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Missouri housing advocates look to Biden administration to strengthen eviction moratorium

by Rebecca Rivas, The Missouri Independent | January 26, 2021 at 6:05 a.m. | Updated January 27, 2021 at 12:37 a.m.
FILE: Dozens of Missourians pulled over alongside Interstate 70 between Kansas City and St. Louis in April 2020 to call for action on housing issues. One participant stopped near Kansas City.

Freezing rain was pouring down when sheriff deputies knocked on Anthony Stinson's apartment door in Kansas City.

The deputies told Stinson, a single father, that he and his children - a 2-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter - needed to leave their home immediately. They were being evicted.

"They told me to grab what I could and get out of there, so they could get out of the rain," Stinson wrote in an Instagram post. "They said I could come back to get my stuff. They lied to me."

Instead, his landlord changed the locks and later told him that he could fish out all his belongings from the trash.

A notice to vacate was put on his door a week earlier, but he never received the court summons because it had been mistakenly issued to "Jane Doe," he later learned.

If he had received it, he could have filled out the "declaration form" required by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to temporarily halt evictions.

The federal moratorium does not give automatic protection, and that's why thousands of families like Stinson's are falling through the cracks in these cold months, advocates said.

As the Missouri Independent reported in October, thousands of evictions have been filed in Missouri courts.

The CDC order does not stop landlords from eviction filing petitions. It only prevents the physical removal of people from their homes - and only if the tenants fill out the declaration form.

That's only one of the loopholes housing advocates said riddle the federal eviction ban. While they are glad President Joe Biden said he would extend the CDC's order through March, they hope the order can be strengthened.

"Throughout the week, we were putting a lot of pressure on Rep. (Emanuel) Cleaver to get Biden to go further than the CDC moratorium directly through his day one executive orders," said Tara Raghuveer, a leader with the grassroots housing advocacy group KC Tenants.

On Jan. 19, Cleaver sent a letter to Biden's chief of staff, Ron Klain, explaining the problem with the loopholes in the order and asking the administration to strengthen the moratorium's protections.

"I understand this is the first full day of an administration with a plate fuller than Thanksgiving dinner," Cleaver told the Independent. "But action must be taken as soon as possible. And I trust it will be."

'Housing affordability crisis'

One of the first things CDC Director Rochelle Walensky did in her new role was to extend the order temporarily halting residential evictions until at least March 31.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a "housing affordability crisis," she said, that disproportionately affects certain communities.

"We must act to get cases down and keep people in their homes and out of congregate settings - like shelters - where COVID-19 can take an even stronger foothold," Walensky said.

Housing advocates across Missouri have looked to the federal government as their only hope for keeping struggling families housed during the pandemic.

However, this kind of action does not need to happen at the federal level, said Sarah Owsley, policy and organizing manager for Empower Missouri.

"That is something that Gov. Parson could address tomorrow," Owsley said.

Advocates have repeatedly urged Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to issue a comprehensive eviction order, but he has refused. They have also called on Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice George W. Draper III to institute an order declaring evictions a "judicial emergency," as other state Supreme Courts have done. He, too, has not taken that step.

In the absence of statewide guidance, there is a stark disparity in how county courts are handling evictions.

In St. Louis County and St. Louis city, the presiding judges have issued orders that prevent people from being physically removed from their homes during the pandemic. These orders do not require a declaration form as with the CDC moratorium, but make an exception for drug or criminal activity.

Both judges have cited the emergency health orders from local government and health officials as their reason for the orders, as well as the high amount of community spread of COVID-19 in the region.

However, they did not halt eviction proceedings. Judgments are still being handed down, and they keep piling up. In St. Louis County alone, the number of evictions on hold was 382, as of Dec. 4. When the local and federal orders lift, the sheriff's office will have to execute those evictions.

In December, Kansas City's health commission declared evictions are a public health crisis. A similar declaration in St. Louis led to the city's presiding judge to issue his order.

In Jackson County, Presiding Judge J. Dale Youngs has indicated he does not feel he has the authority to issue an order that would go further than the CDC's. If tenants do not go through the declaration form process in the Kansas City area, they can be removed from their homes.

In December, 64 evictions were carried out in Jackson County, according to a court spokesperson. However, some were likely able to go through the CDC declaration process because 147 people received eviction judgements in December and 123 in November.

