• Daisy Nadshaw

Tenants Will Face Difficulty Avoiding Evictions in Alabama Despite Covid-19 Pandemic

Updated: Mar 21, 2021


An aerial view of Birmingham, Alabama, photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash.


Alabama added a record high of 1,785 Covid-19 cases on July 2, 2020. According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, the total number of Covid-19 cases are 41,362 as of July 3, 2020. However, the Proclamation by the Governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, granting relief from evictions and banning the enforcement of any order that would result in the displacement of a tenant from his or her residence has already expired on June 1, 2020.  The predominate word to describe how the population has felt about the circumstances regarding Covid-19 and housing, and in particular evictions is confusion. Holly Ray, the managing attorney for Legal Services Alabama-Huntsville, says that her office has been flooded with, "tenants confused over their rights." This confusion deepens the vulnerability of tenants who are at risk of being evicted during a pandemic unprotected especially since old attitudes about non-paying tenants are being applied to a unprecedented situation.


Status of Evictions Pre-Proclamation 


Before the Proclamation by the Governor, which halted the enforcement of evictions from April 4th to April 30th and was renewed until June 1st, confusion abounded on how to navigate the financial obligations of the tenants, how to fairly account for the economic consequences from the shelter-in-place order and which officials are best suited to handle these issues. Due to the lack of a statewide moratorium, an executive order or any official guidance at all from a state political office, county sheriff departments across Alabama were left to their own devices to decide the fate of hundreds of tenants. From March to early April, while many states had already implemented rigid statewide eviction moratoriums, sheriff departments in counties within Alabama such as Mobile County were conducting evictions. However other sheriff departments in other counties such as Jefferson, Montgomery and Madison decided to halt evictions. In absence of state policy, they used compassion to guide their decision making. “You gotta have a heart,” said Madison’s County Sheriff’s spokesman Brent Patterson, “Area homeless shelters are already full and Alabamians are losing jobs.”


With some counties aggressively evicting and other counties showing more compassion, the result was a confusing and unethical mix of tenants in Alabama who were evicted and tenants who were dealt with compassionately. Advocacy groups called for more cohesive policy measures similar to the policies enacted across the nation such as evictions moratoriums, “People cannot shelter in place if they have no shelter,” said Carla Crowder executive director of Alabama Apple Seed. As Alabama residents waited for an official statewide policy, Leigh Waite expressed confusion with her own fate, “Are people really going to evict people in the middle of this? Where am I going to go?....It’s just hard for me to understand why it’s happening to me.”


Status of Evictions During Proclamation


Even after the proclamation pronounced tenants safe from eviction and halted law enforcement from removing tenants from their residences, confusion abounded. Many questions arose about the proclamation such as whether landlords can send late notices or if tenants were still responsible for paying rent. In addition, there were conflicting images about the identity of the landlords themselves. However, a one-sided image of landlords in an attempt to garner sympathy for their plight was provided, “There’s a common misconception that most landlords don’t have to pay their mortgages or loans. That’s just simply not true,” said Sarah Taggart of Law Firm of Sarah Taggart who represents landlords. As confusion ignited across Alabama regarding evictions and the implications of the proclamation, many landlords proceeded with illegal evictions.  “We still have landlords who think the law doesn’t apply to them and they’re still telling people to get out immediately," noted Holly Ray is the managing attorney for Legal Services Alabama-Huntsville. Illegal evictions were initiated by landlords shutting off power and water and changing door locks without court approval


The Federal CARES Act, added more confusion with some landlords not even understanding what type of mortgage they possessed. The resources that were available to tenants who were experiencing eviction or about to experience eviction were sparse and unclear other than a blunt warning, “A tenant can sue the landlord for their actual damages worth three times their monthly rent, if their landlord is dumb enough to try this. You also get added reasonable attorney’s fees,” from Holly Ray to landlords moving ahead with illegal evictions. The only resourceful information that was clearly defined to tenants by advocates and officials was that rent was still due. There seemed to be a campaign on behalf of the landlords by lawyers to ensure that sympathy would primarily be reserved for the landlords. Therefore, execution of justice would most likely be tilted in favor of the landlords. News sources provided little information on public resources but granted landlords with much of the power to decide on evictions by requesting struggling tenants to talk to their landlords to work out a plan. 


