New Cobb County court intended to reduce evictions has been launched

Doorway to magistrate court, the court which conducts eviction hearings

by Arielle Robinson

A new program run by Cobb County Magistrate Court that intends to provide an alternative to eviction is up and running.

The Housing Stability Court’s first official participant had her court check-in date Friday, Feb. 9, Chief Magistrate Brendan Murphy told the Courier.

Murphy said there have been three participants so far. The other two participants are in various stages of the program.

Murphy said the program expects to have its first graduate by early April.

Why the court did not start immediately after the Commission’s vote

Last fall, the Cobb County Board of Commissioners voted in favor of the project.

The program is funded by a federal Emergency Rental Assistance allocation of $1.3 million.

Cobb’s Magistrate Court works with the nonprofit Center for Family Resources (CFR) to run the court.

Murphy told the Courier that the program was always intended to start when most federal ERA funds had been exhausted. He said the reason was that the court wanted to distinguish the ERA program, which intended to help renters during the height of the pandemic, from the Stability Court program.

“The Housing Stability Court program matches emergency rental assistance with required case management,” Murphy said. “Whereas the focus during the Emergency Rental Assistance Program generally did not have the case management focus, because during the pandemic, the goal was to make sure that landlords and tenants received the assistance as soon as possible to avoid evictions during the pandemic, and also to make sure that landlords had funds to stay solvent during the pandemic, those were the twin goals. So it was a very different program.”

Murphy said another reason the court launched at a different time than originally anticipated was because the state of Georgia launched another rental assistance program through Atlanta Legal Aid and the Georgia Legal Services Program that is ongoing.

Murphy said the Stability Court is a much smaller program than earlier rental assistance programs. This can be shown by the $1.3 million allocated to this program, compared to the $55 million the federal government put towards Georgia’s rental assistance program.

The court is not designed to be like earlier rental assistance programs.

“It’s designed to find the folks that if they had the case management skills—so if they had resume writing, financial literacy, budget building, job skills training, life skills training, all of those things…[that] would help the tenant to be able to secure employment or secure better employment, so that they would be able to pay for their housing—that’s who this is designed for. 

“And so by its very nature, and also just the dollars available…it’s going to be a much, much more tailored program. It won’t be emergency rental assistance on a mass scale like we saw during the pandemic and the judicial emergency that went along with the pandemic,” Murphy said.

The process of going through the Housing Stability Court

Cobb’s Housing Stability Court is not a program where someone facing eviction can apply directly. They must first meet the requirements and be referred to the program.

Murphy said the CFR will put out an email where referrals can be sent.

Murphy said anyone can refer someone, such as a school system, a landlord—even a self-referral is okay if someone thinks they meet the criteria.

Murphy said that until CFR gets that email address running, referrals can be sent to to be forwarded to CFR.

To be eligible, the tenant: 

  • Must reside in Cobb County, as the program is a Cobb one
  • Have a current eviction filing pending in Magistrate Court
  • The lease has to be in the participant’s name
  • The program is designed for families facing eviction for the first time. Murphy said that “family” is defined very broadly as anyone who has a minor child in the home to accommodate families where someone besides a biological parent is caring for a child, such as a grandparent or aunt or uncle
  • Cannot owe more than three months past due rent
  • Either needs to be employed or only recently unemployed and actively seeking employment
  • Cannot have a previous eviction order within the last seven years 

Murphy explained some of these points more.

“This program is…designed to assist families facing eviction for the first time,” Murphy said. “If you can avoid a first eviction, that family is likely to have much better housing and economic outcomes in the future. So that’s who the program is tailored to.”

Murphy explained the employment requirement.

“The case management piece is designed to help the participant with the job skills, life skills, financial skills, to be able to improve their financial stability so that their household can become self-sustaining,” Murphy said. “And so that’s why it’s important that the person have the ability to seek employment and be working.”

Another key part of the program is that the landlord also has to agree to the tenant participating.

Murphy explained this potentially complicating factor by talking about the incentive the landlord has to participate in it.

“Upon the tenant entering the program and signing the program agreement, CFR will go ahead and cut a check right then and there to the landlord for a portion of what is owed. 

“And then there’ll be a plan in the agreement to have the rest paid as the tenant is working through the program. The tenant will have some required contributions and CFR will pay some as well. CFR is looking to not pay more than $6000 in arrears in this program for any one person so that the program dollars can be stretched to help as many people as possible,” Murphy said.

Murphy was asked about further incentives landlords have to participate in this program.

“Most landlords want to make sure their tenants can stay in the property if at all possible,” Murphy said. “Because when a tenant leaves either voluntarily or through the eviction process, there are a lot of transition costs for the landlord to get the unit ready for the next tenant. You have to make sure the unit is repaired, and cleaned, and advertised, and it sits vacant for some time, which is time that the landlord is not making money. So there are a lot of what they call ‘transaction costs’ to an eviction, to the landlord as well…And so if a landlord can help participate in a program where the tenant would remain housed, that’s financial assistance to the landlord.”

