ST. LOUIS • On a Thursday morning in August, a plaintiff’s attorney and a defendant in a package delivery uniform speak to a judge in St. Louis Associate Circuit Court. It’s difficult to hear them — not that anyone is paying much attention.
A few dozen defendants await their turns as attorneys idle around tables near the judge’s bench, some talking among themselves, most sifting through stacks of case folders, sometimes calling out a name, often to no response. A sheriff’s deputy occasionally reminds everyone that court is, in fact, in session.
Welcome to landlord bulk filing day, a subdued, expedited affair where dozens of cases are disposed of before lunch. Many tenants don’t appear and a default judgment is entered against them. Others are taken by attorneys for their landlords into the hallway, where they often sign consent judgments in which they agree to repay back rent and in many cases, leave their homes.
When tenants — nearly always without their own lawyer — choose to test their luck before a judge, they typically face off against an attorney who specializes in landlord-tenant law. The outcome is predictable.
In the fallout of the housing crisis, the number of lawsuits filed in local courts against people for back rent or possession of property rose, primarily because banks and mortgage companies evicted people after a foreclosure.
But as foreclosure-related evictions have since fallen sharply, the court dockets remain busy, as suits filed by traditional landlords against renters have risen. Years into the economic recovery, thousands of households at the bottom rung of the rental market have yet to find stability.
Court filings suggest evictions remain as frequent as in the immediate aftermath of the recession. In 2015, nearly 16,000 lawsuits for back rent or possession were filed in St. Louis and St. Louis County courts, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis of court data. Through May of this year, the most recent data provided by the state’s court records office, the number of cases filed was slightly above last year’s pace.
“No one wins in this eviction cycle,” said Lee Camp, a lawyer who represents tenants at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. Landlords lose income from unpaid rent and legal costs. Tenants lose the stabilizing force of a roof over their heads and leave with a tainted rental record. Children are shifted to new schools. Unstable neighborhoods continue to churn. “No one’s putting roots down,” he said.
Much of this is straightforward math: Foreclosures pushed more people into the rental market; rents have risen more than wages; and the number of people who struggle with rent exceeds the number of cheaper market-rate apartments, subsidized units and housing vouchers. Nonprofit groups providing rental assistance have less money as some federal resources have dried up.
Landlord changed locks, kept all her belongings
And in an improving economy, many landlords can choose from a larger, more stable pool of renters than in the past, said Katharyn Davis, a Brentwood-based landlord attorney. Many now have less patience for tenants who are even a few days late on rent. “So, the landlords try to improve their lot,” she said.
Once tenants have an eviction, a large swath of the housing market vanishes. Most landlords — including many who charge lower rents in poorer neighborhoods — avoid people with evictions.
Tenants then fall into a secondary housing market consisting of a smaller group of private landlords with relaxed or nonexistent screening policies, into apartments that are more likely to be substandard or situated in high-crime, high-poverty areas.
Those who can’t find or afford a place end up moving in with family or friends, or into shelters. “Evictions really do make people homeless. That’s not just something people say,” said Kalila Jackson, a lawyer at the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council. “People sleeping in cars with children. That’s real.”
Karen Wallensak, director of St. Francis Community Services, said a “lack of stable housing plays into nearly every dimension of life.” The increased stress damages the mental and physical health of children, and frequent moves can limit access to public transportation needed to get to work. “It just wreaks havoc on people’s lives,” she said.
St. Francis began a pilot program last year in north St. Louis County focusing on a comprehensive, long-term approach to helping poor families beyond single “transactions” like occasional rental assistance, Wallensak said. Other nonprofits have established similar programs. But many government sources of funding have been reduced, or have tightened income guidelines, so many poor households can’t afford market-rate housing and earn too much to qualify for assistance.
‘Last thing you want’
Landlords interviewed said they hate filing evictions, which are expensive, and that judgments obtained in court are rarely collected, though some will try to garnish wages if they can find where defendants work.
Woman, three daughters moved in with her mother
All had stories of tenants damaging homes on their way out or vacant properties being ransacked. One property manager said a woman who had been evicted spray-painted walls and left a garden hose running in the living room.
“The last thing you want to do is evict,” said Joe Ord, who owns and manages properties, mostly single-family homes in North County. “To date, on an annual basis, I have not filed an eviction and made a profit on that property.”
But landlords with a larger number of units can offset the cost of evictions as long as a high enough percentage of their units are occupied at any given time. Those who rent properties in lower-income areas where evictions are common generally pay less for property acquisition, taxes and mortgages, though the lower rents mean there is less available to cover major repairs or damage.
