An order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is to protect most tenants from eviction. The health department argues that evicting tenants from their homes could make the virus outbreak worse.
When President Joe Biden extended the eviction ban until the end of March, WABE found that some Georgia judges were refusing to recognize the federal ordinance in court. Some tenants in these districts have no choice but to move.
The Eviction Court experience changed Katie Duren’s view of Carroll County.
She and her family moved to a shared apartment south of Villa Rica a few years ago after a long journey in West Virginia. Duren originally grew up in a rural Georgia setting and wanted the same for her children.
“That’s what I like when I walk down a dirt road to get on the school bus,” she said.
She said her family initially enjoyed living in Carroll County. Duren worked in the mall. Her husband was a mechanic. When the pandemic started, they both lost their jobs.
She said the state never approved her unemployment.
“So we fell behind,” she said. “We had to find a new job. And from there it went downhill quickly. “
After a few months, Durens landlord applied for the eviction.
At that point, her husband learned from the CDC that landlords are prohibited from evicting tenants who can no longer rent during the pandemic. Duren’s family filled out the CDC form claiming they qualified.
“We even had the newspaper notarized. That way, the judge knew we were doing everything we should on time, ”she said.
Confident outside the little brick courthouse in Carroll County, she said.
But then they approached the judge. According to Duren, he didn’t even look at the CDC paper. He told them that Carroll County was breaking that.
“He should have just ripped it up and thrown it in the trash because that’s how I felt when he said that,” said Duren.
That judge was Alton Johnson, Chief Magistrate of Carroll County. He and the Coweta County Supreme Magistrate are a minority of judges who will not allow the CDC eviction moratorium to interfere with the expropriation process.
Johnson has no problem sharing his logic.
“The CDC, to my knowledge, has no control over the Georgia courts,” he said.
Carroll County Chief Magistrate Judge Alton Johnson said he does not believe the CDC eviction moratorium applies to Carroll County. “I think if the federal government wanted to get this right it would have done it by passing a law,” he said. (Stephannie Stokes / WABE)
As Johnson acknowledges, the CDC claims it has authority to stop evictions because of a public health emergency. But he said he doesn’t think the authority is greater than that of the state.
When asked why most other Georgia district courts have come to different conclusions, Johnson said he did not know.
“I think if the federal government wanted to get this right, it would have done it by passing law,” said Johnson, “and adequately compensating those who run out of resources or money.”
He said the current eviction moratorium appears to violate landlords’ rights. He admitted that Congress passed $ 25 billion in rental support in late December and replied that funding was not yet available.
“If you have someone who owes a mortgage, is it fair for that person to shoulder the burden of government responsibility?” Asked Johnson. “That’s how I see it.”
Johnson said he could be wrong in his reasoning – he said that several times. He said he wished the state would send further instructions.
Under the first federal moratorium introduced by the CARES Act, the Georgia Supreme Court made a rule that the local courts must be obeyed. The landlords had to swear that the eviction ban, which only affected those with government-subsidized loans, did not affect them.
The state Supreme Court said it was inappropriate for the district courts to weigh the interpretation of the CDC regulation unless a case had come on appeal. Carroll County Judge Johnson said he invited tenants to appeal his decision in a higher court.
However, according to Susan Reif, who leads the Eviction Prevention Project at Georgia Legal Services, this can be harder than it sounds. She said state law requires tenants to pay the rent they owe while the appeal is pending or that they could still be evicted.
“Most of our customers need to focus their energies on finding housing and alternative arrangements for their families when they find they are unable to maintain ownership,” she said.
At least two Georgia district courts in Carroll County and Coweta County have allowed evictions to continue when renters make the CDC statement. Georgia Legal Services said the judges’ interpretation of the federal rule left them in a minority. (Stephannie Stokes / WABE)
Tenants who have to leave their property despite CDC protection have few other options at the federal level.
You could wait and see if the US Department of Justice will enforce the CDC moratorium. The order said that those who violate it could face a fine of a hundred thousand dollars.
James Stripling, Coweta County’s chief magistrate judge, has argued that while the CDC does not prevent the courts from authorizing evictions, landlords face penalties for carrying out evictions.
“But that doesn’t amuse anyone who doesn’t prevent someone from going to an animal shelter, and it doesn’t prevent the virus from spreading,” said Reif, speaking of what the CDC moratorium is about.
If any story illustrates this point, it could be Katie Durens.
Judge Johnson ordered her family to leave the property and repay $ 5,000 in rent. A few days after Duren left the Carroll County courthouse, she and her husband tested positive for COVID-19.
Based on the diagnosis, her landlord, who refused to comment on the story, allowed her to stay in her townhouse for two more weeks. Duren said they were still sick when the six pulled into their SUVs. It took them two nights to get enough money for the Hotel Villa Rica, which they have now stayed at for a month.
Duren said her experience in the county’s court system confused her.
“The CDC, which is federal, said if we did all of these things we couldn’t be evicted,” she said. “But this one county decided they could make their own rules.”
At the moment, her family has decided to leave Carroll County as soon as possible.
“I don’t advise anyone moving to Carroll County,” said Duren. “Moving to another county.”
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