Tyler Marks, his wife Maranda and their daughter Layla (3) and two sons Hayden (7) and Atticus (1).

Courtesy: Mark’s family

His name is Tyler Marks. But he appeared on the gray screen as Call-in User_3 during his eviction negotiation.

Marks was unemployed for most of the pandemic and couldn’t afford to buy a laptop or computer with a video camera. So he called for his trial in February.

Standing in the bathroom with his phone and not where his kids could hear it, he pondered where he and his family would go if they were forced to leave their Walkertown, North Carolina home. He and his wife Maranda have three children: Hayden (7), Layla (3) and Atticus (1).

“We had no savings,” said Marks, 27 years old.

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During the coronavirus pandemic, eviction procedures across the country were moved from courtrooms to computers. According to a study by Emily Benfer, a visiting law professor at Wake Forest University, 43 states have sponsored or approved a remote clearance process as of November 2020. In the meantime, seven state courts have ordered that eviction negotiations should stay away.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention banned evictions for non-payment until July, many landlords continue to file them. Tenants can only try to invoke the protection of the health department during their hearings. Many landlords are also finding ways to evict people for reasons not covered by the CDC, such as saying their tenant’s lease has expired when non-payment is the real problem, proponents say. All of these problems underscore the importance of a fair trial.

However, remote distances via video platforms like Zoom or WebEx often deprive tenants of their legal rights, according to proponents of housing. Participants are often muted. Internet connection problems are common. Several clients are displayed on the screen at the same time.

“We’re seeing virtual hearings that last 30 seconds,” said Lee R. Camp, a tenant attorney in St. Louis. “There is no semblance of justice.”

The camp observed more than 50 remote clearance hearings during the pandemic. He doesn’t think they’re constitutional.

In a letter to the Missouri Supreme Court, he wrote: “Remote clearance hearings are insurmountable technological and financial barriers that prevent tenants from having a full and fair opportunity to be heard in violation of their procedural rights.”

He said a tenant, Eddie Logan, an Army veteran, was unable to produce evidence in his defense because the Missouri courts’ electronic filing procedures only allow attorneys to file documents online. Logan made repeated trips to the courthouse to file his documents, but camp said he was turned away each time. He also attempted to send his documents by registered mail, but the documents did not reach the court in time and an eviction order was issued against him.

Camp appealed the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court, where the judge overturned the decision.

Few other tenants benefit from such an outcome, Camp said.

“This has been an incredible amount of legal work over two weeks at all levels of the courts to get relief for a tenant,” he said. “While working on this case, of course, 90% of the tenants who appeared on the evacuation documents during these two weeks would not have received the same legal assistance.”

There is no semblance of justice.

Even before the pandemic, the evacuation system was filled with problems for tenants and inclined in favor of landlords, said Benfer. For example, only 10% of tenants at risk of eviction have legal representation compared to 90% of landlords.

“The introduction of remote hearings has resulted in disruptions and access problems, prolonged silence periods, problems producing evidence or exchanging evidence with the wrong participant, prejudice against parties who cannot fully participate, privacy violations, and limited access to lawyers, “said Benfer.

More than 20 million Americans do not have access to the Internet. However, a poor or non-existent connection can cost people their homes during a virtual hearing.

“In the remote environment, the inability to maintain a connection, the loss of minutes on a cell phone, or the lack of technology can be interpreted as a no-show and result in an eviction order,” said Benfer.

Emily Benfer

Source: Emily Benfer

The pandemic has made virtual evictions necessary, said Greg Brown, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Apartment Association, a landlord trading group.

“Given the ongoing health risks associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, moving court procedures to digital – including eviction cases – will help ensure the safety of all parties and ensure that rental apartment providers and tenants alike equally have access to the courts as guaranteed by the US Constitution. “

However, it is hypocritical to use security as a rationale for these hearings when evictions themselves have been shown to lead to an increase in coronavirus cases and deaths, said Daniel Rose, organizer at Housing Justice Now in Winston-Salem.

“Officials don’t want to risk sick tenants coming in and outbreaks occurring in the courthouses,” Rose said. “Still, they are ready to continue these life-threatening evictions with poor teleconferencing software.”

Marks’ clearance negotiation lasted about 10 minutes.

John Fonda, attorney for real estate owner Marks of SWMR Real Estate Holdings, appeared on screen in a suit and tie.

Fonda told Judge George Cleland, who was adorned with framed achievements on the walls in a black robe, that the CDC’s ban did not apply to Marks because he was evicted not for nonpayment but because his lease had expired.

He also accused Marks of lying on the CDC’s statement, including confirming that he couldn’t afford his $ 800 rent.

Marks pushed back.

“I qualified for everything,” he told the judge. (CNBC watched the hearing) “I’m just trying to stay within our rights.” Marks stated that he applied for and approved rental support from a local organization called the HOPE Program that could cover his arrears.

“The landlord didn’t accept the Hope funding,” said Fonda. “We want ownership of the property.”

“OK,” said Cleland.

“I want to push the sequel so I can hire a lawyer,” said Marks.

“I’m afraid the train left the station on this matter,” said Cleland. “I called the case and heard the case.”

Marks tried to read the no-go terms, but Cleland asked the clerk to mute him.

“I had heard enough about it,” said Cleland.

Julie Johnson, a North Carolina legal assistant, said she emailed a list of questions from a CNBC reporter to the appropriate person in the office, but never replied.

In response to a request for comment, Fonda admitted that he had originally moved to evict Marks for nonpayment, but said that SWMR Real Estate Holdings was able to amend its complaint when Marks’ lease expired in late January. He was also skeptical that Marks couldn’t afford his rent.

The owners of SWMR Real Estate Holdings had previously employed Marks in a retail store they own. Fonda said the owners offered Marks a chance to get back to work, but he declined.

“In response to a request to return to work, he sent text messages to his employer / landlord that formed the basis for SWMR’s opinion that he was not short of funds,” Fonda wrote in an email.

Four years of memories had to be left behind.

“If Mr. Marks was unwilling to pay rent and not be hired, the business had another current employee who wanted to [to] live in this house. “

Marks said he didn’t work or make enough money in the store to risk getting Covid and bringing it back to his family. He and his wife were unemployed. And Marks said the rental subsidy he was approved for would have paid off his debt if his landlord had accepted it.

“We were there for non-payment of rent and we should be protected,” he said.

Now Marks and his family cavort in various hotels and motels (their family is in Texas and South Dakota). They’re looking for the lowest prices on Booking.com and have stayed in so many locations in the past two months that they are often rewarded with discounts. He wants to find work, but it’s difficult with so much uncertainty.

As stressful as her life has become, it is the eviction that he thinks about most at night when he cannot fall asleep.

Tyler Marks had to give away his children’s hamster, Groot, after he was evicted in a virtual hearing.

He had to give away or sell most of their furniture in their home, along with bicycles, guitars, children’s toys, and their hamster, Groot. “Four years of memories had to be left behind,” he said.

And he’s still worried when he remembers his virtual hearing.

“It’s like someone has their thumb in your life,” he said. “And you can destroy it in a second.”