As St. Louis eviction courts reopened on July 7, housing advocates rallied outside to demand that the city take action to avoid a looming housing crisis.
The 22nd Judicial Court began eviction court proceedings following a three-month moratorium. The hold on evictions was put in place as a result of record job losses and health concerns following the onset of COVID-19.
Advocates want the city to extend the moratorium for 120 days as they point to the continued increases in COVID-19 cases and unemployment numbers. The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Missouri filed an emergency brief last week urging a Missouri court to halt eviction proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Missouri is one of only nine states that has not issued a moratorium on eviction proceedings.
“We need to hit pause on evictions and ticketing the unhoused because COVID-19 remains a serious threat to the region,” said Sarah Watkins, of Action St. Louis and member of State Street Tenants Resistance. “Elected officials should be focused on solutions to help people during COVID-19 and economic collapse before proceeding with a new eviction process in the midst of a pandemic.”
The Anti-Eviction Rally was organized by the St. Louis Housing Defense Collective, a coalition representing the Equal Housing Opportunity Council, State Street Tenants Resistance, ArchCity Defenders, Community Builders Network, Action St. Louis, Immigrant Housing Project and Sierra Club.
“We think everybody deserves a place to live in St. Louis...no matter if you’re poor, no matter what color you are,” said Watkins. “We should take it personally that they are not fighting to keep people in their homes, to protect St. Louis from the impact of the pandemic, housing insecurities, impending evictions and shutoffs.”
Several dozen people lined the steps of City Hall chanting as they held signs stating the group’s demands for city support. In addition to the 120-day extension on opening evictions courts and utility shutoffs, the group is asking that the city create rental and legal assistance funds, stop displacing unhoused encampments and not allocate any CARES Act funding to policing or corrections.
“For years now that (St. Louis Mayor) Lyda Krewson has been in office, we hear about how she cares about equity, how she cares about everybody getting a fair chance in St. Louis,” said speaker Kennard Williams. “But when we look at our jails, do we see equity? When we look at our evictions, do we see equity? No, we don’t see that.”
Activists said that city evictions for Black people were filed at twice the rate as for white people. According to the city of St. Louis’ latest eviction statistics from 2016, there were 3,128 cases in which the court ruled in favor of landlords filing for eviction; of those 1,922 were Black-majority households and 618 were white-majority households.
Advocates said that Black, Brown and poor tenants facing landlords in court are usually contending with wealthy landlords who have legal representation. They called for the need to have a mediation system in place before the eviction process gets to the court system.
“We need a mandatory mediation program before anyone ever has an eviction filed on their case,” said Glenn Burleigh of the Equal Housing Opportunity Council. “We see a lot of folk who can’t find quality housing because they have an eviction on their record.”
Terrell Woodson is a tenant at Southwest Crossings Apartments, which has been in dispute with tenants for unsafe conditions. Woodson said he has been served with an eviction notice but has yet to receive a court date. He knows he will be receiving one soon with the courts reopening.
“I think it’s really horrible at this time that people are being put out of their homes,” Woodson said. “Because of the virus people have lost their jobs, people can’t find jobs. So, at this point they can’t pay their rent.”
More than 40 million people have filed unemployment claims in the US since the onset of COVID-19; in Missouri, more than a half million people have lost their jobs. On July 31, the federal government will discontinue the additional $600 unemployment benefit for people who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.
“When the eviction moratorium ends, when the unemployment benefit extensions come to an end, we expect a huge onslaught of folks who are going to be facing homelessness,” said Gary Newcomer of the Community Builder Networks, which represents about 70 community nonprofit organizations.
“The big thing is the pandemic,” Newcomer said. “We talk a lot about flattening the curve. We need to do what we can to keep people in their homes to flatten that curve at the same time we need to start building new support systems.”
Anti-eviction activists said the city’s recent actions in disbanding homeless encampments serves to continue the spread of the coronavirus. One of their demands is to cease all evictions of encampments for the unhoused.
“It appears the city of St. Louis has been divesting funding for homlessness or adding shelter space -- doing nothing to support the local unhoused communities,” said John Bonacorsi of ArchCity Defenders. “Instead for years the city of St. Louis has been paying the police to police the unhoused, to move them from place to place and push them out of the public eye.”
Maxi Glamour, the activist who initiated the “Resign Lyda” petition last month, said homelessness is an issue that needs to be addressed not only by city leaders but by everyone. He said he experienced homelessness and unstable housing for a period of several years.
“The homeless population is not going away,” Glamour said. “It's a population that deserves attention, it deserves focus. And with the coronavirus and this pandemic and the economy going to hell, a lot of people are going to be in the same situation. If that is what you feel about what we already have, how are you going to feel about what’s coming next? Because there’s about to be an exponential growth of unhoused people after this.”