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How landlords almost always prevail in small-claims court, and tenants rarely have their cases heard

by Jordan Green

photos by Kyle Rhines

At 5:30 in the evening on even-numbered Tuesdays, Legal Aid lawyer Richard Craig opens his office on the seventh floor of the Self Help building in downtown Greensboro to all comers for a tenants’ housing law clinic.

On this second Tuesday of May no one shows. Usually, there are three or four, Craig says. The clinics’ spotty attendance record presents a perplexing conundrum: despite widespread anecdotal reports of unscrupulous landlords failing to make repairs on rental properties and of tenants struggling against financial hardship to make rent, tenants rarely use the courts to get legal redress for housing problems.

Some might conclude that the rarity of tenant-initiated legal actions indicates that tenants must not have many complaints against their landlords. Don’t tell that to Craig.

‘“Christ, I’m running triage here,’” Craig says, waving his arms to punctuate his sense of exasperation. ‘“Today I got a woman whose landlord tried to do a self-help eviction on her.’”

An Iowa transplant who has worked at Legal Aid for almost eight years the heavyset Craig talks fast and favors dialogue from ‘“Dragnet’” and ‘“The Andy Griffith Show’” as rhetorical devices. His furrowed brow and fleshy lineament give the lawyer, who is legally blind, the look of a bullish detective with a malcontented streak from 1950s film noir. He has ink stains on the rolled-up sleeves of his pinstripe shirt.

Craig says Legal Aid has been reluctant to court publicity because of fear that its 10 lawyers will be inundated with requests for representation. The lawyers at Legal Aid prefer not to disclose the means test for determining who qualifies for their services ‘— to do so would encourage people to misrepresent their actual income ‘— but Craig notes that many of his clients fall below the federal poverty level. Legal Aid’s Greensboro office serves six counties in the Piedmont Triad, from which 238,487 people qualify for free legal representation. In the state of North Carolina, Craig says, there is one lawyer for every 384 people. In contrast, there’s only one Legal Aid lawyer for every 22,000 who qualify.

‘“The need for our services is overwhelming,’” Craig says. ‘“We have limited resources and there are endless needs.’”

And yet a visit to the small claims courts run by the five Guilford County civil magistrates assigned to Guilford County on any given day of the week reinforces the zero-attendance at Craig’s housing law clinic this evening.

The tenants are not there as plaintiffs. With numbing repetition the rental agents bring claim after claim

On this second Tuesday of May no one shows. Usually, there are three or four, Craig says. The clinics’ spotty attendance record presents a perplexing conundrum: despite widespread anecdotal reports of unscrupulous landlords failing to make repairs on rental properties and of tenants struggling against financial hardship to make rent, tenants rarely use the courts to get legal redress for housing problems.

Some might conclude that the rarity of tenant-initiated legal actions indicates that tenants must not have many complaints against their landlords. Don’t tell that to Craig.

‘“Christ, I’m running triage here,’” Craig says, waving his arms to punctuate his sense of exasperation. ‘“Today I got a woman whose landlord tried to do a self-help eviction on her.’”

An Iowa transplant who has worked at Legal Aid for almost eight years the heavyset Craig talks fast and favors dialogue from ‘“Dragnet’” and ‘“The Andy Griffith Show’” as rhetorical devices. His furrowed brow and fleshy lineament give the lawyer, who is legally blind, the look of a bullish detective with a malcontented streak from 1950s film noir. He has ink stains on the rolled-up sleeves of his pinstripe shirt.

Craig says Legal Aid has been reluctant to court publicity because of fear that its 10 lawyers will be inundated with requests for representation. The lawyers at Legal Aid prefer not to disclose the means test for determining who qualifies for their services ‘— to do so would encourage people to misrepresent their actual income ‘— but Craig notes that many of his clients fall below the federal poverty level. Legal Aid’s Greensboro office serves six counties in the Piedmont Triad, from which 238,487 people qualify for free legal representation. In the state of North Carolina, Craig says, there is one lawyer for every 384 people. In contrast, there’s only one Legal Aid lawyer for every 22,000 who qualify.

