Early Monday morning, August 3, in the midst of a global pandemic, sheriff’s deputies evicted five St. Louis families from their homes and forced them onto the street at the crack of dawn. Just two days earlier, Sheriff Vernon Betts reached an agreement with Judge Rex Burlison, the presiding judge of the City of St. Louis’ 22nd Judicial Circuit, to temporarily stop such evictions.
Unfortunately, for those five families, the evictions did not stop. Betts’ deputies forced the families from their homes simply because they fell through the cracks. You see, evictions begin at 6 a.m. on Monday mornings, but Sheriff Betts did not reach his deputies to stop the evictions until 9 a.m. Oversight and communication gaps, simple mistakes, meant they lost their homes and, for people who struggle to pay rent, that can mean the difference between having a home or living on the street.
Last weekend, Judge Burlison and Sheriff Betts took the critical first step—in response to calls from tenants, organizers, and activists, including the STL Housing Defense Collective—to reach an agreement to temporarily halt evictions. But as Monday morning demonstrates, informal agreements and ad hoc measures are insufficient. Our local leaders must take clear and decisive action to protect the most vulnerable members of our community from losing their homes, especially due to chance or mistake.
Judge Burlison has the opportunity and authority to begin that process. In particular, he must institute a moratorium in all eviction hearings for at least 120 days, so that both city officials and city courts have the time they need to develop and implement a plan that will protect local tenants and prevent unnecessary displacement during a pandemic.
At ArchCity Defenders, we continue to witness firsthand the consequences of the rush to move forward with evictions. We receive too many applications from people facing eviction who have had no opportunity to access the CARES Act rental assistance funds designed to keep them in their homes. The city opened applications for assistance on July 15; unfortunately, that came eight days after Sheriff Betts’ office resumed its evictions.
Like the city, the local courts are not ready to resume either. In June, city courts began remote eviction hearings, which continue to this date. These hearings impose countless financial and technological barriers upon tenants. While representing clients in these hearings, we have seen how poor phone and wireless internet reception, hearing disabilities, and language barriers have exacerbated an already unfair process, making it even more difficult for tenants to represent themselves in court. This does not even account for the experience of those who cannot access these hearings at all, for lack of a working computer or phone.
Our city cannot continue to move forward with evictions when our government has failed to get rental assistance and other resources into the hands of those who need it most. Our courts have yet to establish procedures and protocols to ensure that tenants’ rights are not violated.
If local officials do not reverse course and immediately halt the eviction process, thousands of St. Louis residents will be displaced from their homes, leading to further economic instability and increased homelessness. The impact will be felt by our entire community, but most acutely by Black St. Louisans, who constitute 70 percent of St. Louis’ renters, and are already disproportionately impacted by both the eviction crisis and COVID-19 pandemic.
It is critical that Judge Burlison take action and halt eviction proceedings for at least 120 days. As Monday’s mistakes show, we need time to develop a response that protects our community. We need time to ensure rental assistance is available to those facing eviction. We need time to establish safe and open court practices that ensure tenants’ rights are respected. And we need time to ensure that we do not further exacerbate a public health crisis by sending sheriff’s deputies to the homes of families across the city, which will displace thousands.
Judge Burlison has the power to give us the time our city needs.
John Bonacorsi is a Skadden Fellow and staff attorney at ArchCity Defenders, and Lee Camp is a senior staff attorney at ArchCity Defenders.