In smaller counties, some judges advise tenants they have the option to fill out the CDC's declaration form to keep them housed, according to a Missouri Bar Association panel discussion on evictions. And some don't, leaving it up to agencies and nonprofits to inform people about the process since nearly all these tenants don't have lawyers.

Glenn Burleigh, community engagement specialist for the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, said educating people around the CDC's form process has been difficult.

"In the news, it can sound like it's a big thing, and everything stopped," Burleigh said. "And that's not really what happened. Really, these court cases are still rolling. And tenants have to use this affidavit to invoke it."

A federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Missouri attempted to provide clarity for state judges on how they could respond to evictions.

U.S. District Judge Howard F. Sachs ultimately said he wanted to avoid a "heavy-handed federal intervention" by telling circuit judges what to do. However, he did write in his opinion that the eviction crisis requires "balancing harms" of the tenants facing evictions and the landlords facing potential economic losses.

Circuit judges could order a "stay" on eviction proceedings and executing evictions in order for tenants to seek and obtain free legal aid, he wrote.

"The harm claimed might be alleviated, however, if an associate circuit judge would grant such a stay," Sach said.

In St. Louis city, in addition to the eviction order, court and city officials are actively working together to ensure everyone on the eviction docket knows how to apply for CARES rental assistance funding, according to Mayor Lyda Krewson's office.

However, Kansas City officials said this collaboration with the courts is not happening.

The Missouri Independent asked Judge Youngs if he is considering issuing an order halting residential evictions in Jackson County to allow for tenants to apply for the new federal rental assistance passed in December and likely more from a new stimulus package as Sachs suggested.

A court spokeswoman said, "The court cannot arbitrarily choose which laws to enforce and which laws to ignore. The court is presently upholding the laws of the State of Missouri."

'Ruined my life'

Last week, about 50 people stood outside of 16th Circuit Judge Mary F. Weir's home. In her front lawn, they staked a large sign that stated she had administered 296 evictions and issued more than 90 eviction judgments since June.

As part of KC Tenants "Zero Eviction January" campaign, protestors have been going to the homes of judges who regularly hear eviction cases. The court spokeswoman said the 16th Circuit does not run reports on judges that are case specific or based upon outcomes in a case.

Activists read a statement from John Brown, who was evicted several months ago and now is separated from his children.

"Judge Weir, this eviction has ruined my life," Brown said. "You have the power to prevent this from happening. I call on you to do everything you can to let people stay in their homes."

They specifically asked Weir to call on Judge Youngs to issue an order extending his halt on evictions. On Jan. 11, Youngs issued a two-week order halting eviction proceedings and executing evictions, but it expired Sunday.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said he plans to send Youngs a letter this week, his second since December, urging him to halt evictions and proceedings for six months. The action came after a meeting with KC Tenants.

"I would think that if a public health crisis exists," Lucas said, "and we have the precedent from the city of St. Louis, that would suggest for us that it can be done here in Kansas City. It's actually as simple as that."

In the spring, Lucas said the court was able to issue the order based on his emergency order.

"There still is an emergency order," he said. "It still cites COVID-19. And so I would think that the court still has the ability to issue such an order based upon that, and not just Jackson, but also in Clay and Platte counties."

A spokesperson for the 16th Circuit Court said the judge will not be extending the order.

"Judge Youngs was very specific in the order he issued and it was related to the safety of court employees, social unrest, and the need to take a pause," she said. "The order is not being extended."

Raghuveer said advocates are not going to let up. If anything, they will increase their direct, nonviolent actions, she said, because Youngs demonstrated Jan. 11 that he does have the authority to issue the order to halt evictions.

KC Tenants is also looking to the Biden administration to step in.

"The incredible power that's been built in the tenant movement has shifted the political dynamics around housing at the federal level substantially in the last year," Raghuveer said. "And what that means about the Biden administration is that they will be more responsive than any administration ever to tenant movement demands."

It also gives Raghuveer hope that they now have allies, such as Congresswoman Cori Bush, who will fight to keep people housed.

"Extending the moratorium though September is on the floor," Bush told the Missouri Independent, "but we need to do more to protect the one in five households who are behind on rent by canceling rent and strengthening resources for tenants."

The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.

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