‘“The need for our services is overwhelming,’” Craig says. ‘“We have limited resources and there are endless needs.’”

And yet a visit to the small claims courts run by the five Guilford County civil magistrates assigned to Guilford County on any given day of the week reinforces the zero-attendance at Craig’s housing law clinic this evening.

The tenants are not there as plaintiffs. With numbing repetition the rental agents bring claim after claim for summary ejectment ‘— or, in plain English, eviction. Here and there are claims to recover money or personal property, usually brought by a loan company or a rent-to-own outfit. Less often, a consumer or independent businessperson will file a recovery action because they believe they were sold a defective product or were underpaid for their services.

The case files tell the story.

Of the first 850 cases filed in Guilford County small-claims court in Greensboro in January, a YES! Weekly investigation found that the vast majority were eviction claims filed by landlords against tenants. Hundreds of those were dismissed at the request of the landlord before the cases came before a magistrate.

The first 477 decisions for housing-related small claims that were handed down by civil magistrates in the Greensboro court were, with no exceptions, judgments in actions for summary eviction brought by landlords against tenants. Not a single case of a tenant filing a claim for rent abatement showed up in the sample.

When landlords took tenants to court to get them evicted, the magistrate ruled in their favor nine out of ten times. And only two out of the roughly 500 housing cases ‘— or less than a half a percent ‘— decided by Guilford County civil magistrates were dismissed because the landlord or rental agent failed to prove the case by the greater weight of evidence. Most of the remainder were thrown out because the landlord and tenant failed to appear in court. In some others the magistrate dismissed the claim in court at the request of the landlord or the tenant paid back rent in court to settle the case.

‘“My experience has been that the vast majority of people who are over there it’s for nonpayment of rent,’” Craig says. ‘“In North Carolina you are entitled to a court-ordered eviction. The reason we have the law is so the landlord cannot come to your home and perform a self-help eviction.’”

About four cases out of the sample show evidence of the tenant coming to small-claims court to argue in their defense, with the result that the magistrate used his discretion to reduce or eliminate penalties. The disputes often revolved around how much an evicted tenant owes the landlord for back rent. Tenants often argue that the amount should be reduced because the landlord hasn’t maintained the property.

On Jan. 18, Magistrate Henry Mebane ordered tenant Eva M. Redd evicted from a property owned by VTA Corp. The rental company claimed Redd owed $975 in back rent. Redd countered that she owed only $375. After hearing both sides Mebane ordered the tenant to pay a total $592.74 to cover both back rent and damages.

In another case that day Mebane threw out a complaint by landlord Thomas McFadden against tenant Eric Hairston because McFadden made the mistake of filing a complaint for summary ejectment rather than filing a complaint for money owed.

In still another Jan. 18 case decided by Mebane, landlord Mike Stainback failed to prove his case against tenant Loretta Young. Stainback had sued Young for $2,976 in back rent. The tenant persuaded Mebane that the Section 8 federal housing program had paid the rent and she should not be held liable.

And the next day Mebane dismissed an eviction claim brought by Pleasant Garden landlord Ronald Henderson against tenant James Dawkins. Henderson forfeited his case by not showing up for court. Dawkins came to court and moved for dismissal. The tenant told the magistrate he had filed a bankruptcy petition and didn’t have the money to immediately pay his rent.

‘“It sounds like every time the landlord shows up they win,’” says Beth McKee-Huger, executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition, which advocates on behalf of tenants. ‘“They probably didn’t show up because they’d already been paid. It really shows how much we need to do to help tenants present their cases, because I’m sure more than two out of five hundred have a legitimate claim.’”

The statistics suggest that if landlords or their representatives follow procedure and show up for their day in court it’s hard for them to lose their cases.