Murphy said there would also be a judgment, which is the amount of back rent and fees owed to the landlord.

“But in reality, many times, it’s difficult for the landlord to actually collect the funds owed to collect the judgment if the tenant does not have a lot of assets or doesn’t have a job. Then the landlord may just be out that money, that back rent and never see that,” Murphy said.

“In this program, the landlord is guaranteed to be made whole because CFR is paying a portion and the tenant is paying a portion. So that’s a huge benefit to the landlord.”

Murphy said that once the tenant is eligible and the landlord agrees as well, CFR accepts the case. The landlord and tenant sign an agreement spelling out how the program will go and that both the CFR and the tenant will pay certain amounts of money by certain dates and that the tenant will finish certain case management projects at certain times.

At the end of the program, if everything is successful, the eviction filing will be dismissed.

“And the tenant will have achieved lots of great skills to be able to move forward confidently to achieve housing stability,” Murphy said.

The Courier asked Murphy if, even considering his points about the Stability Court being much smaller than earlier rental assistance programs, the $1.3 million allocated for the program was still a relatively minuscule amount compared to the number of people who have been evicted in Cobb County in recent months.

“It’s a great question,” Murphy said. “And it’s a hard question.”

Murphy started by explaining the eviction numbers in Cobb over the past year. 

He said that last year, Cobb’s Magistrate Court saw over 22,000 eviction filings—the most the court has ever seen.

But he also clarified an important point. Sometimes landlords and tenants can work out an agreement to prevent the eviction from going through.

“Twenty-two thousand eviction filings does not mean 22,000 evictions,” Murphy said. ”But nonetheless, the scope of the issue is large, and so your question is fair about a small program addressing such a big problem. And the way I think about that is this—an eviction court is not the place where we can solve the affordable housing issue in this community or in this country.”

Murphy compared it to trying to cure cancer in an emergency room.

“Once the patient—or the tenant—has gotten to eviction court, the situation is fairly dire at that point. And so just because you can’t cure cancer in the emergency room, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to do something,” Murphy said.

Murphy said he recently heard another magistrate judge say that eviction laws are very easy to learn but difficult to apply.

“What she meant by that…is the law of evictions is not complicated,” Murphy said. “If a tenant is a day late, or a dollar short, the law says that the eviction order must issue. 

“But at the end of the day, tenants are real people…and just like the landlords are real people, and judges are real people, and so you have to make sure you’re listening to folks and understanding their hardships…respecting them, treating them with dignity, having a dignified process—but at the end of the day the judge has to follow the law no matter how difficult the situation, and that’s what we’re going to do. But that’s not to say that we don’t want our court to innovate within the law. And that’s exactly what the Housing Stability Court is.”

Murphy said Cobb’s model of the court has not been tried anywhere else across the country.

He said that when the court was being formed, he and the court’s CFR partners reached out across the country to different experts such as the National Center for State Courts. They wanted to know if anyone else proposed to do it Cobb’s way, which is matching the emergency rental assistance dollars with a required case management component.

“And the answer was no,” Murphy said. “The answer was most programs did one or the other. They either provided rental assistance dollars or they provided resources like…job training, life skills, financial literacy…And to our minds, here in Cobb County, the two really need to go hand in hand.

“Because…if we provide rental assistance without more, the family may find themselves right back in the same position. But on the flip side, if we only provide case management…and there’s no rental assistance with it, the family would still be left homeless, but they’d have the new skill, and they’d be scrambling to get a new home while trying to get a new job. So to our minds here in Cobb County, it just makes perfect sense to match the two hand-in-hand, with giving folks a chance to learn the skills to assist them to become self-sustaining, while also providing the financial resource to be stable while they’re working through that program. And so that’s why we’re very excited to see how this process works.”

Murphy described Cobb’s program as a pilot program with potential room for growth in the future.

“If we can show that this process works then we hope to be able to attract private funding in the future,” Murphy said. “Because as you noted, the program is currently funded by the last remaining Cobb County ERA dollars provided by the federal government…

“So our idea was instead of just spending that last $1.3 million in the same way that we spent it during the pandemic, which was the emergency mode, let’s try something new, let’s stretch those dollars as far as possible, get people as much help as possible, and see if this model works so that we can then attract private funding, nonprofit funding in the future to maintain and hopefully expand the model.”

CFR CEO Explains the Nonprofit’s Role in the Housing Stability Court

CFR Chief Executive Officer Melanie Kagan explained the nonprofit’s place in this program.

