Proposed law could move evictions to small claims courts

Small claims court is a faster process with lower standards of evidence.

A law proposed this month in the state House of Representatives could give landlords a faster option for evicting tenants who damage property or refuse to pay rent on time.

HB 1454, proposed by Rep. Ellen Brandom, R-Sikeston, would allow landlords to request an eviction from a small claims court. Landlords must seek such action in civil court, which requires evidence of non-payment or damage. Small claims courts allow plaintiffs and defendants to make oral arguments.

Brandom said she has heard from many of her constituents who are landlords the evictions process is too slow for them to do business efficiently.

"I have had numerous constituents come up to me and say, 'We need help to get these people out of the facility,' " Brandom said. "It is too cumbersome to get a person out."

Brandom said the bill wouldn't hurt more people in the midst of the economic downturn because most landlords try to resolve conflicts before resorting to legal action.

"Most of these people aren't cold-hearted," Brandom said. "They try to work with people."

Student Legal Services Coordinator Steve Concannon said the bill wouldn't pass because small claims courts can only award monetary damages of less than $3,000 and cannot order a specific physical action, called a "specific performance," such as eviction.

"The ejectment of a tenant out of a property that is held by them is something that is treated as something very serious," he said. "They think the rules of evidence should apply when you're going to kick someone out of their home."

Concannon said the lower evidence standards and faster process could lead to landlords taking advantage of students who do not have a stable financial situation.

"They could use this venue as retaliation against students when the students have to go to small claims to get money for stuff the landlords should have been doing, like when they have to fix their own apartment," he said. "But small claims court's not the proper venue for this ejectment of a tenant."

Brandom said she has not received any calls from renter constituents complaining about landlords who would abuse the evictions process and said the intent of the law was not to give landlords the ability to evict large numbers of tenants at a time.

"The intent is for people to get their property back when someone decides to quit paying them," she said.

Brandom said some tenants the landlords are complaining about are destroying property as their eviction case works its way through the court system, resulting in expensive repairs landlords must make when the tenant leaves.

Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, whose district includes most of the MU campus and neighborhoods around it, said tenants should be protected.

"I think in Columbia we've got to protect renters' rights, especially with so many students," Still said.

Steve Lightner, the association executive of the Mid-Missouri Apartment Association, said evictions are rare and usually an option of last resort. Lightner said landlords prefer to informally work out a payment plan with the tenant.

He said he has only had to take one eviction in the last four years to the court system, and landlords try to avoid such a situation by researching their tenant's history before signing a lease.

"It's very cumbersome and favors the tenant, especially if you do it legally," said Lightner, who manages properties in Jefferson City. "If you do your upfront check on a tenant, you'll usually get pretty good ones."

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