‘“We file on the eleventh day of the month,’” says Dianne Hill, property manager for Mallard Lake Apartments, a residential complex off of Lawndale Drive past Guilford Courthouse National Park. ‘“We usually get a court date in about seven to ten days. I don’t have any problem with how the courts work. I’ve been doing this since 1978. To be honest, I’ve never had a judge turn down a claim.’”

Seven out of 120 rental companies or individual landlords that won summary ejectment judgments in the sample group from January accounted for 31.4 percent of the ordered evictions. Mallard Lake Apartments was among four companies ‘— a group that also includes Koury Corp., Arbor Crest Apartments and Wrenn-Zealy Properties ‘— that each won a dozen summary ejectment judgments. Topping the list was Pickering & Co., which won 40 summary ejectment judgments to evict tenants from a dozen different apartment complexes across Greensboro. Lambeth-Osborne Realty won 24 eviction judgments, and UDR of North Carolina won 20.

‘“Here lately there are people who have run into rough times, but I think some people are just not very good with money management,’” Hill says. ‘“People will prioritize a car payment before rent. Sometimes it’s medical expenses. I look at an apartment where there are two adults working, and I ask myself, ‘Why can’t they come up with the rent?””

Craig, the Legal Aid lawyer, says he’s never heard of Mallard Lake Apartments, which is to say that the company’s tenants aren’t coming to him with complaints. He knows that property owners would soon fall behind in their mortgage payments if they let tenants stay without paying rent, but he believes that most of the time derelict tenants fall prey to circumstances beyond their control.

He reels off the reasons tenants don’t have their rent ready by the beginning of the month: ‘“Being poor. People losing jobs. Unexpected expenses. Car repairs.

‘“Mostly people are good people, I believe, and want to meet their financial commitments,’” he adds. ‘“Very rarely do people have the money and don’t want to pay unless they contend the landlord doesn’t make repairs. A lot of times it’s a case of big eyes, little belly. There are difficult choices to make: gas for the car, making the utility bill, braces for the kids. If all I can afford is hamburger I can’t walk out of the store with steak.’”

Tenants advocates, landlords and magistrates agree that most rental companies would rather collect their rent than force a tenant out. Oftentimes once the landlord gets a summary ejectment judgment from a magistrate the tenant will pay up the rent and court costs, and be allowed to stay.

‘“In my experience management companies are more concerned with keeping good tenants,’” says Jim Pfaff, one of three magistrates in Greensboro’s small-claims court who handle the bulk of housing cases. ‘“Quite often the first a management company might hear about tenants having trouble with work or health problems is in the courtroom.’”

Pfaff says he tries to encourage landlords and tenants to communicate with each other more effectively.

‘“I had one case where the tenant came in with an oxygen tank and the landlord was shocked to see him in that condition,’” the magistrate says. ‘“And the landlord said, ‘Why didn’t you let me know? We could go to my church and let them help you out.””

Sometimes evictions are not just a case of tenants not being able to make ends meet though. Unscrupulous landlords ‘— usually small ‘“mom and pop’” operations rather than large rental companies ‘—’ will sometimes run roughshod over tenants’ rights, shirking their responsibility to keep their property fit and habitable, as the law requires, and retaliating by threatening eviction when tenants complain, Craig says.

‘“I have had clients get beaten up, shot at,’” Craig says. ‘“I’ve had clients’…’”’ (he places his hand to the side of his mouth and switches to a television announcer voice) ‘“’…side-line editorial, not making a living wage. I’ve had clients ‘—’ now, back to our regular programming ‘— come home and find the doors are gone and the plumbing fixtures are removed. Their belongings are on the sidewalk soaked with rain and the neighbors have gone through the pile. The landlord is not authorized to be judge, jury and executioner.’”

He wants tenants to understand their rights ‘— and to understand that if their rights are violated they don’t have to suffer in silence. The small-claims court is available to them to make their case without a lawyer by their side. If they do lose their case, they can appeal it and get a new trial in district court.

