St. Louis Tenants Going It Alone Have Harder Time In Court, But New Guide Could Help
Tikisha Finley won last year in St. Louis Circuit Court when the management company that leases her apartment brought an eviction case against her.
Her management company filed suit after Finley failed to file paperwork to renew her annual lease in the midst of the pandemic, though she continued to pay her rent until she received a termination notice. In his ruling, Judge Mark Neill gave her 30 days to get her financial documentation to the management company to renew her lease and pay back rent for September, October and November.
The trouble was, she never got the judgment in the mail.
“He was the one judge that ruled in my favor,” Finley said. “Me, not knowing that he ruled in my favor in November of last year, that I was supposed to have the opportunity to bring in my check stubs and renew my lease and get everything settled.”
The management company filed for an appeal with a new trial, and last month a different judge ruled against Finley. According to court documents and Finley, the judgment for the plaintiff was $5,600, plus double Finley’s rent for May, which comes to $1,300, plus other costs.
Throughout the ordeal, she represented herself.
It’s a scenario that Jacki Langum, director of Advocacy at ArchCity Defenders, said is not uncommon. More than 90% of tenants who do not have legal representation have poorer outcomes in court, Langum said. That’s why the nonprofit created a guide to help St. Louisans facing eviction represent themselves in court.
“We wanted, to the extent that we could, level the playing field, but more so to provide tenants with some confidence in themselves and their ability to represent themselves in court,” Langum said.
According to the Eviction Lab, more than 6,700 eviction cases have been filed against people in the St. Louis region since March 2020. The guide, called “Representing Yourself When Facing Eviction,” includes types of eviction lawsuits and how to prepare for court. It’s the latest in a series of guides ArchCity Defenders has dropped in recent years for people representing themselves in court.
Advocates like Kennard Williams, a lead organizer at Action St. Louis, said the new guide is a necessary tool to ease some of the worry that tenants experience representing themselves in a system that favors landlords.
“It’s really a windfall for tenants to have this sort of resource available, because in the current state, having to navigate the legal process is an extremely difficult process for tenants,” he said.
Susan Alverson, managing attorney at Legal Services at Eastern Missouri, said it's crucial that tenants know their rights, but that’s only part of it. The eviction process can be confusing, and it's beneficial for tenants to understand the different steps along the way so they can get help.
“The landlord saying, ‘I want you to leave,’ that’s not quite an eviction,” Alverson said. “That’s the landlord demanding. Then there’s the filing of the lawsuit. Then there’s the actual lawsuit. Then there might be a court matter. Then there’s going to be the landlord who has to obtain a judgment. And the last step is the enforcement of the judgment with the sheriff.”
Alverson said some of the confusion in recent months has been due to the varying deadlines for eviction moratoriums, including a federal one issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and St. Louis and St. Louis County. She said the various moratoriums stopped most evictions, but that didn’t mean landlords couldn’t file lawsuits, obtain court judgments for money or win court judgments for possession.
“[It] would ultimately give a landlord the right to ask a sheriff to schedule the eviction,” Alverson said. “But it has meant that the sheriff has not been executing those evictions pretty much from the end of March up until the first part of April.”
As courts reopen and moratorium deadlines approach, Langum said she expects the number of eviction cases to grow. Low-income families, minimum wage workers and communities of color will face the greater effects, she said — “those who have traditionally been disproportionately impacted by criminalization of poverty."
Even with resources like rental and utility assistance available, that doesn’t mean tenants get help in time.
“You’re seeing long, long waits while people apply for this rental assistance, and some will get evicted before the rental assistance even gets cleared out to them,” Williams said.
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