The eviction hearings that were held every Friday in Allen County small claims court have been described as a cattle call.
Landlords, attorneys and tenants would fill the courtroom in Fort Wayne, and once the court was gaveled into session, they stepped before the judge as one case after another was called.
Then, the COVID-19 emergency stopped the steady flow. In-person hearings were prohibited and moratoriums have protected residents from losing their housing during the public health crisis, so quiet and stillness have presided in the courtroom since mid-March.
However, the Friday mayhem could soon resume.
The moratorium on evictions of families in federally subsidized housing is set to end July 25 and Indiana’s moratorium prohibiting evictions is set to end July 31. Although Gov. Eric Holcomb’s executive order makes clear that tenants are still required to pay rent, advocates say the shutdown of the economy threw many families into such financial turmoil that they have been unable to give any money to their landlords.
Advocates are warning a wave of evictions is coming that could leave many Hoosiers without a place to live. But how big that wave will be and when it will arrive is unknown.
Andrew Thomas, an attorney with Indiana Legal Services who handles eviction cases, pointed out that cities in Indiana were already recording high rates of evictions before the coronavirus outbreak. Now, the housing crisis is being exacerbated by high unemployment compounded by the reports that renters are having trouble finding new places to live and landlords have not been receiving regular rent payments for months.
“There’s no other way to look at it than there will be a surge,” Thomas said. “This crisis could become crushing.”
In anticipation, legal aid organizations, community groups and the courts have been coordinating and preparing to not only help tenants but also find ways to prevent the pent-up eviction filings from flooding the system.
ILS and the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Northeast Indiana have partnered to run the Tenant Assistance Legal Clinic, which is being funded by the city of Fort Wayne. Also, the Allen County courts have been developing procedures to keep the process moving and the parties healthy once the Friday eviction hearings begin again.
Allen Superior Judge Jennifer DeGroote said the court is preparing for a potential onslaught of eviction filings when the moratorium is lifted. As the plans have been sketched out, attorneys have been asked to provide feedback with the goal that the court and lawyers will know what to expect.
Still, DeGroote noted nothing is certain. What actually happens, she said, “could look so different than what we’re expecting.”
Scarcity of data
Well before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Fort Wayne assembled an eviction task force to examine and bring a better understanding of the city’s affordable housing crisis. Thomas was a part of that group and said a main hurdle to determining the scope and root cause of the problem was the lack of data.
Eviction filings had been jumbled with all the other small claims cases under a generic label. But in April, the Indiana Office of Court Technology launched a new event code to track eviction cases.
The Eviction Lab at Princeton University has compiled more than 80 million records, including court filings, related to eviction from across the country. Crunching the data from 2016, it has ranked cities around the country based on the rate of evictions per 100 renter homes.
Fort Wayne had the 13th highest eviction rate in the U.S. at 7.39% or 8.33 evictions per day, according to the Eviction Lab. Indianapolis was 14th highest, with an eviction rate of 7.27% or 31.61 evictions daily.
But for the Indiana attorneys, judges and advocates who want to know the size of the eviction wave coming, data remains scarce.
DeGroote offered some figures culled from a review of court records.
The total number of eviction filings in Allen County when the state put the moratorium in place was 93. Since the stay did not bar landlords from filing, 130 eviction petitions have been added. Also, when the moratorium was originally set to be lifted July 1, a local attorney told the court he had 150 evictions ready to file.
Absent more detailed data, stories are being used to gauge what is coming.
Thomas and Brandon Beeler, director of the Housing Law Center at Indiana Legal Services, said they are encouraging tenants to contact their landlords and try to arrange a payment plan. This will allow the renters to keep their housing and avoid having an eviction on their record.
However, stories from tenants seem to be indicating that landlords do not have the patience to wait any longer for what they are owed. Thomas and Beeler said more tenants have been telling them that some property owners have been doing “self-help evictions” during the moratorium. In these cases, the locks are being changed or the utilities are shut off to force the residents to leave.
Preparing for the worst
The Allen County courts are being proactive in preparation for the reopening of eviction hearings. Among the steps being taken, DeGroote said, the court is contacting the parties in the cases that have already been filed to see if a hearing is still needed or if the two sides have worked out an agreement. Also, the court is revamping the in-person hearing schedule with fewer proceedings being conducted each hour so the courtroom will not fill and people will be able to maintain social distance.
Christopher Bandemer of Bandemer Law in Fort Wayne files eviction cases on behalf of landlords and the Fort Wayne Housing Authority. He is also expecting a rush of hearings but noted the many uncertainties, including the rental assistance programs that are being rolled out to help tenants. Landlords may wait to file an eviction in order to see if their tenants quality for the funding, he speculated.
Renters will also have to participate in the process. Bandemer said he usually files the eviction on the small claims’ account calendar, which provides the opportunity to meet the tenant and try to reach an agreement either about payment or vacating the property voluntarily. A majority of the tenants, he said, do not show up. But of those that do arrive, most work out a solution.
Consequently, stemming the tide of evictions will likely require cooperation from everyone. “It depends on the landlords, it depends on the courts, it depends on the tenants,” Bandemer said. “It’s not just one factor.”
Beeler believes the size of the backlog could pump the brakes on the eviction process. The courts will not be able to move through the cases quickly, which means tenants who are behind on their rent will have more time to either get current or vacate.
Even so, Indiana Legal Services is preparing for the worst-case scenario. In Fort Wayne, the Tenant Assistance Legal Clinic is planning to provide triage services at the courthouse, giving tenants advice or direct representation if needed.
The fallout from any rise in evictions will have a widespread impact. Thomas said families who get evicted have a harder time finding suitable shelter and often have to move into substandard housing that puts their health and wellbeing at risk. Other families might end up without an address.
“That would be the fear,” Thomas said of the potential for an increase in homelessness. “A lot of people out of luck do end up on the street with nowhere to go.”•