With a look of combined impatience and desperation, he slides two forms across his desk.

‘“Have you ever seen these?’” he asks. ‘“One is a complaint. It’s used by the tenant to file a claim for rent abatement and reduction of rent. The other one is an answer and counterclaim. When a landlord files a claim to evict you for not paying your rent, you file this in response to give your side of the story. You might say that the property wasn’t worth what the landlord said it was because the landlord wasn’t making repairs.

‘“Only the courts can tell you that you have to go,’” Craig continues. ‘“Only a uniformed member of the sheriff’s department can come and execute an eviction, and they work nine to five, Monday through Friday. If some knucklehead comes out on Saturday because he went to the costume shop and got a deputy costume it’s illegal. If it’s happening on a Saturday it ain’t legal because they don’t do padlockings on Saturdays.’”

Oftentimes the landlord is no more familiar with housing law than the tenant, he says, picking up the telephone and dressing down an imaginary landlord in a tone of mock belligerence.

‘“Obviously you’re not familiar with the fact that only the court can order an eviction,’” he states evenly. ‘“Unless you want to get a hell of a lot better acquainted with me you’re gonna restore my client to possession.’”

Craig says he wasn’t surprised to learn that no tenant-initiated claims for rent abatement turned up in the first 500 judgments of the year. Neither was McKee-Huger.

‘“They’re very rare,’” she says. ‘“They are out there. Most tenants don’t know they can do it. The filing fee discourages some of them.’”

It costs $65 to file a claim at the courthouse downtown, and an additional $15 to have the sheriff’s office serve papers to the defendant. The tenant will recoup the total sum if the magistrate rules in her favor.

Keichsa Harris, a 33-year-old mother of two middle-school-aged sons who is currently not working, decided to take action after four years of pleading with her landlord to make repairs on her home on Buff Street. She has lived in a $320-per-month rental house on a tree-lined street off of Martin Luther King Drive near where traffic from Interstate 40-85 zooms through the southern half of the city since she relocated from Brooklyn, NY six years ago.

Chris Jones, a code inspector from the city of Greensboro, compiled a three-page list of violations for her house. In a May 8 letter to Harris’s landlord, Robert L. Garner, Jones ordered ‘“that the premises be repaired, altered or improved so as to render the structure fit for human habitation or that the structure be vacated and demolished by June 7.’”

The list begins with ‘“door inadequately screened,’” and continues with ‘“inoperable smoke detector’… insufficiently anchored porch posts/railings/guards’… leaking roof covering’… loose ceiling plaster’… loose siding’… rotten flooring’” ‘— a litany that includes a total of 20 violations.

Harris’s bathroom floor, which is covered with carpet, squeaks underfoot. The sink hangs loose with a half inch of daylight between its back and the wall. A pair of rusty pliers lies on the rim of the bathtub as a substitute for a missing hot water knob.

The floors are swept and the house has a tidy look despite its decrepit condition. The rooms are appointed with artificial plants and Harris has placed a painting on the mantle to cover an unsightly splash of black mold.

‘“It’s terrible when, as a woman, it makes me feel like I can’t keep my house clean,’” Harris says.

Things have been worse.

For several months Harris’s hot water heater was busted, resulting in pools of water collecting on her kitchen floor and a bill that topped $500. The damage meant the tile had to be pulled up. Now exposed particle board is what’s left of her kitchen floor.

‘“I’d get up at six in the morning before my sons went to school and lay towels down on the kitchen floor to soak up the water,’” Harris says. ‘“The adhesive on the tile had come loose, so we were sliding around. I called Mr. Garner and asked him to replace it, and he said, ‘It must have been something you did because I put in a new hot water heater before you moved in.’”

Shortly after Harris contacted the city code inspector about the violations she received a letter from Garner indicating that she should get out. The letter, dated May 1, stated that Garner’s insurance company brought several concerns about the house to his attention, and that repairs would need to be done.

