Local official says emergency order could put renters in deeper financial straits
Like many other legal officials, Bartow County Chief Magistrate Judge Brandon Bryson spent much of last week poring over the details of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emergency order putting a halt to evictions nationwide throughout the remainder of the year.
“This came without any warning,” he said. “I’ve spent the last couple of days looking at it, and speaking with other judges throughout the state and with our magistrate court leadership council as to what all may be entailed.”
The CDC order places a moratorium on residential evictions — albeit, with numerous exemptions and caveats — from Sept. 4 to Dec. 31.
"A delay in the effective date of the order would permit the occurrence of evictions — potentially on a mass scale — that could have potentially significant consequences," the emergency order, issued under the Public Health Service Act, reads. "A large portion of those who are evicted may move into close quarters in shared housing or ... become homeless, thus contributing to the spread of COVID-19."
As Bryson noted, it’s one thing to put out an order halting evictions — but it’s something else entirely to actually apply it in everyday processes.
“My understanding is that this is a process where it allows the tenant to provide an affidavit to the landlord, making certain declarations affirming that they’ve been affected by COVID, that they only make a certain amount of money, that they’ve sought federal assistance and that is supposed to halt evictions,” he said.
However, Bryson said he believes there are some things the order doesn’t specify, such as whether it applies pre-filing or post-filing of an eviction. Furthermore, he said it does not give any clear guidance for judges concerning what to do if a defendant brings the order up in court without having given the landlord notice.
“The way I see it is once a renter brings these defenses forward, that will postpone the case until Dec. 31,” he said.
And there, Bryson said he envisions a litany of problems for both renters and landlords emerging.
“There is a lack of understanding and a lack of information and resources out there to explain what this really does,” he said. “For instance, this is not a free pass for renters … renters are still expected to pay their rent, and the order actually says that.”
Bryson also noted that, under the CDC order, tenants and renters can still be evicted for non-payment reasons, including violating other rules and terms of their lease.
Ironically, Bryson said it’s not difficult to envision the order actually putting renters in a worse financial situation several months down the road.
“When this ban is lifted, they’re going to be faced with even more fees, late fees, penalties, interest and a judgment that’s going to go on their record and their credit,” he said. “That could be tough to overcome.”
On top of that, Bryson said the order raises many other questions — including what exactly constitutes a rental property. As he noted, the order does not explicitly outline whether things such as rented rooms or extended-stay facilities fall under the same emergency order protections.
“From my understanding, it’s going to apply to — basically — all typical landlord/tenant relationships,” he said. “How that applies to extended-stay motels may be a different story depending on how those are treated under the law or local ordinance.”
Bryson said he anticipates legal challenges to the CDC mandate coming very soon.
“One, trying to stop it,” he said. “I think there may be some questions as to whether the CDC has this authority.”
Ultimately, Bryson said the courts will govern how the emergency order edict plays out — not county- or city-level governments.
“If a landlord files an eviction and the defendant brings this declaration and affidavit, then we are to take it on its face that what they’re saying is true, and that they’ve been affected by COVID,” he said.
At this point, however, Bryson said he’s not too concerned about eviction stays increasing the local magistrate court’s backlog of cases.
“My main concern, honestly, is how it’s going to affect both the landlords and the tenants in this situation,” he said. “If a tenant were to choose not to pay, at the end of the stay they could be forced with a judgement that they’ll never be able to pay back, or the landlord could turn around and garnish them for however many thousands of dollars in interest and fees that accrued.”
Which, in turn, Bryson said would make it even harder for a tenant to find housing after the moratorium is lifted.
And on the other side of the equation, Bryson said the order also places obvious financial hardships on landlords.
“This could be your everyday family who didn’t sell their home, bought another and decided to have a rental property,” he said. “They’re still paying the mortgage on that rental property and that’s going to cause a problem for them, because they’re relying on this rental payment to make that mortgage payment.”
Bryson noted that, in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the State of Georgia did issue a judicial emergency declaring that if a civil suit was filed, a defendant did not have to answer until after that emergency was suspended.
“That was extended a couple of months,” Bryson said. “That discouraged landlords from even filing evictions, so during the COVID crisis we saw fewer eviction filings, which caused a lot of people to wait towards the end to do anything.”
But since the magistrate court has reopened, Bryson said he is seeing an influx of cases — albeit, not quite as voluminous as he anticipated.
“I would say right now, we’re probably on par with the past few years as far as eviction filings,” he said. “We’re really no more or no less.”
As for the long-term consequences of the CDC order, Bryson said the mandate could have a significant impact on Bartow County’s housing inventory.
“I think one of the things you may see, some of these landlords that I mentioned that have mortgages on these rental properties may be looking to unload these properties,” he said. “They may not be able to continue the business of being a landlord during this time, or they may just be kind of tired of it.”