As a landlord walked toward the exit of the Omaha-Douglas Civic Center, he turned back, looked at his soon-to-be former tenant and held up two fingers.
The message Friday was clear: The 68-year-old and his girlfriend had two days to vacate their apartment near 52nd Street and Ames Avenue. They were being evicted.
Minutes earlier, Judge Craig McDermott had heard the specifics of the case: Albert, who agreed to be identified only by his first name, and his girlfriend were behind on their February and March rent — owing $1,600, court records show. So McDermott sided with their landlord.
“I know in these times it may seem a little harsh,” McDermott said during the hearing, nodding to the impact of the novel coronavirus on everyday life.
Gov. Pete Ricketts this week signed an executive order to prevent residential evictions of Nebraskans directly affected by COVID-19. As Albert’s case demonstrates, that won’t stop all evictions — his was one of five cases in Douglas County Court on Friday.
Annually, housing advocates have counted more than 4,800 evictions since 2011 in Douglas County.
To be sure, the couple’s eviction was not caused by financial hardship due to the coronavirus. They had been evicted for nonpayment at their previous residence, too.
But the outcome will be the same: Putting two people out of their home — during a global pandemic — who may not have the means or connections to find safe living quarters.
Albert said he doesn’t know what the couple will do. The retiree relies on Social Security and said he recently got a part-time job at a convenience store. He said they don’t have a back-up living plan.
Those who seek a local emergency shelter are likely to find overflowing facilities where social distancing guidelines are difficult to follow.
Ricketts’ order waived the state law requiring courts to hear eviction cases within 10 to 14 days after a tenant is served with eviction papers. The order was backdated to take effect March 13 and will last through at least May 31.
It applies to tenants who can demonstrate “with documentation or other objective evidence” that they either suffered a loss of income resulting from the coronavirus or missed work to care for a relative or child.
But Scott Mertz, an attorney with Legal Aid of Nebraska, said he’s wary of definitively stating what effect Ricketts’ order will have on evictions. He said his organization is working to find firsthand examples of the executive order successfully being applied in court. They had none on Friday.
“It’s so new and hasn’t really been applied or argued in front of many judges,” Mertz said.
He said he has heard of one case in Nebraska’s Panhandle where the executive order was invoked in a nonpayment eviction case. But the nonpayment notice was made before March 13, and a judge said the order did not apply, Mertz said.
Ricketts signed the order the same day the Apartment Association of Nebraska asked its members to suspend evictions for 90 days. Some Omaha landlords have said they’re working with tenants who are unable to make rent. Many landlords note that they, too, have bills and mortgage payments.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and other local elected officials have asked property owners not to evict people who are unable to pay rent during the pandemic. The Omaha Housing Authority has temporarily halted evictions for nonpayment at its public housing units.
Many court proceedings in Nebraska have been postponed, including all upcoming criminal and traffic arraignments in Douglas County Court.
Gary Fischer, a housing attorney based at the nonprofit Family Housing Advisory Services, said organizations concerned about evictions have been coordinating and plan to encourage county courts in the state to act in concert by issuing a blanket order on how filings related to tenants will be handled.
April 1 is approaching, Fischer noted, and Nebraska will soon see “the impact of reduced employment and reduced capacity” of its renters to make payments.
Mertz and Fischer echoed the concerns many housing advocates have expressed recently: Continuing to hold court brings people into contact with one another. Eviction cases also can require law enforcement officers to visit residences to ensure someone moves out.
“There’s many steps there of people having to needlessly interact with other people when we want social interaction to only happen when absolutely necessary,” Mertz said.