Evictions are on the rise across the country as many Americans are out of work and struggling to pay their rent. You might even be one of them.
To date, over 100,000 evictions have been filed in various cities since the pandemic began, and even worse, the national moratorium on evictions just ended. You might be facing debts for unpaid rent and the challenge of paying future rents without a job.
Luckily, it’s not all doom and gloom, and help is available if you play your cards right. Here are a few key pieces of information you should know as you navigate any eviction proceedings in the era of COVID-19:
The Good News
The reality is that evicting a tenant is extremely time-consuming and tedious for landlords. It also costs a ton of money and involves complicated legal procedures. For example, your landlord will probably have to pay a lawyer to help them write up the various eviction papers. They also need to schedule a time to appear in court, and they have to put together a coherent argument for the judge. Even worse, there will certainly be legal fees involved in all of this.
It’s also a very difficult time to find new renters. After all, the fact that you can’t pay is a symptom of a broader national problem. Citizens in every state and locality are struggling with paying their bills, and there likely isn’t a long line of potential tenants waiting to take your spot. Furthermore, if your landlord does try to evict you, rest assured that you still have lots of chances to fight and beat it.
Help is Out There
If you get an eviction notice or fear that your landlord is about to issue one, there are many resources available to you. A good first step is to look for legal help in your area. Many organizations are now available to help people in exactly your position. The end of the national moratorium on evictions has angered people on both sides, including many lawyers and legal groups that are willing to do their part to help people like you.
Do some research and see what’s available before entering any legal process. You should also look into rental assistance resources, which can help you with payment and housing. And always remember, you are not alone in this.
Negotiate With Your Landlord
If your landlord has issued an eviction notice or is about to, another key thing to do before anything else is to discuss it with them. Explain to them in writing all the challenges you’ve faced that have led to this — your workplace closing, your income drying up, and all the other personal struggles that you, like so many other Americans, have unexpectedly faced. If you have a spouse or children, it’s also worth telling your landlord how your family would be affected by an eviction.
As you negotiate, try to find an agreement with your landlord about how you’re going to pay and when. Remember, they don’t necessarily want to evict you, especially because it’s so inconvenient for them right now, so they may be willing to make payment arrangements that will benefit both of you. You can write them a letter or email proposing an agreement, and then they might start negotiating from there.
Again, the reason for sending it as a letter or email is that you need to make sure to do all your eviction negotiations in writing. It’s absolutely imperative you document everything. In fact, if you write to your landlord explaining how COVID-19 has led to your inability to pay, some states will automatically give you protection from eviction. Also, if you have to appear in court to defend yourself, it’ll be critical that you can prove that you tried to communicate openly with your landlord all throughout the process.
The Legal Process
Yes, eviction is a process. A landlord can’t just throw you out overnight, because that would be highly illegal. We have a system in place that deals with things like this, and as a renter, you have rights that must be upheld.
First, You’ll Receive a “Pay or Quit” Notice
The first step in the legal eviction process is that your landlord or his or her lawyer will send you a “Pay or Quit” notice. This notice is a written letter demanding that you pay the amount of rent you owe by a certain date or else move out of the apartment. The notice should arrive at your house as a formal legal document.
If You Don’t Pay
The reason you’re being evicted is because of failure to pay rent, so it’s likely you won’t be able to pay immediately upon receiving the notice. If you don’t pay, the landlord is then required to serve you with a court summons and a formal complaint, both of which are also written legal documents that you’ll receive at your apartment. They’ll be delivered by a court official right to your door, and the complaint will contain the date it was filed, the date you need to respond by, and the date of your first court appearance (when your landlord and you will need to show up to speak to a judge).
Now You Respond
After you receive the landlord’s formal complaint, you can respond to it in writing. This response will be useful in both extending the legal process and giving you some evidence to show the judge that you’ve been trying to work this out the whole time. Be sure to list out the reasons why you shouldn’t be evicted in this response, and to make known any counterclaims you want to levy against your landlord.
Counterclaims can include anything your landlord has done wrong, since you might not be the only guilty party here. For example, if your landlord has failed to make timely repairs, violated your lease in any way, broken any housing laws (even minor ones), or even made errors or typos in their complaint or your lease itself (spelling errors, listing the wrong addresses, writing the wrong form of your name, etc.), you might be able to gain the upper hand. While these minor issues won’t get the case thrown out completely, they can potentially buy you more time, as the landlord might have to restart the process again from scratch.
Once you’ve written your response and gotten any help you need on it, file it with the court and send a copy to your landlord and/or your landlord’s lawyer. After this, you’ll be seeing them in court.
Time to Go to Court
The next step is an intimidating one for many renters, but it’s critical and might just be what saves you from eviction. That’s right: you have to go to court. Your landlord does, too. There in the courtroom, the two of you will present your cases briefly in front of a judge, and the judge will then decide what to do. Keep in mind this might be done remotely through video chat right now due to COVID-19.
When you go to court, you need to make sure to bring all documents and written communications related in any way to your eviction. The more the better here, as long as you can keep them organized and explain them all to the judge. These documents will be the evidence that will support your argument for why you shouldn’t be evicted, or why you should at least be given a bit more time or leeway with money. They can include emails, texts, letters, your lease agreement, your landlord’s complaint, your initial reply, and more.
At the courthouse, you might even have the opportunity to talk to a volunteer attorney, who can answer questions for you about the legal process and how evictions work on a technical level. Make use of these resources. These people are there to help.
Your Landlord Might Try to Settle
In some circumstances, your landlord or their lawyer might approach you outside the courtroom before you see the judge and try to settle the case with you right then and there. This is actually pretty common. It benefits the landlord because if you reach a settlement, they’re able to recoup some money and also don’t have to look for a new tenant. They also avoid the risk of the judge taking your side in the courtroom.
If you agree to a settlement, congratulations! You aren’t getting evicted! The only remaining step is to go together into the courtroom, present the settlement to the judge, and have them dismiss the case.
If Your Landlord Doesn’t Want to Settle
The likelihood, though, is that you’re still going to have to talk to the judge and defend yourself. In these instances, both you and your landlord will get a chance to present your cases, after which the judge will issue a ruling as to their decision.
If you lose the case and the judge agrees that you should be evicted, the court will give you a set number of days to vacate the premises. If you don’t leave within that window, though, the landlord will have more work to do. They’ll then have to get a Warrant of Eviction, where law enforcement will be sent to your house to ask you to leave for real. At that point, you really do have to get out.
Worst-Case Scenario, There’s Still Hope
Remember: just like in any court case, you can always appeal the judge’s decision. Do this as soon as possible, though, and at the very least before you’re required to vacate the property. Though appeals can sometimes seem like longshots, if you genuinely think the judge made the wrong decision or had a bias against you, it’s definitely worth a try.
Landlords Often Make Mistakes That Favor You
Eviction is a very complicated process, and it’s extremely common for landlords to make procedural errors that favor the tenant. For example, that “Pay or Quit” notice in step one needs to be issued in writing. It literally has to be an official, written letter, and it needs to give all the required information. Your landlord can’t just tell you by phone or in person to move out. That’s not how it works. And if they leave out any of the required information on the notice, that’s not official either.
The same goes with the court summons and formal complaint. Those both need to be in writing, and they need to contain specific clauses with specific information. If they don’t state a reason for your eviction, for example, or even if they aren’t delivered to your house in the proper manner (by an official court representative), then your case might get thrown out by the judge.
A Final Note
Keep in mind that all evictions are complicated for all parties involved. This article is not a substitute for legal advice and should not be construed as such. Just take advantage of all the resources available in your area, do your research, and above all, have faith!