BISMARCK — The North Dakota Supreme Court this week reversed its decision this to halt eviction hearings, prompting advocates to renew their call to the governor to implement a moratorium that would prevent residents from being forced out of their homes during the coronavirus pandemic.
The North Dakota Supreme Court announced Friday, April 24, it would allow district courts to hold eviction hearings language, striking language from a March 26 order that suspended the hearings until further notice.
Surprised by the decision, several groups asked Gov. Doug Burgum again to sign an executive order that would halt evictions.
"Our message to Governor Burgum: declare today your support of these North Dakota residents who already have lost their livelihood and have stood in constant threat of losing their housing," North Dakota Human Rights Coalition organizer Barry Nelson said in a statement. "With another month's rent due within a week, now is not the time to threaten evictions upon hundreds of men, women and children."
Burgum said during a Friday press conference he would not sign such an order at this time, citing stimulus funds from the government. He noted some people are making more money through unemployment than they were at their jobs, and landlords said few people missed rent in April because of the coronavirus.
"Banning and getting involved in legal processes can disrupt markets," he said, adding property owners have a right to due process. "I trust our courts and their judgment."
The original order was signed to help courts prioritize which orders could be held after courthouses began to close in late March, Supreme Court Chief Justice Jon Jensen said Friday.
"We took action based on our capacity to do cases, not necessarily the subject matter," Jensen said, adding the first goal is to keep litigants and judicial team safe.
District judges have increased the ability to handle caseloads faster than anticipated, Jensen said. They can use audio and video conferencing to hold more hearings, as well as hold them in person.
The courts must schedule a hearing 3-45 days after a resident receives a summons.
Several organizations, including the High Plains Fair Housing Center in Grand Forks, called on Burgum last month to issue an executive order banning evictions, fearing residents who have been laid off or furloughed during the coronavirus could be forced from their homes for not having enough money to pay rent.
"Over 40% of North Dakotans are renters," Center Executive Director Michelle Rydz said in an email to The Forum about the amended order. "This has the potential to impact them greatly."
Burgum said he didn't need to issue his own order on the subject because the Supreme Court had its proclamation in place, ACLU of North Dakota Advocacy Director Dane DeKrey noted in a phone interview. DeKrey said some people have not received stimulus checks.
“For many people, the government checks aren’t coming fast enough," he said in a statement. "And now that eviction hearings can continue, what protections do people in danger of losing their housing have?”
Landlords have expenses to cover, including utility fees, maintenance costs and employee wages, state Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, told The Forum. He called the initial order "a bad policy across the board," saying it shouldn't deny a anyone access to the courts.
“They need revenue just like everyone else needs revenue," he said of property owners, adding he has heard landlords have been working with residents who need help.
Evictions typically are the results of months of nonpayments or other issues that have been going on for a while, Ruby said. He was concerned the initial order would encourage some to skip paying rent.
"I’d be really surprised if you were able to find a landlord that did not just get payment for one month ... when this started ... and said 'I'm evicting them because I didn't get that payment," he said.
Property owners deserve help, but renters, at the moment, need the most help first, DeKrey said. The ACLU is focused on helping those who can't pay rent because of coronavirus.
"We don’t want this to be carte blanche to break rules and act like a bad tenant," DeKrey said, adding people have sacrificed their jobs to keep others safe. "The least we can do is sacrifice back for them in the short term."
State Rep. Mary Schneider, a Democrat from Fargo who also asked Burgum to issue a moratorium on evictions, called the amended order "an outrageous betrayal that impairs the housing security of vulnerable North Dakotans."
"They’re not asking for a handout, only the security that the moratorium would provide," she said in a statement.
The Supreme Court said it is mindful of state and federal emergency declarations, and “it has the procedures in place to maintain and protect the rights of all participants.”
When asked about concerns that residents may be evicted or if landlords needed to make ends meet, Jensen said the function of the court is to provide a forum of judicial procedures.
"We're trying to stay out of the middle of any of the dispute in regard to the issues you talked about. That's not our role," he said.
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