Status of Evictions Post Proclamation


Even though Mobile County was featured as a possible model for how evictions would decrease due to the pandemic, this model does not reflect reality. Sgt. John Spivey, who oversees court-ordered evictions for the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office reported June 25, 2020 that their department has conducted 17 evictions since the beginning, which is a decrease from the usual 20 to 25. This contradicts with Dev Wakeley’s, a policy analyst at the advocacy group Alabama Arise, statement that even with the limitations, evictions statewide are up 70 percent this month in comparison to June 2019. In addition, as of June 10, 2020 Madison County Sheriff’s Department and the Dekalb Sheriff’s Department quickly resumed evictions. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s also rebounded quickly with evictions and is even attempting to make up for loss time. The office is completing about 8 to 10 evictions a day. Joni Money, a spokesman for the office, explains the situation, “We currently have over 425 pending evictions dating back to mid-January.”


The power to have the final say on whether the tenants will be evicted from their units has shifted and is now in the hands of the judges whereas previously the county Sheriff’s Office seemed to hold much of the power. This largely unrecognized shift in authority to decide on evictions after the proclamation expired on June 1, 2020 has the potential to add even more confusion. “We’re not the deciders. If the judge sends us a piece of paper, he’s the one who decides if we can evict or not,” said Sgt. Spivey at the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office. Kelly McTear, a board member for the Montgomery Volunteer Lawyers Program acknowledged the potential for confusion stating that this “...may create a confusing landscape. Individual agencies and counties still have their own internal protocols and protections in place when they are dealing with COVID-19, so we don’t know really what priority this is going to take (with law enforcement).” In one article Sgt. Spivey commented that it was the compassion of the lawyers and landlords which reduced evictions within Mobile County stating, “We’re way down, and I think landlords and attorneys are aware.” while in another article, the Mobile County Sheriff’s Department seemed to waiting on instruction from the circuit courts. 


No matter if the Sheriff’s Office or the Judge has the final verdict on evictions, most likely the judgments will be in favor of the landlords. Lawyers who represent landlords are predominately featured in the news about Alabama dealing with evictions during the Covid-19 pandemic. They were given the space to shape opinions on who these non-paying tenants were. Nathan Friedlander, based in Mobile County who represents landlords, provided an image of financially enriched tenants who were withholding their stimulus funds and expanded unemployment benefits from landlords. He then categorized the tenants who are currently being evicted as tenants were who were already in the process of being evicted before the pandemic or who are using the pandemic as an excuse to not pay rent. He also preferred to focus on small landlords to conjure sympathy at the expense of the non-paying tenant. Another news article focused on the plight of the landlord Howard Ross, who rents out single family residential homes in Madison County. “I’m retired and I have no other income source... They can have their rent for free and that’s nice but I can't go over to Kroger and start buying a steak and say oh by the way put it on the tab when this things over I’ll pay you as soon as my tenants pay,” said Ross. Overall, struggling tenants were exhorted from all angles to work out a plan with their landlord.  Landlords were portrayed as being business savvy, rational and unwilling to engage in a hasty eviction. The landlord is their main resource which gives landlords increased power.


Despite the confusion surrounding Covid-19, eviction advocates and other eviction experts have accepted the expected onslaught of mass evictions in the middle of a pandemic. Dev Wakeley believes that once the expanded unemployment benefits cease, “...People are going to be out on the street, and we can tell this. We’ve already got the data to know that evictions are going to increase dramatically. … People are getting kicked out just because they can’t afford it.” Spivey of the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office believes that once the protections have ceased there will be a steady increase in evictions. “Those cases are stacking up,” he said. Yashiba Blanchard is an attorney in private practice in Birmingham who also expects a wave of evictions. “It will be sad”, she said. If the leaders do not take a strong stance against evicting tenants during a pandemic, the result will be sad at best and devastating at worse even for the tenants who are paying rent. Proceeding with mass evictions has the potential to spread Covid-19 faster and wider. 


Sources:

ABC3340 NEWS: Alabama stay-at-home order prohibits evictions & foreclosures during COVID-19 crisis, article published April 3, 2020.

AL.COM: Alabama adds staggering 1,758 coronavirus cases since yesterday, article publised July 3, 2020.

AL.COM: Some Alabama counties evicting tenants in pandemic, article published May, 2020.

AL.COM: Some Alabama counties resume evictions for unpaid rent, article published June 6, 2020.

FOX10: Evictions are back – but in Mobile County, at least, pace falls short of pre-pandemic levels, article published June 25, 2020.

The Office of Alabama Governor: State of Alabama Proclamation by the Governor, proclamation published April 3, 2020.

WAFF48: Evictions possible again after governor’s order is lifted, article published June 10, 2020.

WHNT News19: Alabama ban on eviction set-outs expired, article published June 8, 2020.

WHNT News19: UPDATE: Gov. Kay Ivey issues ban on evictions for the entire state, but rent is still due, article published April 3, 2020.

WSFA12 News: Lawyer says some Alabama landlords violate order, try to evict tenants, article published April 8, 2020.


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