“We’re basically the administrators of the eviction diversion side of the Housing Stability Court,” Kagan said. “We’re the fiscal arm, so we have the funds to go ahead and pay rental arrears for people who are accepted into the program, as well as any fees that the landlords refuse to waive.”

CFR screens applicants after the court has reviewed eviction cases for the court calendar.

“We work with either the attorneys or the landlords or the property owners to ensure that they are willing to work with us and to allow the person to participate in the program,” Kagan said.

CFR then gathers all necessary documentation, such as proof of income or any proof of hardship.

“Once we enroll people in the program, we usually make an agreement with the landlord to pay a portion of the arrears right away,” Kagan said. “But it’s on a schedule, so we’ll pay part of it upfront and then we’ll pay another portion of it the following month, and then another portion of it at the end of the program. And we work with the client specifically to understand what their needs are.”

Kagan said that everyone comes in with different situations, so CFR conducts a full evaluation and assessment and creates specific goals within that program.

The program lasts for 12 weeks.

Kagan gave employment as an example of a goal that could be set.

“So if they recently lost employment or if their employment isn’t enough from a wage standpoint to actually sustain their rent, we’ll have them meet with our employment specialist that is with CobbWorks and try to get them started on looking for a new job or updating their resume or whatever needs to happen there,” Kagan said.

Part of the goal is also attending life skills classes. Those skills vary depending on a person’s needs.

“We work with different partners to do some of those life skills classes,” Kagan said. “The first selection of classes for this round was the financial empowerment series, and it is through Catholic Charities. That is a six-week program.”

Another example of a life skills class offered is one on toxic relationships.

Legal Aid is also involved in this program, and participants can individually consult them. Legal Aid also does tenant rights and responsibilities classes as well as others with a similar theme.

“We have financial partners that will come in and do discussions on credit and credit recovery,” Kagan said.

Kagan also said that the program realizes that participants in the program are typically dealing with young children and that limits the time they have to attend classes.

That is why basic online classes are available as well.

CFR works with Money Management International to help with the online financial literacy courses.

“We have a platform that allows us to enroll them and assign them certain modules within the program,” Kagan said. “Their budget goes in there also, so they have an online budgeting tool and then they have financial literacy courses that are basic financial literacy courses about savings and about budgeting in general, and money management and credit recovery and homebuying information once they get further down the road.”

Life skills classes are typically done synchronously, mostly over Zoom on Thursday nights. CFR will also have some life skills classes in-person.

“Some of them will be around cooking,” Kagan said. “We also have a food pantry that we make available to folks in the program, so if they’re still struggling with just budgets in general or money they can come pick up groceries at our family cupboard, which is the food pantry we have on site.”

Kagan said cooking classes will start being offered once a month and will offer recipes and healthy things to cook.

“So we have a variety of classes that we offer,” Kagan said. “And a lot of it will just depend on kind of what the needs of the clients are as we’re getting them into the program. For this program in particular, the majority of them are going to be financially related or job related, because that’s usually what has taken them off track—either the loss of a job or not having enough income, and so learning how to better manage money or how to apply for mainstream benefits or any of that kind of stuff.”

When asked about what CFR’s goals are for the court, Kagan said that CFR focuses on getting people stabilized so they can be self-sustaining with little to no extra assistance.

Concerns about the program

Renters rights activist and Mableton resident Monica DeLancy said that the new Housing Stability Court is a good start to handling the eviction crisis, but it could go further.

She first brought up the requirement that there be a minor child in the home.

“That knocks out a lot of people,” DeLancy said.

She was also concerned over the requirement that the landlord agree to the tenant participating.

“So even if the person did qualify, the landlord had to be in agreement as well. That may be why there’s only three people in the program,” DeLancy said.

The program is not designed to be long-term, which also is an issue for her.

“They’re going to help them get caught up on their rent,” DeLancy said. “Maybe help them with a couple of months, but however, it’s not long term. All I can say is I’m glad there are some options…but until the government says that they need to invest in long-term solutions—that means invest in housing options for people who are essential workers, invest in housing options for people that make less than $30,000 a year—I mean, when you go to eviction court on Fridays, all you see is Black families in there. That’s it. 

“And so I mean, it’s still disheartening that that’s all we see are Black families being told that there’s no other way to help them other than to file an eviction on them.”

The tenant activist said the county should invest in long-term solutions.

DeLancy said that showing people how to save money and participating in classes cannot make up for the fact that they do not make enough money to pay rent.

“I assure you they’re going to be facing eviction again,” DeLancy said. “And the only saving grace for them not to face eviction again is to bring in housing that allows for them to pay, realistically, 30 percent of their income on housing. So if they’re making $2000 a month…that means that their rent will be no more than $600-$700 a month.

“That’s not happening, we don’t have that. You really can’t show people how to budget their money when you’re only making $2000 a month and your rent is $1400. How can you budget your money?”

