When Lillie Rodriguez received a summons to eviction court last week, she was both afraid and utterly confused. The county courthouse in Jackson, Mississippi, where she rents a single-family home, had already shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the notice she received did not mention this, and ordered her to report for a hearing at 9:30 a.m. on April 2 or receive a default judgement against her.
It felt like a Catch-22. Unsure what else to do, Rodriguez began a frantic search for friends and relatives who could take her in, along with her two children. Last year, the Mississippi legislature passed a law eliminating a 10-day grace period for tenants to move out, meaning Rodriguez could be locked out immediately following her court date, whenever that happened.
“I can’t be out on the street right now,” she said.
Even under normal circumstances, renters struggle to navigate the eviction process. But in the midst of the pandemic, tenants unable to pay rent are entering into a maze of new directives from courts and state and local governments. Many of these changes have been enacted to protect people at risk of losing their housing. But some merely eliminate in-person assemblies while allowing evictions to proceed through measures like remote hearings.
In states like Mississippi, which now has the highest rate of hospitalization for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, a growing public health crisis is compounding an ongoing eviction crisis. Jackson already had the fifth-highest eviction rate among large cities nationwide, according to data from the Princeton University Eviction Lab.
“Even prior to COVID-19, the majority of low-income people were already experiencing toxic stress and the impossible choice between basic necessities and paying their rent,” said Emily Benfer, a law professor and director of the Health Justice Advocacy Clinic at Columbia University. “The importance of preventing more evictions during a...