After a 17-month moratorium on evictions, landlords can finally go to the court to evict or collect back rent from tenants who haven’t paid since coronavirus infections surged in the spring of 2020.
With the Supreme Court having ruled the original and the Biden administration’s more recent extension of the moratorium could not continue without congressional action, Glynn County Magistrate Court conducted a special session on eviction warrants Wednesday and have three more afternoons of hearings set this week to deal with the backlog of cases.
But the courtroom halls were comparatively empty, and it was easy to see why as Magistrate R. Flay Cabiness II conducted the hearings.
He dismissed the first case before him when the landlord didn’t show for the hearing and subsequently, three more in a row after none of the parties answered when a bailiff called their names. Typically, the no shows occur when a tenant has caught up the rent — at least enough to satisfy the landlord — or moved out.
When landlord Howard O’Quinn’s case was called, he pretty much told the court it was now someone else’s problem.
As his tenant stood at the defense table, O’Quinn told Cabiness, “I thought this thing had done got settled. I had to sell that place because I was losing money.”
He also told the court that he doesn’t go after the delinquent tenants when he wins. He said later, it’s nearly impossible to collect the judgments.
The case before the court had been filed long ago, and the tenant has since amassed even more in unpaid rent. Cabiness advised him he could amend his complaint. O’Quinn said he wasn’t sure it was worth the effort, and Cabiness dismissed the case.
“The money is still owed,’’ O’Quinn said, “but I don’t go after these people. If I have a judgment, I can at least get a tax deduction.”
When Cabiness called O’Quinn’s second case, he said the same facts applied; “It’s still in one mobile home park.”
“The new [owners] already took warrants to get her out of there,’’ he said of the delinquent tenant.
After leaving the courtroom, O’Quinn said he had little choice but to sell the mobile home park because he couldn’t keep losing money. He estimated he had lost $100,000 during the moratorium when “the government wouldn’t let me throw them out.”
Glynn County Commissioner Bill Brunson also had a couple of hearings for S&S Realty, the company he runs.
He asked the court to continue one of his cases because he heard the tenant had been approved for federal rent relief.
“The last thing I want to do is evict anybody,’’ Brunson said. He asked the court for a couple of weeks for the payments to come so the female tenant could stay in the house.
Cabiness said he was glad to hear the program is “fully functioning’’ as intended. Having tried to penetrate the bureaucracy and the long waits, Brunson replied, “I don’t know about that.”
Brunson told The News the moratorium has been a nightmare, but that he has tried to work through the rent assistance program and has in a few cases. He had gotten one piece of very good news the night before, an email confirming that one woman would be getting rent assistance.
“They’re paying her rent through the end of the year plus all arrears,’’ Brunson said.
“It’s gone too long. I’m not sure it serves the greater good,’’ and the moratorium ruined some people financially while their tenants lived rent free, Brunson said.
“You find someone who retired and bought six duplexes for their retirement, they’re devastated,’’ he said.
Without evictions, he and other landlord’s have had to turn away good tenants who were willing to pay because everything is full with people who won’t pay rent.
Brunson said a 90-day moratorium would have made more sense because people have grown accustomed to living rent free.
“After that, it’s a subsidy that’s hard to turn off. When you have it this long and you turn it off, it’s painful,’’ he said.
Cabiness heard other cases in which a tenant owed $2,400 in arrears and caused an estimated $12,000 in damages to the property. He handed down a $5,450 judgment in one case and continued another in which the landlord said a couple owed $3,395 in back rent. The owner said she tried to sell the property, but it was too badly damaged.
Cabiness told her she could file a case seeking damages, but he warned it could be a long wait.
“Last time I checked, we had well over 100 cases that are backlogged,’’ he said.
That number will ikely go up daily. Mark McMullin, one of two sheriff’s deputies who handle the cases, said last week he heard that 40 new dispossessory warrants had been filed. They are called dispossessory cases because the owner seeks to dispossess the delinquent tenant of control of the property.
McMullin said there is more to the process than filling out a warrant application and going to court.
Once the warrant is issued, he and Carl Futch, the other deputy Glynn County Sheriff Neal Jump assigned to the cases, have to serve notice on the tenant.
“They’ll write down if it’s rent-related or damage-related or whatever,’’ he said. He or Futch has to go to the home and serve the warrant in person, to someone in the home or tack it to the door. They often have to explain to tenants how the process works and that they have seven days from the day following service to answer.
If the tenant answers, a court date is set, but if they don’t the owner gets a default judgment.
If there is a hearing and the judge grants the eviction, the tenant has seven more days to move out on their own. If they fail to do so, a date is set for Futch or Mullin to stand by as the landlord moves the tenant’s belongings to the edge of the property. Then the deputy assigned to the case walks through with the landlord to document any damages.
Mullin said the process is getting drawn out because, “We’re overloaded with them. We’re giving them ample notice before the evictions.”
Some simply ignore the whole process.
“I’ve gone to some where they’ll still in bed,’’ he said.
Evictions sometimes depend on the weather, and Mullin said he tries to delay if the tenants belongings could be piled up in the rain.
Mullin recalled a case when he, the landlord and some workers arrived at a house for an eviction and found no one home. They went inside to find a decorated Christmas tree with presents under it, but they began the eviction.
“A few minutes later two kids were tugging on my pants,’’ he said.
They got off the school bus at a neighbor’s house each day and waited for their parents to come home, but walked over when they saw the patrol car.
“They said, ‘You’re not going to take our Christmas tree and our presents, are you?’ they asked,’’ Mullin said.
Mullin said he contacted their mother and talked with the landlord who agreed to let them stay through New Year’s Day so they could have Christmas at the house, he said.
“Kids are helpless victims,’’ he said.
Jump said it’s a difficult time.
“People have a roof over their heads. They want to stay, but the property owners have lost a lot of money during the moratorium,’’ he said.