MAYOR BARRY has asked the U.S. Marshals Service to stop its new Saturday eviction drive. The eviction step-up started a week ago in an effort to reduce a backlog of 4,000 eviction cases that city landlords claim is costing them thousands of dollars a day in lost rents. The mayor is understandably concerned about the plight of displaced families at a time when the number of homeless in the city is already very high. Hardhearted as it may sound at first, however, stopping evictions is no cure. It leaves untouched the problems that give rise to evictions, and simply shifts the burden of caring for indigent families from the government to private landlords.
The Saturday evictions are not the result of an abnormally high level of rent delinquencies. Times are hard, but, in fact, the number of eviction cases is now lower than it has been in 10 years. The backlog of unexecuted eviction orders has grown because, to save federal money, the Justice Department has sharply reduced the number of federal marshals who must, by law, supervise evictions.
As a result, landlords are waiting two months or more for evictions to be carried out -- after frequently long delays before obtaining a court eviction order. During these months, landlords collect no rents. That means they have less money to operate and maintain their buildings, and other tenants suffer as a result. So the landlords have agreed, as they legally can, to pay for marshals to work on Saturdays -- which is certainly a better time for everyone than at night.
Of course, it's much easier to sympathize with tenants than with landlords. Many people facing evictions have very sad stories of lost jobs, illness and other emergencies. But the people who were evicted last Saturday were far from unaware of their peril. The District, in fact, provides an unusually strong set of tenant protections. Tenants must be given adequate notice at each step of the required court and eviction proceedings. At any time, they can halt the process by paying up their back rent -- as many do when eviction notices are finally served. In fact, one cause of overload on the system is that many people habitually fail to pay their rent until a court summons is served or eviction is imminent.
Nor are landlords usually eager to evict except where tenants are destructive. Eviction is very costly to the landlord, who typically misses several months' rent in the process -- during which time he must continue to heat and maintain the unit. He must also pay the cost of lawyers and eviction crews. As a result, most people who show up in court in response to a summons -- about half do not -- are able to work out agreements with their landlords to pay back rent in future installments.
A special court clerk reviews all agreements to make sure that tenants understand their terms. Student lawyers are on hand to provide special help to tenants who want to contest their cases or demand correction of housing code violations. The Department of Human Services also runs a special office at the court that can arrange grants to cover back rent for people in emergency situations. On Saturdays there is always a court in operation for special appeals, and the Mayor's Emergency Command Center is standing by to help people find temporary housing and store their household goods.
The system doesn't run with lightning speed, but it does make a good-faith effort to help people in a tough situation. And while all the bureaucratic and legal wheels are spinning, remember that the landlord still hasn't been paid. It would be a better world if all tenants had the money and the motivation to pay their rents promptly. But it's not the landlords' fault that they don't.