UPDATE: Presiding Judge Rex Burlison of the 22nd Circuit Court has placed a “temporary hold” on conducting evictions, according to Sheriff Vernon Betts’ spokesman. Betts is awaiting Burlison’s order today to hear further details. Burlison is scheduled to speak with the American at 2 p.m. about the order. This story is developing.
ORIGINAL STORY -- A huge eviction crisis is heading straight for the City of St. Louis.
“And a lot of folks are closing their eyes,” said Glenn Burleigh, community engagement specialist for the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council.
The person able to stop this catastrophe the quickest is Presiding Judge Rex Burlison for the City of St. Louis’ 22nd Circuit Court.
On July 7, 22nd Circuit Court started taking up eviction proceedings again. However, the city government didn’t open up applications for the $5.4 million in federal CARES Act rental and mortgage assistance until July 15.
Now families are rapidly falling through the cracks, and sheriff deputies are being forced to remove families from their homes just as the COVID-19 is rising throughout the region and state. In fact, a sixth sheriff deputy tested positive for COVID-19 just last week.
From July 7 through August 7, 75 evictions have been scheduled. Most have already been executed, and only seven have been able to be mediated or canceled, according to the St. Louis Sheriff’s Office. A sheriff spokesman expects that number to climb considerably in the coming weeks.
Since July 15, the city has received 2,700 applications for rental or mortgage assistance, according to the mayor’s office, and almost 150 of them said they were in eviction proceedings. Led by the United Way of Greater St. Louis, 17 local organizations are trying to quickly process through these applications so the number of applicants with eviction cases could be higher.
In contrast, St. Louis County’s 21st Circuit Court has not evicted any families since the pandemic began. In fact on July 22, the court just returned to “Phase Zero” in its operations and service, which are directed by the Missouri Supreme Court guidelines. This means eviction proceedings are paused. According to St. Louis County Sheriff Scott Kiefer, his department has not served any evictions since Presiding Judge Michael Burton’s March 20 administrative order went into effect. However, there is a backlog of more than 160 eviction notices waiting to be served.
“We held a virtual town hall meeting with attorneys for landlords last week,” said Christine A. Bertelson, spokeswoman for the 21st Judicial Circuit. “Landlords are impatient and tenants are fearful, especially those who may have lost their jobs. But, as the order states, it is not in the interest of public health to force people to face the hardship of losing their homes during a pandemic.”
In the city, there appears to be a gap in the timing that will have a horrific impact on the city’s Black families, as almost 70 percent of the city’s renters are African American. The court reopened evictions proceedings after the federal aid for rental assistance applications became available.
“We are not even giving the money a chance to do its job,” Burleigh said. “That just seems cruel to me.”
Steve Conway, chief of staff for Mayor Lyda Krewson, said they need more time to process the thousands of applications for the CARES Act funding but have no power over the circuit court. Krewson does have say over the St. Louis Housing Authority, which recently extended its eviction moratorium until September 30 in order to give the city more time to process the CARES Act dollars.
Back when the pandemic was first addressed on March 20, the 22nd Circuit Court paused proceedings and service (Phase Zero), based on guidance from the Missouri Supreme Court, said Thom Gross, a spokesman for the 22nd Circuit. The circuit was able to meet the conditions for resuming proceedings and service and go to Phase One on July 6 — and that included issuing eviction notices, Gross said.
On July 7, landlords rushed to the courts to get their eviction cases heard. The sheriff’s deputies served nine people eviction notices in that first week following.
Between July 22 through August 7, the Sheriff’s Office has and will be serving 59 evictions.
Burlison could order the circuit court to go back to Phase Zero, as the 21st Circuit recently did, and evictions would be halted.
According to Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, the Missouri Supreme Court issued an order on July 24, which gives local courts authority to reopen in accordance with these operational directives.
“Those directives seem to give the presiding judge a lot of discretion,” Rothert said.
Regarding Burlison using this discretion, Gross said, “We are very aware of the situation and concerned about the repercussions. It’s fluid, and the situation could change at any time.”
On Thursday, July 30, activists with the STL Housing Defense Collective disrupted the WebEx court proceedings for the two 22nd Circuit judges who are assigned to eviction cases, Judge Nicole Colbert-Botchway and Judge Lynne Perkins. Starting at 9:30 a.m., activists called in and yelled, “Objection!” They told the judges that they were “complicit with every eviction case you hear.”
Perkins yelled back, “Take it up with the legislators. This is not the place for that!”
During hearings for eviction cases, Colbert-Botchway was giving out the number for the St. Louis Conflict Resolution Center, which received a contract from the city through CARES Act funding to mediate evictions. Mediation is currently not mandatory, and the center has only mediated 14 cases. However, it has had a 86 percent success rate in the cases that have come to it, according to Wolf Smith, executive director of the center.
Advocates want a moratorium for 120 days on evictions, pointing 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.
The fact that the city has started evicting people before federal aid became available has somewhat overshadowed some important work that the city has been doing in this area. A team of people from the circuit court, city service agencies, nonprofits, Washington University, the Sheriff’s Office, and others “are going above and beyond their regular duties,” Gross said.
In some cases, court employees were going door-to-door to offer assistance in the form of rent subsidies, finding work, child care, transportation, dealing with legal issues and addressing special needs, Gross said. For example, truancy officers and other officers of the court’s juvenile division, whose duties have been curtailed during the pandemic, volunteered to lead the door-knocking effort to ensure the resident knew about the coming eviction hearing. They also are helping connect people to resources.
Gross described this as a “public-private collaboration to head off a tsunami of homelessness during the still-active pandemic.”