“I don’t think the general public understands,” said Randall Reinker, a landlord attorney. “The profit margin isn’t that big.”
In court, unless tenants get help from public service attorneys, they have very little chance of negotiating a favorable outcome, Jackson said.
Landlord likes to give second chances but may start screening for evictions
Even for tenants who satisfy a consent judgment, that judgment lives on, easily accessible to landlords with a few keystrokes on CaseNet, the state’s court records website.
Jackson often asks landlord attorneys to not file judgments unless tenants fail on payment plans.
If landlords don’t make repairs and major code violations exist, some tenants might refuse to pay rent — potentially inviting an eviction if they’re unaware of procedures they must follow to make a counterclaim.
In interviews, landlords and landlord attorneys argued that it’s rare for tenants to have a credible claim regarding property condition, and that nonpayment nearly always stems from poverty or poor money management.
Some tenants think “they can yell and scream at how bad the place is, and the judge is going to say, ‘You can stay and don’t have to pay any money,’” Reinker said. “When they finally admit, ‘I don’t have the money,’ you know they’re just lying about the conditions.”
But advocates say they can cite numerous examples of tenants living in shoddy conditions who could never afford legal help and can’t move because they don’t have the money to pay rent and a security deposit for a new apartment.
They said private landlords occasionally don’t even file suits, instead pressuring tenants to leave by changing locks, shutting off utilities or removing doors.
The landlord for Ruth Johnson, one of Jackson’s clients, shut off her power and water and removed her front door in January 2015. A building inspector recorded numerous major code violations and a temperature of 40 degrees inside her north St. Louis home. Jackson helped her get a judgment against the landlord, who never paid it.
At court, some tenants interviewed had no complaints about their landlords, and cited setbacks such as layoffs or health problems. Other defendants showed up with photos and videos of destructive leaks, backed-up sewers, collapsed ceilings or moldy, water-damaged walls but lost their cases after withholding rent.
Last year, Jackson’s organization analyzed the roughly 6,000 landlord-tenant cases filed in the city in 2012. It found that when a judgment was issued, the landlord won 4,934 cases. The defendant won twice.
Tenants who argue they shouldn’t owe rent because of a property’s condition have to file a defense with the court before their trial, which few defendants are aware of. In one type of suit, tenants can only respond to the landlord’s allegations; they can’t file a defense.
Some tenants also lose cases when judges require them to put withheld rent into an escrow account or court registry, though in September a state appellate court ruled this was unnecessary and recommended the state Supreme Court review the relevant case.
Jailyn Flecha and Cedric Clarkson Jr., who were living with their five children on Minnesota Avenue in south St. Louis, didn’t pay their rent for July because they said their landlord had taken months to make repairs. They showed up to a hearing with videos of water pouring through cracks in the windowsill and a light fixture on the ceiling. Photos showed water damage, mold and soggy carpets. They had an inspection report listing code violations and receipts from a separate bank account where they had deposited rent.
“We don’t pay you $775 a month to put buckets in our bed to catch water,” Clarkson said.
He believes the lawsuit to oust them was retaliation for his calling the city building division.
Landlord attorney says his clients are not charities
Their landlord, Larry Hill, denied their version of events, and said the leaks, which he attributed to “nature,” had been fixed within a few weeks of them complaining, which they dispute. He also said they damaged the walls and a railing and hadn’t paid their water bill. “They try to make it look like they’re the victims,” he said. “They know how to use the system.”
They didn’t file a defense before the hearing in August. A judge waived the July rent because of the leaks but ruled they owed August rent plus court costs and had 40 days to appeal or leave. (A law change has reduced this to 10 days.)
For weeks, Flecha and Clarkson struggled to find a new place. Landlords asked, “Why didn’t the judge rule in your favor? I said, ‘I don’t know,’” Flecha said. “I don’t have an answer for that.”
She was excited about a home in a quiet neighborhood in south St. Louis County, but a property manager called back and said investors didn’t want a tenant with past evictions. (They had also been evicted from their previous apartment, which they said stemmed from a dispute over their dog.)
They eventually found an apartment in north St. Louis, in a neighborhood filled with vacant lots. Flecha said they spent nearly everything they had on application fees, a moving truck and the first and last month’s rent.
They didn’t have the money owed to Hill. A few days after they moved out, he filed an order to garnish Flecha’s wages.