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Eviction court in Douglas County is getting busier, but legal help prevents quick evictions

Immediate evictions only at two percent, says director of volunteer lawyers program
Posted at 6:05 PM, Oct 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-07 19:35:59-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — When Josh Monaco returned from a weekend camping trip in late July, he found his key didn't let him into his apartment.

He says he wasn't aware that eviction proceedings began against him earlier that month, and that an eviction had recently been ordered against him.

"I thought there must've been some kind of a mistake," he said. "I know that I'm paying my rent. I haven't got any sort of court summons or notices or anything."

He was suddenly became homeless for nine days, he said. He had support from his girlfriend and father, but passed some time in parking lots.

"I couldn't work for all that time," he said. "I had no where to bring my dog so that I could go to work, so that hurt a lot financially."

Monaco said Legal Aid of Nebraska helped get him home and deal with the aftermath.

Legal assistance is buying most who face eviction avoid a situation like Monaco was placed in.

That's especially true in Douglas and Lancaster Counties, where volunteer lawyers wait to meet tenants facing eviction outside of the courtroom.

If they meet all the criteria, tenants can have the lawyer represent them in the courtroom.

"Generally speaking there's literally only minutes between the time the tenant meets the attorney for the first time and the time that attorney has to speak with (the landlord or the landlord's attorney)," said Laurie Heer Dale, the head of the Nebraska State Bar Association's Volunteer Lawyers Project.

Heer Dale said the "immediate eviction rate," previously 90 percent, is now at just two percent.

Some are still being removed from their homes, but it's typically through an agreement that buys them more time, rather than being removed as early as the day of the order.

The Tenant Assistance Project began in Douglas County in early August. In Lancaster County, it started in the spring of 2020.

The project was awarded $410,000 last week to hire three full-time attorneys and an administrative assistant to support the program in Douglas County. The commissioners used federal funds.

The volunteer lawyers also help connect tenants and landlords with rental assistance programs.

Erin Feitchtinger, a fair housing advocate, said numbers of eviction cases is back to its pre-pandemic normal. Last week, she said the eviction caseload was the highest since the pandemic began.

"But our community is not at a place yet with COVID-19 where we can return to normal," she said.

Lawyers defending tenants are now working without any sort of moratorium.

"People still have rights," said Scott Mertz of Legal Aid of Nebraska. "There are still defenses, still things a lawyer can do even though we don't have that moratorium anymore."

Monaco said he eventually learned his rent payments had been credited to the wrong account. Another difficult part of the ordeal: he missed his cat. She was placed at the humane society when his locks were changed, but he didn't know that for a while.

RESOURCES FOR EVICTION LEGAL ASSISTANCE

  • Volunteer lawyers appear at Douglas County Court at about 8:30 a.m., before eviction court, Heer Dale said. The Tenant Assistance Project runs through the Nebraska State Bar Association's Volunteer Lawyers Project.
  • Legal Aid of Nebraska assists qualifying applicants with several legal issues, including evictions.

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