What role the CFR and Magistrate Court play in the eviction crisis

“We are also not a legislative body,” Kagan said. “We can advocate for clients and we can try, but getting rules changed and things especially related to financial assistance, or financial benefits, or even eviction processes and regulations around that is very time-consuming, and it takes a while.”

Kagan said CFR tries to work within the parameters of what is happening currently for someone by offering supportive services so they can better manage the tough situation they are in.

“A lot of times people just don’t understand the process,” Kagan said. “Or they don’t understand what their options are early on in the process when they have a disruption to income. Even just basic things like how to communicate with their landlord, or how to try to save, or have a buffer for emergencies, and just trying to help them better budget and understand how to manage within their means, and then where to go for help if they are experiencing problems.”

Kagan emphasized that CFR’s role is largely to educate people on the resources available to them to maintain stability.

Murphy also emphasized that this program is not the cure-all for deeper, structural issues that may lead to people being evicted.

“For instance,” Murphy said. “If somebody is on a fixed income, if maybe they’re only receiving disability payments, or they’re only receiving Social Security and the cost of housing is increasing—this program cannot address that problem. Because no amount of case management, no amount of rental assistance is going to fundamentally change that situation. That situation is for policymakers, that’s for the legislative branch to address affordable housing and fixed incomes and things like that.”

Murphy said that he sees people come into eviction court for all sorts of reasons.

“I take for granted, I have paid sick time,” Murphy said. “If I’m sick, I can stay home, or if my child is sick and has to stay out of school, I can stay home, that is a great benefit. And that benefit is not available to everybody in our community. And so you see people for that reason, that maybe somebody got sick, and so they missed some work and got behind on their bills. 

“You see people that are going through life changes, maybe going through a divorce, going through a death, going through a chronic illness. Increasing rents can certainly be one reason, the cost of living has gone up and the wages haven’t matched. 

“But all of those things are for policymakers to address. A court—my job is to apply the law fairly and impartially to the situation. And all of those situations, while extremely sympathetic and extremely difficult, are not defenses under the law. So our job is to listen and explain, and then act within the confines of the law.”

Murphy said that many of the people he sees in court are aware of their situations and trying their best to address them.

“I see a lot of landlords and tenants—either through our mediation program, or landlords and tenants directly communicating—that are working together to try to make a solution that will work for everybody,” Murphy said. “That’s what I see. When you come to eviction court, most cases do not result in an actual trial, most cases are resolved by a mutual agreement between the landlord and the tenant of one kind or another.”

Murphy explained what he thinks a judge’s role is when it comes to evictions.

“A judge’s role is always to help people resolve their disputes,” Murphy said. “And at the end of the day, an eviction is a dispute. The landlord has some allegations, the tenant may have some defenses, and then the judge has to decide what to do under the law…I view a housing stability court as another way to help people resolve the dispute and hopefully to prevent a future dispute.”

Murphy once again emphasized that the legislative branch would have to take up issues of affordable housing, job access, cost of living, and others related to evictions.

“The court’s job is to resolve the disputes that are brought here,” Murphy said. “And if we can resolve disputes in innovative ways that provide families resources, then that’s wonderful and that’s what I want to do. I want to always follow the law in a fair and impartial way, but I want to be creative within the law to help parties resolve their own disputes to their mutual benefit.”

Murphy said that the landlord is better off when they are receiving rent and that a tenant family is better off if they are paying their rent and have the skills to continue to do so.

“So I can’t address the huge societal question of affordable housing,” Murphy said. “But I can, for these individuals, help these individuals resolve their dispute. It’s kind of like the starfish theory, too…that story about the little boy on the beach throwing starfish back into the ocean. 

“…The little boy is throwing the starfish back in the ocean, one by one. The beach is just full of starfish as far as your eyes can see. And a little boy is walking down the beach and he picks one up and he throws it back into the ocean. And he picks another one up and he throws her back into the ocean, and he walks down and he picks another one up and throws him down into the ocean. 

“And somebody walks up to the little boy and says ‘Well, what are you doing? You can’t possibly save all these starfish, there are 22,000 starfish on the beach.’ And the little boy looks at the man and says, ‘Well, for the starfish that I just threw back in the ocean it’s made a world of a difference for that one. And that’s what I can do. And that’s what I can control for that one.’

“So that’s kind of the way I see it as well, it’s not the court’s role—it’s not our legal function, we don’t have the legal ability to address these large, legislative issues. But for these families and these landlords and these tenants, we can make all the difference. And if we can do that, and we can show that it works, why not try? I never want to bury my head in the sand and not try, and so I’d rather try something than try nothing as long as it’s within the fair and impartial judicial role.”

Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She also freelances for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is the former president of KSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as well as a former CNN intern. She enjoys music, reading, and live shows.