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Sheriff, Advocates Brace For Surge Of Evictions In St. Louis

"It makes me feel really alone in this world," said Christine Rudolph, a few days after being evicted from her home in Jefferson City. Missouri tenants facing eviction are unsure how to follow a stay-at-home order when they no longer have a home to go to.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis Sheriff's Office typically processes about 40 evictions per week but estimates caseloads will jump to about 200 per week.

In March, when the pandemic shut down businesses across St. Louis, the city announced a moratorium on evictions. Officials didn’t want to see people displaced at a time when sheltering was required.

That moratorium has ended, but since the courts are still shut down, no eviction proceedings are taking place. (They were set to open June 22; however, that same day, they were forced to close again due to an employee testing positive for COVID-19.)

On July 6, the courts are set to open again, and the St. Louis Sheriff's Office and housing advocates are bracing for a deluge of evictions.

“In these last seven weeks while we’ve postponed evictions, we’ve had several hundred calls from landlords,” said St. Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “They don’t have any money coming in … so they’ve gotten a little antsy. They want to evict people themselves.”

Which is illegal, Betts noted.

“They’re going to have to hold on until the legal process starts by the courts and by the sheriff, and not to move forward in locking anybody out or changing the locks on doors or trying to evict anybody, because then that becomes an illegal situation.”

Lee Camp, a staff attorney for ArchCity Defenders, estimates there are typically 6,000 evictions per year in St. Louis. He thinks the city will process three times that amount in 2020, and he’s concerned that it could lead to a larger housing crisis in the area.

“If the tenants cannot make their rental payments, we start to watch the dominoes fall. The landlords fall behind on their mortgages, then the banks are foreclosing on those properties. This leads to an economic impact in the cities, around their ability to bring in money from property taxes, and that filters out into a variety of other costs for us as a community,” Camp said. 

He is optimistic that the CARES Act funding provided to the city and to St. Louis County will be earmarked for rental assistance. In addition to that, he would like to see statewide policy changes to laws that govern rental property.

“I think the answer to this situation is going to have to be some sort of a policy fix,” Camp said. “It’s not going to be fixed by lawyers or the sheriff. It’s going to take money, and it’s going to take bold leadership.”

Hear Sarah Fenske’s conversation with Betts, Camp and Sam Stragand, staff attorney for the Metropolitan St Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council:

For tenants who end up with a formal eviction proceeding made against them, Stragand advised they first try to negotiate with their landlord.

“Before the landlord even files in court, they would talk with an organization like the St. Louis Mediation Project or the Conflict Resolution Center in the city,” he said. “They offer mediators for free who will try to work out something between the landlord and the tenant. If that, of course, doesn’t work, they should pursue legal representation if they can.”

Betts offered assistance from his office as well.

“We are here to help assist the citizens in any way that we possibly can. If they can’t get ahold of Lee and they can’t get ahold of Sam, they can call the sheriff’s department and we’ll try to help in every way that we can.”

Betts’ office is hoping to head off some of the eviction cases by serving tenants with a list of housing assistance resources before they are served with a formal eviction notice. They are also expanding their eviction team to keep up with the increased caseload once courts open back up.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.