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Interrupting the Cycle of Housing Instability

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By Farley Ezekiel, 2017 Georgia Housing Corps Fellow, hosted by Atlanta Legal Aid Society

Photo of Farley Ezekiel (left) and a colleague

The first time I attended dispossessory court, also known as eviction court, in Clayton County, Georgia, it was as a volunteer for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. The experience was eye-opening and made me acutely aware of the critical need for tenants’ rights advocacy.

The court calendar in Clayton County can have as many as 160 cases on it, which means that not everyone can fit in the courtroom. When seating inevitably runs out, tenants are told to stand shoulder to shoulder in multiple rows. With so many people crammed inside the courtroom, it can be very chaotic and difficult to hear the calendar call. If a tenant is late or does not respond when their name is called, their Answer will be stricken and their landlord will immediately receive a writ of possession. Even if the tenant shows up, they are only entitled to seven days before the landlord can get the sheriffs to execute the writ of possession to have the tenant removed from their home. The landlord attorneys sit at tables in the front of the courtroom ready to process dozens of cases throughout the morning. More often than not, there isn’t a single attorney in the court to represent tenants.

When the Georgia Housing Corps was formed, one of the available Fellowships was located in Clayton County. After my volunteer experience, I knew I wanted to be part of the effort to bring more attention and legal services to tenants in this area. Without representation or advice from an attorney, many tenants do not realize they may have legal defenses that could keep them in their homes.

My project focuses on representing tenants in dispossessory court and providing legal advice to the tenants who I am unable to represent directly. I spend three days a week in the courthouse, which means I am available to meet with tenants when they come to the courthouse to file an Answer. Having space in the courthouse makes a huge difference because tenants can walk straight into my office and receive immediate assistance.

A few months ago, I started noticing significant issues with the service in dispossessory cases. The most common method of service is for the sheriff to tack a copy of the dispossessory action to the tenant’s door, and then the sheriff is expected to mail a copy of the dispossessory action the same day. Following this procedure is critical because a tenant only has seven days to file an Answer after a sheriff serves them. If the tenant fails to file an Answer, they default on the case, and their landlord can get an immediate writ of possession.

While interviewing tenants, I realized that many sheriffs were not properly serving them. As a result, I was able to get several dispossessories dismissed. Our wins resulted in a judge who commonly hears dispossessory cases to ask the serving deputy why procedures weren’t being followed. After this, we stopped seeing issues with service. By having an attorney focused on tenant rights, we were able to identify the issue with service and hold sheriffs accountable.

Through the work of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and the Georgia Housing Corps, we now have an attorney present to represent tenants at almost every single dispossessory calendar in Clayton County. Tenants are more likely to avoid an eviction with the presence of an attorney.

Safe and stable housing provides the foundation for many other aspects of our lives—education, employment, and community, to name a few. Eviction can cause a family to become homeless or live in extended-stay hotels. Unstable housing makes it difficult to keep children in school and maintain steady employment consistently. It becomes a vicious cycle. My work interrupts the cycle by educating tenants of their rights and preventing evictions through litigation.

The Georgia Housing Corps is supported by the Georgia Bar Foundation. To learn more about Farley and her Fellowship, view her profile.

Through the work of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and the Georgia Housing Corps, we now have an attorney present to represent tenants at almost every single dispossessory calendar in Clayton County.

Farley Ezekiel /
Equal Justice Works Georgia Housing Corps Fellow

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow