Courtroom No. 2 at Lewiston District Court, where eviction proceedings are handled. (Maine Public photo by Susan Sharon)
Every week in Maine, landlords try to evict more than 100 tenants through the courts. Others work out informal agreements to have tenants leave by a certain date. Either way, it can be a confusing and frustrating process for both sides.
This is the second part in a series called "Eviction: Life Unpacked."
By Susan Sharon, Maine Public August 8, 2018
Every other Wednesday, just after 8 a.m., landlords and tenants start showing up on the 2nd floor of Lewiston District Court. They lean on walls, wait on benches and try to avoid eye contact with each other.
By 8:30 a.m. they take a seat in Courtroom No. 2. It's typically packed for what's known as a Forcible Entry and Detainer proceeding. That's the legal terminology for eviction.
"All rise," says Judge Maria Woodman. "Good morning, everyone. Such a large crowd. Please be seated."
Judge Woodman lays out the groundwork for the eviction process and explains that she is unable to control the timing of evictions. Once a "writ of possession" is issued — that's a judgment against a tenant for possession of the property — the clock starts ticking.
"If you come before me for a hearing and I find that the landlord has done everything that he or she has had to do to get a writ of possession, the only thing that I can do is issue that writ of possession in seven days. I have no flexibility," she says.
Judge Woodman then reads the names of the people whose cases are pending. Included on the list are 21 tenants who haven't shown up for court. That means they've automatically defaulted — a judgment is granted in favor of their landlords.
For those who do appear, Judge Woodman recommends they try one last time to resolve their differences as a way to avoid a full-blown hearing. To do that, they step into the hall.
Megan Benson is a single mom with three kids whose fallen behind on her rent. And this is not uncommon. A 2017 report by Apartment List found that 1 in 5 renters recently struggled or were unable to pay their rent.
In the court's hall, Benson describes feeling anxious. It's the middle of May and Benson's landlord would like her out as soon as possible.
"I mean I'd like to be able to stay until [June 1] so my kids can finish school in the school district that we're at and try to find someplace. Because there's not a lot of rentals and what there is is very unaffordable," she says.
Benson currently pays $950 to rent a three-bedroom apartment in Mechanic Falls. Heat, hot water and electricity are included with her rent. But the only available apartments she can find in the area cost at least $1,100 with no utilities.
Her other challenge is trying to find a place that will accept a service dog. Her young son is disabled, and because of his needs she says she's unable to work. She gets by on Social Security and child support, which is sometimes sporadic.
"There's not a lot of assistance out there for single parents like me," she says. "It's been really hard."
"With this particular tenant we've made like a list of all the commitments they've made and broken. You know, we've had them for a couple of years and really it's an ongoing problem. So, really we'd just like to be paid," says Damon Holman of Fayette, Benson's landlord.
Holman owns several apartment buildings that he took over from his father and says he finds it difficult to make ends meet and to deal with tenants like Benson who, at one point, was four months behind with her rent.
"For a small landlord, especially getting started, there's no money in it at all," he says. "So this is like a part-time job that doesn't pay anything. I think it's easy to get frustrated."
This is also Holman's first time at eviction court. In the hall he's approached by David Morse, an attorney with Pine Tree Legal Assistance who is trying to keep Benson from becoming homeless. He proposes that Benson pay Holman $400 by the end of the day. In return, she would stay in the apartment till the end of May.
"And if she weren't to pay you the $400 by the end of today you would be able to get her out sooner because she breached the agreement," Morse says. "That would be the same as if you had gone to a hearing and won today."
"I'm fine with that," Holman says.
Morse then tells Benson that her landlord has agreed to their proposal and that they can avoid a hearing in front of the judge.
"So there will be a judgment against you but the order will reflect that it's by agreement," Morse says.
"So it doesn't hurt me as bad as something else, per se, with eviction?" Benson says.
"I will ask that if you follow the agreement, if you pay by agreed and leave on time, that they consent to vacating the judgment against you," Morse says. "And that way the judgment could go away."
Having the judgment erased is important, Morse says, because Benson is hoping to qualify for Section 8 housing assistance. There's already at least a three-year wait. He says being evicted for failing to pay rent can make an applicant ineligible at a time when they need housing assistance the most.
Benson calls her bank to make sure she's got the $400 available. But paying that much will make it more difficult to come up with a security deposit and first month's rent for her next apartment, if she's able to find one.
And then Morse asks a marshal to alert Judge Woodman that that the parties in the Damon Holman v. Megan Benson matter have reached a deal.
By lunchtime, all the other cases have settled, too, meaning tenants like Benson have worked out arrangements with their landlords to pay back money, move out or both. And two weeks from now, a new cast of landlords and tenants will fill the halls of the second floor just outside Courtroom No. 2.