Grassroots Group Helps Renters Navigate Eviction Process

When Tracey Langdon entered virtual eviction court for the first time back in November, she was scared and confused. 

She had received eviction notice for the rental she had lived in for 17 years and wasn’t sure yet of the reason why. Her case was scheduled for the 11 a.m. block, but she arrived at 9. She listened to the cases of the people coming before her — those who couldn’t find work or who had family members with disabilities. Their situations seemed worse than hers, but they were still being evicted. Langdon grew more frightened.

But, the judge kept saying one name over and over: “Phelix,” the judge said — she’ll help you. The judge gave out a phone number. Langdon wrote it down and called it. 

“Don’t worry about anything,” Phelix told her. 

Phelix is Phelix Crittenden, the creator of the BO$$ and Blacktivist eviction court sit-ins, which she launched at the encouragement of Root Cause Research Center and Black Lives Matter Louisville. She and her group of  volunteers have been guiding tenants through the confusing eviction court process since hearings started back up during the pandemic. It is one of several organizations helping people who are at risk of eviction, but what sets it apart is its grassroots nature, which gives the group flexibility in who it can help. Its core functions are to maintain a presence in eviction court, showing the judges, landlords and their attorneys that they are watching; to record data about cases they deem problematic; and to reach out to people who are being evicted who they think could use their help.

“Some people burst into tears when we do our outreach with them and connect with them outside of court and uplift them and try to provide them with as many resources as we can,” Crittenden said. “So, it’s really been a powerful experience for me personally to just be able to connect with people on that level and really build that community.”

Phelix Crittenden is the organizer of a grassroots eviction court sit-in and outreach program. Photo by Mary Helen York Nunn.

Judge Anne Delahanty, one of two Jefferson County District Court judges assigned to eviction court, said that she and Judge Jennifer Leibson have worked with nonprofits to take several steps to ensure that the fewest number of people possible are evicted during the pandemic, including rescheduling court dates a month in advance to give people more time to figure out how to stay in their homes. But, the eviction court process is still fast-paced and confounding to many of those who end up in the Zoom courtroom, Crittenden and her volunteers say, and there are loopholes that Delahanty can’t close, like lease terminations and expirations. The federal and state government have both created moratoriums on evictions for nonpayment of rent, and Metro Government is dispersing millions of dollars in eviction prevention assistance. But, some landlords and tenants are not applying for the money, and evictions for other reasons are still allowed.  

Court proceedings, which have been virtual since the start of the pandemic, are shifting again. On Tuesday, the Kentucky Supreme Court reopened courtrooms across the state to in-person business, although the order also encouraged the continued use of remote technology.

In Langdon’s case, Crittenden’s words were what she needed to hear: Assurance that she would be all right. When the judge reached Langdon’s case, she gave her a new hearing date, giving her the time to prepare for her eviction and to arrange a move out with Crittenden. Langdon learned that, even though she was behind on rent, that was not why she was being evicted. Her landlord said they were selling the building and terminating her lease — leaving her, her daughter, her granddaughter and her cat to find a new place. 

“If you hear someone’s name, seven or eight times in every case that you’ve heard before your name is pronounced, then you have to believe that there is something either special about this person, that they’re a powerful person or, you know, maybe they’re gonna give me the runaround,” said Langdon about Crittenden. “And it was none of those things, it was just someone that actually gave a fuck about my situation.”

When eviction court went virtual, it made the process more accessible in some ways and complicated it in others, particularly for tenants who are less tech savvy. Every day, Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to noon, judges blast through cases. 

On Thursday, May 13, there were 106 cases on the docket. Blacktivist volunteers sign up for one hour shifts of court observation, and from 10 to 10:44 a.m., two observers watched on mute as 30 cases moved through the system. 

Delahanty, who was on duty that day, started with a quick speech, outlining everything that tenants need to know: How to unmute themselves (everyone is muted upon entry), how to appeal a case, what happens if an eviction is granted, how to apply for eviction prevention assistance funds, options for those being evicted for something other than nonpayment of rent, how to receive legal advice and services for youth being evicted. 

From there, she gave a member of the Legal Aid Society — a nonprofit that provides free legal services to people under a certain income level — the opportunity to speak, before plunging into her caseload. (Also on the call was a representative from the Metro Office of Housing, there to help with rental assistance funds.)

Over 44 minutes, 10 of the eviction cases were dismissed and the majority, 15, were moved to June 17 — mostly so tenants could apply for and receive rental assistance. But three ended in eviction judgements: one for lease violations, including claims from the property manager of disturbing the peace and defacement of property. The tenant also had not been paying their rent. The second and third evictions were for nonpayment of rent, but the tenant did not show up to court, and a lawyer for the landlord said that they had been sent a notice of eviction without any response or attempt to apply for assistance. In the remaining two cases, the tenants were also on the path to eviction, but they were  given chances to move out before a judgment ended up on their permanent record. 

