Fulton County Evictions
Fulton County has one of the highest eviction rates in the country, with approximately 800 tenants receiving an eviction notice every week, one in five over the course of a year, or 109 every day. In the 30291, 30337 and 30331 zip codes, which include Union City, College Park, and areas just west of Atlanta, eviction rates have gone above 40 percent. The institutions that protect white patriarchal control of land, wealth, and political power, and simultaneously the historical right to dispossess are interwoven and continually evolving. “Dispossession” here refers to the act of dislocating people from the land and other resources on which they rely, in order to force them into relations of dependency in which they labor for and pay rent to an elite class that holds concentrated wealth and political power. In the US context, this act has its roots in the colonization of the Americas and slavery, and predominantly targets Black and Brown communities to this day.
One particular and current institution that serves as an enabling mechanism in the continued process of dispossession is the Fulton County Magistrate Court, the legal body with jurisdiction to carry out “dispossessory” proceedings for a landlord to evict a tenant. The convoluted, legal process of eviction is by no means the sole or main cause of the eviction crisis, but taking a closer look at its inner workings can illuminate a piece of the imbalance of power that makes evictions so widespread.
Before turning to the Magistrate Court, let’s first consider important characteristics of the eviction crisis and the repercussions of dealing with an eviction. Evictions overwhelmingly affect Black communities and other communities of color, especially Black women and children. As made very clear in the map below, areas with high rates of eviction and areas with a high Black population line up almost perfectly. The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s “Mapping Evictions in Atlanta” interactive map allows users to see how different demographic measurements including Black, white, Hispanic, poverty rate, and income levels overlap with eviction rates. Both maps reveal eviction as a deeply racialized issue and one tied to poverty. The vast majority of evictions are filed for non-payment of rent so, as per GA state law, tenants lack a “proper legal defense” to win in court. Evictions remain on a tenant’s civil case record forever and on credit reports for 7 years. These records push renters down market into poorer quality housing where slumlords profit off the high demand for rentals that will take tenants with evictions records. For many people, the situation becomes a cyclical trap of debt, poverty, and continued displacement that is sometimes impossible to escape.
Returning to the topic of focus – the Fulton County Magistrate Court – one way to see the power imbalance within the legal process of eviction is to look at its inner workings and related data about the way in which renters engage (or, more often, don’t engage) with the process. In order to evict a tenant, a landlord must file a dispossessory affidavit at the court, which then serves the tenant with an eviction notice. If a tenant wants to challenge the eviction, they have seven days to file an “answer.” Failing to file, or filing late will most likely result in a tenant losing their case by “default” and significantly shortening the amount of time they have to move.
Over half of tenants who receive an eviction notice (53 percent) do not file an answer, presumably because many don’t know the consequences of not filing. The eviction notice itself is crammed with legalese and has no logical layout, leaving many people uncertain of what it means. Furthermore, many tenants who do file, fail to include a “proper legal defense” which lands them on the 3:00 pm “Judgment on the Pleadings” (JOP) court calendar where every week hundreds of tenants are evicted all at once with no opportunity to challenge their case – essentially the same as a default eviction, except that a tenant has the right to appeal. Many tenants who show up for the JOP calendar come with the impression that they are about to get a fair trial and are shocked when they’re told they must be out of their home in just seven days. Landlords benefit from tenants not having knowledge of this process as it speeds it up and makes it easier for them to win.
Tenants are also blind sighted when they arrive in court and are sent to mediation, an out-of-court dispute resolution process run by “mediators,” who are there as a neutral party. In Fulton County, the majority of eviction cases are settled in mediation with the signing of a binding “consent agreement,” so it is a crucial part of the process. The Fulton County magistrate website, however, does not contain any information on mediation or how to prepare. In court, most tenants are “pro se” (unrepresented), while landlords have lawyers to represent them. Based on my conversations with lawyers, mediators, and other program staff, many tenants show up without knowing how to advocate for themselves. Meanwhile, there are a handful of lawyers who represent many landlords and are very familiar with the court and negotiation tactics. One current mediator said, “I don’t really do anything when it’s the attorney docket. They kind of just run the session.” According to the director of mediation and a landlord lawyer, when a lawyer knows a tenant has a section 8 voucher, they will use that as leverage against a tenant, who fears losing their voucher as the result of a court-ordered eviction, to push them into an unfavorable agreement.
Mediation and answer filing are just two of many examples within the eviction process that highlight the power imbalance made worse by lack of legal knowledge and disparity in accessing representation. The court meanwhile helps to maintain an illusion of an equal playing field where both tenant and landlord have “rights and responsibilities” that the court serves to enforce. When a tenant fails to pay rent, we say it is “just” they are evicted as they are harming the landlord’s business, despite the historical and ongoing predatory practices of resource extraction from segregated Black communities such as “serial filings.” This ahistorical view ignores the question of how property has been obtained and whose property is protected by the state. Challenging those structures becomes increasingly difficult when those whose interests are united against it are constantly torn from one another in an endless shuffle through a substandard, discriminatory rental market.