‘“I have been in contact with several contractors about completing the necessary work,’” the letter reads. ‘“Several are recommending that the house be empty to complete the work in a timely fashion. Please make arrangements to move by May 31.’”

Harris says she considers the letter a retaliatory eviction.

Garner, who was reached by phone on May 17, contends that the real reason he’s trying to get Harris out is because she’s behind on her rent by two months ‘— a claim Harris denies. Garner says he stated the late rent as the reason he was asking her to leave in the eviction letter. When told by a reporter that the letter, in fact, makes no mention of rent past due, Garner changes his story and says that actually he told Harris about her rent being past due in a verbal statement.

He says he understands that only the courts can order an eviction.

‘“She hasn’t been legally evicted,’” he says. ‘“I asked her to leave.’”

He denies that he’s ignored Harris’s requests for repairs.

‘“There haven’t been no complaints about nothing,’” he says. ‘“Everything she complained about I took care of. I assumed I was okay. The mistake I made is I should have evicted her a long time ago.’”

Harris says she plans to file a claim against Garner for rent abatement. She estimates that the market value for her house in its substandard condition is somewhere between $150 to $200. Since she pays $320 a month, she contends she overpaid by $120 to $170. Multiplying that for four years, she hopes to reclaim between $5,760 and $8,160. She’s kept all her receipts for rent payments so she’ll be ready to present them to a magistrate.

‘“This case is closed,’” Craig has told her. He has recommended that she get the building inspector to testify in small-claims court.

‘“Anyone with a stake in the outcome will lie,’” he says.

He tells his clients: ‘“Call the building inspector. It’s called a subpoena. You can make the building inspector come to court. His testimony’s going to be given great weight.’”

Most tenants who endure substandard living conditions are not like Harris.

Sharin Francis, a 59-year-old administrative assistant at the National MS Society, went without heat in her apartment on Tate Street for the last four months of 2005. She sympathized with her landlord because she believed he was in over his head with his responsibilities, but she also says she didn’t know the courts were available to her as a remedy.

‘“I borrowed space heaters,’” she says. ‘“I have a full-time job, and at that time I also had a second job. I had a lot of responsibilities.

‘“I have the impression it would be an expense,’” she says, at the suggestion that she might have filed a rent abatement claim to compensate for the reduced value of her unheated apartment. ‘“I had a concern that my landlord would retaliate. I can’t afford the disruption. I did not take him to court because I did not have time. He’s a small landlord and he’s busy. I don’t think he’s a malicious person, but he’s looking out for himself.’”

Many tenants don’t know their rights, Craig keeps reiterating. Landlord’s obligations to tenants are spelled out clearly in a booklet published by the Institute of Government in Chapel Hill that the lawyer keeps in his office, called Trying Summary Ejectment and Other Landlord Tenant-Actions.

North Carolina’s Residential Rental Agreements Act, it states, ‘“requires the landlord to keep all common areas of the premises in a safe condition and to maintain good, safe working order and promptly repair all electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating, air conditioning and other facilities and appliances.’”

‘“Many of our clients have been kicked in the teeth since the day they were born and they don’t expect to be treated well,’” Craig says. ‘“So many of my clients tell me the same thing. So many people clam up. So many people are afraid.

‘“Civil court where you’ve got a legitimate case ‘— it’s something to be embraced,’” he tells them. ‘“We file the claim, and we look forward to the day that we can present our case such that we will win a judgment in our favor.’”

Whether because of legal counsel or family characteristics, Harris, the Buff Street tenant, takes that attitude to heart.

‘“You don’t take that lying down,’” her grandmother has told her. ‘“You wipe the tears out of your eyes and fight.’”

‘“It’s not about the money,’” Harris says. ‘“I want to make an example out of him. I don’t want him to do this to anyone else. If I just packed up and left he would get another sucker.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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