ACLU Urges Courts to Halt Eviction Cases in Missouri

click to enlarge Tenants in federally subsidized housing are temporarily protected from eviction if they can't pay rent. - COURTESY
Tenants in federally subsidized housing are temporarily protected from eviction if they can't pay rent.

The ACLU filed a brief earlier this week urging a judge to block landlords who receive federal money from evicting tenants during the pandemic.

When the pandemic began, Congress passed the CARES Act. The act was designed to shield U.S. workers, small businesses and industries from the worst of the economic fallout. But the ACLU says courts handling evictions are overlooking a portion of the act that protects tenants living in federally subsidized housing.

Tenants who pay rent to federally assisted landlords or housing companies are temporarily protected from being evicted for not paying rent. Landlords can still evict tenants for other reasons, like destruction of property.

In a news release, the ACLU writes that courts have been hearing eviction cases without providing effective mechanisms to ensure tenants' rights are being protected:

"Although some courts require landlords to submit checkbox forms indicating compliance with the CARES Act, these measures are implemented inconsistently and fail to provide tenants with any notice or opportunity to respond to the landlords' assertions prior to the filing of an eviction case."

Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, helped craft the brief filed by the state chapter and national organization.

He says the ACLU is concerned that no one in courts that are handling eviction proceedings is checking to see if the tenants are protected under the CARES Act. A lot of people who are protected from eviction under the act are unaware. So are a lot of judges and the landlords, the ACLU says. As a result, eviction cases that should have never been filed are making their way into the courts.

"We would like to put an end to that," Rothert says.

The bogus evictions are likely to hit communities of color hardest. A recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau on the economic fallout of the pandemic shows 14 percent of Black people surveyed in Missouri had no confidence they could pay next month's rent, compared with 6 percent of white people.

The ACLU brief was filed in support of a case out of Jackson County, Millennia Housing v. Dewey, in which a tenant is to be evicted from a low-income senior living apartment complex. Rothert explains that the case, filed on June 9, involves a property that participates in federal programs, leading the lawyers at the ACLU to believe the tenants who can't pay rent are protected from eviction by the CARES Act. In addition, tenants have been representing themselves so there is no lawyer present to raise the concern.

"We are asking the court to put safeguards in place to require those people (plaintiffs who are seeking eviction) to prove, with actual evidence, to show that the eviction is not foreclosed by the CARES Act," Rothert says. "To make them prove the tenant does not have a right not to be evicted.

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