By Julia Lerner and Arya Hodjat
Published September 2, 2020
Jazman Innman, a truck driver, moved to the Atlanta suburbs in early 2020 for his kids. He brought his 15-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son to DeKalb County for the schools, and declined more lucrative jobs that would require time away from his family.
Then the pandemic struck, and his hours shrunk. Innman said he went from driving 12 hours a day to driving eight, and then from working every week to having weeks off.
“Next thing you know … everything shut down,” Innman said. “It’s like, ‘Damn.’ Instantaneously, the world is closed.”
In May, Innman’s Decatur apartment complex, East Perimeter Pointe, served him with an eviction notice.
While Innman said he’ll be able to make ends meet and pay his late rent, thousands of other tenants in Georgia may not.
On March 14, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton issued a statewide “judicial emergency” halting all nonessential state court functions. The emergency order — extended five times and currently set to expire Sept. 10 — effectively halted eviction proceedings in the state.
Yet landlords were still free to file paperwork laying the groundwork for evictions during the judicial emergency and continued to do so, creating a backlog of cases. Housing experts, lawyers and activists fear what lies ahead in a state with minimal protections for tenants.
Rather than waiting for the courts to reopen, some landlords are taking matters into their own hands, said Lauren Sudeall, a law professor and director of the Center for Access to Justice at Georgia State University.
“Landlords can post a notice saying, ‘You have to leave or you’re going to be evicted,’ or they can change the locks — things which are not legal,” Sudeall said. “But somebody in that tenant position might not know what procedures they have to be accorded.”
Georgia has no legal right to counsel in civil cases, including eviction cases, and proceedings can begin if rent is even a day late. Moreover, landlords are not required to serve tenants with a written notice to vacate, according to Alison Slagowitz, a lawyer with the Georgia Legal Services Program.
“The Georgia [eviction] procedure provides the bare minimum of due process as required by the Constitution,” she said. “It’s very easy to evict someone without them knowing.”
Outside big cities like Atlanta, there’s even less legal support for renters facing eviction.
A number of counties in Georgia are considered “legal deserts,” areas with few practicing lawyers. Of the 159 counties in Georgia, 64 of them had 10 or fewer active lawyers in 2016, according to Sudeall. Five counties had none.
One Georgia Legal Services Program in south Georgia has just seven attorneys covering a 29-county area, according to the Harvard Law and Policy Review study “Legal Deserts: A Multi-State Perspective on Rural Access to Justice.”
Phyllis Holmen, former executive director of Georgia Legal Services, said in the Harvard study that each legal aid lawyer in Georgia “has 13,000 potential clients, based on the poverty population of the area they serve.”
Sudeall, who also contributed to the legal deserts study, said in many cases, eviction court in rural communities “is being held without any lawyers at all.”
“The judge is not always a lawyer, the landlord and the tenant usually don’t have a lawyer,’’ Sudeall said. “So you have a legal process being conducted without any lawyers involved.”
Because there is no legal right to counsel and limited access to lawyers, most tenants go without one. An analysis by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism found that even in the more populous Savannah and Atlanta areas, less than 1% of eviction cases in county courts involved an attorney since Jan. 2019.
Increased development has contributed to rising rents across the state, leading to increased housing instability and evictions, particularly for Black, working-class communities.
In DeKalb County, filings in predominantly white neighborhoods fell 92% in the months after the judicial emergency was declared, while filings in nonwhite neighborhoods declined 86%. And in Fulton County, eviction filings in white neighborhoods fell by 90% compared to 85% in predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods, according to an analysis by the Howard Center.
“A lot of our clients are single Black mothers with a history of domestic violence, so they’re really coming up from nothing,” Slagowitz said. “They’re worried, because if someone evicts them, where are they gonna go?”
In Chatham County, where Savannah is located, much of the city’s economy is tied up in hospitality and retail. Advocates fear the city’s homelessness rate — already the second highest in the state — will get much worse.
“It’s a double whammy,” said Cindy Kelley, the executive director of the Chatham-Savannah Authority for the Homeless. “People came here for jobs, but there’s no affordable housing.”
Due to the judicial emergency, that hasn’t translated into more eviction filings. In July 2020, there were 278 eviction cases filed in Chatham County Magistrate Court. In July 2019, that number was 981.
The same is true in Atlanta. In Fulton and DeKalb counties, which make up most of the city and its suburbs, landlords and property managers filed 1,136 evictions in July 2020. During the same month in 2019, they filed 7,268.
Innman’s apartment complex has filed more than 180 additional eviction cases since March, accounting for 8% of evictions filed in DeKalb County since the judicial emergency took hold.
The property is owned by Ventron Management, which owns seven other complexes in the county, and another 12 across the state. Erez Hon, Ventron’s chief financial officer, said the company has an automatic filing process, which begins court proceedings mid-month if rent is not paid on the first and the tenant has not set up a payment plan.
Advocates are worried about the impending expiration of the judicial emergency, and what it might mean for renters facing eviction. In Chatham County, in-person proceedings have already restarted; DeKalb and Fulton counties are currently scheduling proceedings, but have yet to resume them.
More than 6,000 evictions were filed with courts in Fulton, DeKalb and Chatham counties between March 14, when the judicial emergency began, and July 31. Nearly 4,500 of those cases remained open.
“It just doesn’t seem like there’s the political will” to address the impending eviction crisis, said John Marshall, a law professor at Georgia State University.
The aid necessary to support Georgia renters, including extended income replacement, “is the type of government aid that the federal government currently seems not willing to pursue,” he said.