A week after Gov. Pete Ricketts issued an executive order to prevent evictions of Nebraskans significantly affected by the coronavirus, evictions in many cases still have been moving forward "business as usual," one legal advocacy group says.
"That's not at all what occurred," Milo Mumgaard, executive director of Legal Aid of Nebraska, said Thursday of the reprieve anticipated to follow the governor's March 25 order.
He said he's heard of landlords working with tenants. And that's a good thing. But there also are "lots of folks who are just going to go forward business as usual," he said.
This week, Mumgaard estimated, there have been about 100 evictions in Lincoln and Omaha.
On Friday, State Court Administrator Corey Steel said that the Douglas County Courthouse would close for the next two weeks at least. Which Mumgaard said should lead to a delay for the hearings there for now.
But Thursday morning, so many people filled a hallway outside a Lancaster County courtroom for hearings all set at the same time, County Court Judge Thomas Zimmerman let people wait in the courtroom to be called up, like they did before coronavirus concerns and social distancing.
Mumgaard said the first five tenants weren't allowed to raise a COVID-19 defense to ask for a continuance. Zimmerman gave them extra time, 10 to 12 days, to move out. But they still were evicted.
Other judges — even other Lincoln judges — have liberally granted continuances.
The inconsistency is troublesome, Mumgaard said, because it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for someone in Omaha to be treated one way and someone in Grand Island another way.
When the hearings are set, the tenants — most low-income and without an attorney — are required to go to court.
"This means they are gathering at the courthouse on these days when courts are scheduled to hear these evictions," Mumgaard said. "The court process and the resulting movement of people (out of homes) is a public health problem."
The executive order signed by the governor last week was intended for those who have become ill, lost income because of job loss or wage reductions or missed work to care for a loved one, such as a child who cannot attend school or a sick family member.
It applied to rent due on or after March 13 and doesn't cancel any rent payments.
But it means judges no longer are required by statute to hold a hearing on new cases in 10 to 14 days, Mumgaard said. He said it gives judges the green light to continue evictions in an effort to reduce the number of people who have to go to the courthouse and curb the potential spread of the coronavirus.
"What we're all concerned about is not that evictions can and should take place. You've got to pay your rent, and if you don't, you run the risk of being evicted," he said.
But, Mumgaard said, evictions can be continued just like every other civil action being continued. He said the downside to not continuing them is what Legal Aid attorneys are seeing now at courthouses in Lincoln and Omaha: dozens of people at court, waiting with others in crowded hallways.
"This is not an emergency. This is just a civil action between a landlord and a tenant. We can put them on ice for a couple of months," he said.
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