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Eviction moratoriums are now expiring in parts of the country, and some courts are now using Zoom calls to hold remote eviction hearings for people late on their rent. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: An eviction hearing in Collin County, Texas, this week was like many other Zoom calls full of first-timers - audio problems, general confusion.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Did it freeze?
CHARLES RUCKEL: Let me see. Who's got the Galaxy phone?
ARNOLD: That's the judge, who's trying to figure out who's who with a bunch of different people on the call.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, I'm sorry. I was talking. Can you hear me now? Hello?
RUCKEL: Wave your hand.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes. I'm...
ARNOLD: It would be almost kind of funny, except that what's at stake here is not. Renters are in this Zoom hearing with landlords who want to evict them, renters like Deanna Brooks.
RUCKEL: And, Ms. Brooks, any legal reason you're behind on your rent?
DEANNA BROOKS: Yes, sir. My company closed due to the pandemic, and you had to have a letter from your employer to prove that you were affected by the corona. And I was getting the runaround. I haven't been able to get unemployment or anything.
ARNOLD: The judge said since Brooks lives within the city of Dallas, he wanted to review the current rules on evictions there, so her case got moved to next week. Her landlord declined to comment. We followed up with Deanna Brooks after the hearing. She's a Navy veteran, and she says she has a heart condition, and she says she has no friends or family that she can move in with.
BROOKS: And I'm scared. They'll throw everything I have outside on the street. I'm going to start to cry.
ARNOLD: It's a nightmare that nobody wants to go through. And a lot of times people, don't know what their rights are. Renters may have protections right now, but the rules are complicated and differ from state to county to city. And in the Zoom call hearing, people who did not dial in and their landlord did, they were just out of luck.
RUCKEL: I'm going to go forward with this one because I don't have her here to tell me anything. You have a default judgment of possession, back rent and court costs.
ARNOLD: Default judgment - that basically means you didn't show up. We're giving your landlord the right to evict you. That happened to five people in just this one Zoom call hearing. Now for some people, doing the Zoom call might be easier than getting to the courthouse, but some legal experts say that for other people, this could deny their right to due process, which includes the right to be heard. What if somebody doesn't have a decent smartphone or computer or online access? The elderly can have trouble connecting on video calls. Emily Benfer is a professor at Columbia Law School.
EMILY BENFER: A missed call or not being able to log into a remote hearing is the equivalent of failing to appear. Remote. hearings may not only be the loss of basic rights; they could also be the difference between housing and homelessness.
ARNOLD: Deanna Brooks, the Navy vet in Dallas, is worried herself about not having a home.
BROOKS: I have nowhere to go. I feel, like, very depressed, very stressed out, and I just - I don't know what to do.
ARNOLD: So these Zoom call hearings are happening because it's not safe enough to gather in court, but apparently it's OK for people to be put out in the street in the midst of a pandemic.
MATTHEW DESMOND: I say that's cruel. That's a cruel situation.
ARNOLD: Matthew Desmond heads up Princeton University's Eviction Lab. Today he's announcing a new tracking system to monitor what's happening amidst the pandemic. And already with some moratoriums expiring, he says, eviction filings are rising.
DESMOND: In Milwaukee, for example, evictions are up 38% last week from where they should be on a typical week in June in Milwaukee.
ARNOLD: And with millions of Americans still out of work due to COVID, he says evictions should not be the answer here. Some landlord groups agree. Paula Cino is a vice president with the National Multifamily Housing Council.
PAULA CINO: We should be working to help those who have been impacted by COVID-19 through robust government assistance.
ARNOLD: Like, she says, an emergency plan from Congress for renters and landlords. Meanwhile, the Zoom eviction hearings continue, but law professor Emily Benfer expects legal challenges. Chris Arnold, NPR News.
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