The landlords did not have to provide evidence beyond testimony for lease violations. If a landlord is claiming violations, and the tenant is not present in court, an eviction will be granted, Delahanty told LEO. But, if the tenant is present, they can request a hearing with a full presentation of evidence on both sides, which take place on Mondays. The court also has a docket she calls the “oopsie docket” on 11 a.m. on Fridays, at which tenants who had Zoom issues can appear before the court again.

In two of the cases on May 13, tenants were not able to unmute themselves until after their case was addressed. But, after they were able to get Delahanty’s attention, they were told their cases could also be moved to June 17. 

Delahanty ended her 10 a.m. cases by asking if anyone hadn’t been heard for any reason. 

Crittenden said that this 44 minute-long peak into Jefferson County eviction court was representative of a typical session. 

“No matter how we try to explain it to people who don’t go, it never justifies everything we see and how traumatic that really is to keep putting ourselves through without the proper resources or proper amplification of our work,” she said. “You know what I mean like, It’s so hard to show up every day, be there to support these people.”

Crittenden said there was one case on the call that she would typically single out for extra help by Blacktivist: One of the women who was heading toward an eviction but who got extra time to move out. Besides Langdon, Crittenden estimated that Blacktivist has assisted several hundred people who have faced eviction or been evicted in Louisville with whatever they need. Sometimes, they’ll reach out to people who just need housing aid. Recently, Crittenden and her volunteers raised rent for a mom and her son who lost his legs in a car accident so that they could escape a bad living situation at a boarding house. Now, they’re raising money to help furnish their new home. Crittenden said she has 10 or so volunteers that help her with court watch, but a much larger number who she can call upon for outreach work. 

Crittenden and another volunteer at the home of a tenant, “Ms. Mary,” bringing her Thanksgiving
dinner. Provided Photo.

There are other groups in Louisville helping people who are evicted. As a grassroots group, though, Blacktivist can operate with fewer barriers. The Legal Aid Society, for example, can only help people under a certain income level. But Blacktivist requires nothing from the people it helps out. 

Delahanty said she thought Blacktivist was “a wonderful thing,” and she said she supports any group that wants to get involved in housing aid. 

“I would welcome any and all participation from any organizations whether they’re governmental or grassroots or not for profits,” she said. “Every human that can help another human I’m all for.”

The information that Blacktivist collects from sitting in on court has also helped Root Cause Research Center’s efforts, which has been tracking evictions in Jefferson County since the start of the pandemic. By observing court, Crittenden said she was able to realize that some of the property management companies that were receiving the most money in rental assistance were still evicting people. This has informed Root Cause’s Eviction Lab reports. 

And, Crittenden’s volunteers like Taylor U’Sellis hope that their presence has some impact on the eviction proceedings. 

“I feel like our presence, I like to think, keeps people a little bit honest,” she said. “Knowing that other folks are in the courtroom watching what’s going on, puts a little bit of pressure on them. And bad stuff still happens, you know: this is America, and this is capitalism and this is white supremacy, but it is definitely, I think, a good outlet to help folks get involved.”

During the pandemic, there has been more community involvement in the courts than ever, said Delahanty, and those community groups have been asking for change. The Legal Aid Society and the Louisville Urban League both gave her and Judge Leibson a list of demands, most of which the court has adopted. 

Among those have been: A new rule that landlord attorneys must take sworn testimony from their clients if they are claiming that tenants are behind on payment or are still on the property; if a tenant asks a community partner organization for assistance with their eviction, their case will be passed an extra month even if they don’t appear in court; and Legal Aid now gets to speak at the beginning of each docket. 

“Every court date is much more, I’m sure I’ve already said this, but, like, kumbaya than I thought,” said Delahanty, who said she was initially dreading being assigned to eviction court. “I mean, the people, as long as they’re willing to participate in the process, are really being helped. And it’s kind of amazing. And so, it’s been less painful than I thought it would be, but yes, there’s still some heart-wrenching things but the cool thing is, is that we do have some flexibility.”

There are remaining gaps that Crittenden would like to see filled, including a wish for caseloads to be capped at a lower amount each day, so the judges don’t have to move as quickly through cases. Another improvement, Crittenden said, would be if the court could do something so that tenants’ names are always listed on their Zoom call if they are calling from their phone, instead of just their numbers. Or, the court could create a pre-application so that it could match tenants’ names with their phone numbers. This might cut down on judges accidentally skipping tenants.

Langdon, the renter that Crittenden and her volunteers helped, said she is happy about where she is now. When she was evicted, Crittenden and her crew showed up at Langdon’s home and helped her take her stuff to a new home. She now lives in a home where she is within walking distance to amenities and closer to her job. And she said she knows she can still call Crittenden if she needs anything.

“I’m not gonna say eviction is the best thing that happened to me, I’m gonna say meeting someone that gave a fuck about me possibly being evicted made a big difference,” she said.