ST. LOUIS — As a father and child played in a neighboring yard and a man walked by with two sacks of groceries, St. Louis sheriff’s deputies walked up the concrete steps of a Vandeventer neighborhood apartment building Tuesday to evict the tenants.
As it turned out, the tenants had already left the apartment for good before deputies came knocking. Trash littered the brown carpet and food lined the kitchen counter of the second-floor unit.
The deputies moved down the block, intending to evict a resident in another apartment, but no one came to the door. They entered to find medicine lining a dining room table dressed with a Christmas tablecloth and a broken recliner in the corner.
“It’s always tough to see people put out of their houses,” Deputy Gregg Christian said.
In a typical week, he said, the city sheriff’s office will serve 40 evictions. But that number is expected to jump considerably as a citywide moratorium on evictions that was adopted because of the coronavirus pandemic came to an end Tuesday.
“It’s just part of the job. You have to take into consideration the people who own the property, as well,” Christian said. “They’re trying to make it as well. Now, sometimes, they’re doing all right. But we have to enforce these orders no matter what.”
The halt to evictions was imposed in March and the decision to resume them was up to the circuit court, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson said. Sheriff’s Lt. Neil Hogan said the evictions his office expects to enforce this week will be for residents who were given notices before the moratorium took effect.
Hogan and others were unable to estimate just how many people in St. Louis might lose their housing as the number of evictions surge in the coming weeks, but Radhakrishnan Gopalan, professor of finance at Washington University, said we’re “just seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
“We have unemployment rates at a historical high,” he said. “The fact the COVID cases are increasing means even the opening up that we did … might not be long lived as we go back to shut down. We are not going to get anywhere close to full employment anywhere in the future.”
Although deputies found empty properties Tuesday, the court’s decision to restart evictions was met with heavy criticism later in the day as 30 protesters gathered at City Hall for an “anti-eviction rally.”
“People aren’t working. People don’t have money,” said Sarah Watkins, a rally organizer with Action STL. “People haven’t paid rent since the pandemic began in April. People will be on the street.”
“We’re facing a pandemic right now,” said Kennard Williams, an organizer with the STL Housing Defense Collective. “A lot of people are facing an insecure housing situation, including people who are already experiencing homelessness.”
The group listed several demands for the city, including extending the eviction moratorium by 120 days and not moving forward with utility shut-offs.
The group wants the city to use federal CARES Act funding to provide a legal defense fund for those facing eviction and offer mediation between landlords and tenants.
Krewson said the federal money will be used for mediation. The mayor’s office set aside $5.4 million that will go toward rental and mortgage payments for those on the brink of eviction, but the money must be approved by the Board of Aldermen, city spokesman Jacob Long said. An additional $2.6 million is ready for other services, such as preventing homelessness, he said.
Aldermen will have a final review of the federal spending plan Wednesday.
“I’m confident the Board of Aldermen is going to get this passed,” Krewson said during a Facebook Live briefing Monday.
She said since the sheriff’s office is focusing for now on the backlog of evictions that were scheduled before the moratorium, she hopes residents affected by the pandemic will have time to receive CARES funding and stay in their homes. Sheriff Vernon Betts said more than 150 cases had been postponed by the pandemic.
Lee Camp, a staff attorney with the advocacy group Arch City Defenders, said he’s shocked the court decided to resume evictions.
“If we’re at a moment where it’s not safe to necessarily be out in public and still with a ton of restrictions on our behavior, why are we jumping so quickly to be evicting people when they can’t even safely travel to a courthouse?” he asked.
“We’ve had hundreds of calls from landlords and they’re on our head about getting these people evicted, and so we have to move forward with the court order process of evictions,” Betts said.
Glenn Burleigh, a specialist with the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, was at the rally Tuesday. Burleigh said housing instability is not a new issue in St. Louis, but the pandemic is exacerbating the problem.
“I want to be clear that it doesn’t do anybody good when the rent doesn’t get paid,” Burleigh said, “which is why we’re asking the city and others to work to line up resources so that assistance goes out and pays … to keep people in (their homes).”
As deputies continue evictions, protesters said they are planning more rallies.
“I want people to know we’re going to be out here and fighting to keep people in their homes,” Williams said.
“The landlord tenant laws in Missouri are trash, they’re more catered to the landlord,” Watkins said. “So we can advocate for ourselves and lobby for laws that protect us.”