this month compared to previous months. Rent for a tenant is 30% of their adjusted income.
“We don’t anticipate a problem like you would see in a market-rate apartment environment when their rent doesn’t get adjusted or it isn’t based on their income,” Brown said.
For an interim adjustment, the housing authority typically asks for two pay stubs and a letter from the employer about termination/separation.
“If for some reason they cannot provide that information, we will take a self-certification, meaning where they acknowledge this has happened and we would confirm that at a later time in order to expedite this,” Brown said.
When asked about what next month may look like, Brown said it is hard to estimate. Many living in these properties are elderly and disabled, while those working are often considered essential workers in industries such as poultry.