Approximately 3.6 million eviction proceedings are filed in the US every year. Given that the US population is approximately 330 million, that means 1 out of 100 families faces eviction on an annual basis. Increasing rental rates are causing that number to rise in many major cities. Nationwide rents have risen by ±30% from the pre-pandemic rates. Meanwhile safe and affordable housing is not keeping pace with evictions. Nationwide there is a severe affordable housing shortage exceeding 7.3 million units. Many of the 3.6 million evictees have nowhere to go, but the streets.
While most evictions are justified both factually and legally, many others are wrongful. Very few formal studies have been performed to quantify the impact of wrongful evictions upon substandard rental properties and low-income households. However, experience with wrongful evictions in the City of Atlanta, shows low-income households are disproportionately victimized. Most wrongful evictions impact highly vulnerable households, including the working poor as well as the physically and mentally disabled. [See “Putting a Face Upon Atlanta’s Working Poor Families”, posted 5/31/23].
Wrongful evictions involving vulnerable households, frequently involve clashes between uninhabitable living conditions, evidenced by multiple housing code violations, and the withholding of rents by the aggrieved tenants. Low-income households suffering through mold, mildew, water intrusion, no heat or cooling, no water, no stove or refrigerator, rats and roaches, or other uninhabitable living conditions forces vulnerable tenants to divert rents to survive. Such conditions must be seen to be believed. [See, “Should Atlanta do a Better Job Enforcing Housing Code Violations at Substandard Rental Properties”, posted 3/8/23].
The problems with wrongful eviction proceedings in the City of Atlanta are easily identified. First, eviction proceedings are tried in Magistrates Court, and housing code violations are tried in Municipal Court, a totally different court. Second, eviction proceedings tried in Magistrates Court are conducted on an expedited basis, as urged by private lawyers hired by slumlords. Housing code violations are tried in Municipal Court, with slow infrequent trials, quarterbacked by public solicitors who appear overworked. Third, there does not appear to be any communication between the two courts concerning proceedings which are highly dependent upon each other. Low-income tenants are frequently evicted by Magistrates Court months before the housing code violations are tried in Municipal Court. The housing code violations become moot and the slumlords move on to victimize the next low income household in need of housing. [See, “Putting a Face upon Atlanta’s Slumlords” posted 7/26/23].
The remedies to eliminate wrongful evictions within the City of Atlanta are likewise easily identified. First, the City could combine eviction proceedings and housing code violations in a single court. Second, the City could stay eviction proceedings in Magistrates Court pending the resolution of housing code violations in Municipal Court. Finally, the City could follow the lead of the construction industry, by imposing pre-defined liquidated damages that would justify withholding portions of the rent for each housing code violation. Whatever the remedy, there are far better options than evicting low-income tenants on an expedited basis in Magistrates Court, while slow-rolling housing code violations in Municipal Court and allowing slumlords to escape responsibility for unlawful conduct.
Adoption of the so-called “Landlords Retaliation Law” or O.C.G.A. §44-7-24 enacted by the Georgia legislature does very little to curtail wrongful evictions by slumlords. The law entitles aggrieved tenants to recover $500 plus attorney’s fees, if they can show the slumlord took certain punitive cations against the tenant, in response to the tenant asserting habitability concerns. However, retaliation by the slumlord expressly excludes the non-payment and/or reduction of rents even if the rental property suffers from unsafe, unhealthy, or life-threatening conditions rendering the property uninhabitable. Consequently, the new law has little chance of eliminating wrongful evictions or otherwise slowing the endless stream of low-income families facing life on the streets.