Emergency evictions stalled in N.H. despite governor’s executive order last month

  • The neighborhood where Mary DeAngelis rents her apartments on North State Street. Two of her tenants are unable to return home right now because a subletter will not vacate. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/29/2020 2:43:02 PM

Snowbirds Sal and Peggy Terassi expected that a global pandemic would create challenges for their return trip home to New Hampshire from Florida this May.

But as the couple prepares to head north in just a couple of weeks, they are facing one hurdle they never saw coming: the prospect of homelessness.

The Terassis have paid in advance for a six-month stay at an apartment on Concord’s North State Street. As in past years, they plan to return to their downtown residence after May 15. This time, though, another tenant may meet them at the front door.

The building’s landlord Mary DeAngelis said she rented the apartment to a woman she believed was in need last fall. With Sal and Peggy Terassi’s consent, the woman moved in but agreed to vacate the property this spring.

However, the apartment is still occupied as of this week and a statewide no-eviction order is proving problematic, DeAngelis said. The tenant has not paid rent, she has damaged the property, and refused to leave the apartment where the Terassis left behind furniture and many of their personal belongings. DeAngelis initiated eviction proceedings in Concord’s district court months ago, hoping to retake possession of the apartment and recoup financial loses well before the Terassis returned to the state.

In February, DeAngelis thought she had turned a corner and the tedious legal dispute was behind her. Signed by a judge, an agreement stipulated that the winter tenant had until April 1 to move out. Then the pandemic hit.

“We gained our writ of possession which said the tenant had approximately two months to move out,” DeAngelis said. “But days before she was scheduled to move, I went to the house and saw her bags weren’t packed. It was apparent to me that she wasn’t planning to leave, and she is now citing the pandemic as her excuse not to.”

Like many states under a declaration of emergency, the coronavirus outbreak has brought eviction proceedings in New Hampshire to a halt. In mid-March, Gov. Chris Sununu signed an executive order banning all evictions and foreclosures, meaning the courts could not issue new writs of possession to remove someone from a residence.

In response to concerns from landlords, Sununu modified that blanket suspension in a new order, dated April 3, which allows evictions only in cases where tenants violate their lease by causing “substantial damage” to the property or by behaving in a way that “adversely affects the health and safety of the other tenants or the landlord.”

While immediate relief is the goal of the amended order, its actual execution has been slow. Merrimack County Sheriff Robert Krieger said deputies are not executing writs of possession until landlords can provide an updated court order clearly outlining why action is required during the pandemic. Judges, though, won’t begin hearing those emergency cases until next week, marking one month since Sununu’s order took effect.

Throughout this public health crisis, the New Hampshire Judicial Branch has issued several of its own orders suspending the majority of in-person proceedings and restricting public access to the state’s circuit, superior and supreme courthouses. The circuit courts have held emergency hearings since March in landlord-tenant disputes, yet judges have not held proceedings on petitions for eviction, including in those rare cases permitted under the governor’s order.

“We said that as a matter of policy, beginning March 16, we were not going to evict people from their homes. We are still operating under that emergency order until May 4,” Circuit Court Administrative Judge David King said. “In the meantime, we have reviewed the possible expansion of cases that can be addressed.”

Per an updated court order, judges will begin Monday reviewing eviction cases filed solely on the grounds that a tenant caused property damage or placed other tenants at risk, King said.

“I don’t anticipate a lot of these but I was given some pretty compelling reasons from landlords in which financial damages alone wouldn’t be enough,” King said. “It makes sense at this time to follow through on the governor’s two exceptions as outlined in the amended executive order.”

If the alleged facts don’t support either exception, court officials say landlords should assume that their cases are on hold until after at least May 25. In cases where a writ of possession was issued before COVID-19 but not executed, King said landlords will be best served to request a new eviction order if they have the grounds to do so.

An ongoing battle

For DeAngelis, the legal fight is still fraught with complications. Through her attorney, Dan Corley, she is arguing that her winter tenant has continued to create an unsafe environment for DeAngelis and the other tenants in the other apartments. She said the ordeal has cost her more than $14,000, including lost rent and attorney fees, and that she is now afraid of losing the house, which has been in her family for generations.

“What’s the sense of this emergency order if we can’t utilize it now?” she asked. “I’m on the verge of losing my house because I cannot cover the basic costs.”

DeAngelis said she continues to ride this emotional roller-coaster with no end in site. Upon hearing about the governor’s amended order in early April, she said she had renewed hope that the original order would be enforced. Corley filed an emergency motion on April 13 asking a judge to order the sheriff’s office to execute the writ of possession, dated Feb. 5.

Despite previously agreeing to vacate the property by April 1, the winter tenant has filed an objection to the emergency motion and brought new claims against DeAngelis under New Hampshire’s landlord-tenant law.

Since learning that the court will not consider the matter until after May 4, Corley has requested a new writ of possession because the original one, which is valid for 90 days, will soon expire.

“I know that the courts are overwhelmed right now – this is all new for everybody,” Corley said. “The governor promptly amended his order and allowed for evictions in these emergency cases. My client has tried time and time again to do the right thing but she’s really feeling the pinch now.”

In recent months, DeAngelis said she has called Concord police on numerous occasions and her other tenants have too because of disturbances at the property and the presence of unwanted guests. 

Concord Police Chief Bradley Osgood declined to discuss any ongoing investigations at the residence but said when it comes to civil disputes officers have to walk a fine line.

“We instruct our landlords or renters who are having difficulty to go through the court and the sheriff’s office – they’re the ones who really handle the situation if there is an eviction issue,” he said. “We don’t have the authority to just knock on someone’s door and say, ‘We’re coming in.’ If we are called to the residence at the request of the landlord or the renter, we have to be mindful of their constitutional rights.”

Osgood said it’s rare that the city would shut down an entire living house, which only happens in extreme circumstances. He noted that the present circumstances do not present an “extreme health hazard” and warrant such action by police.

Returning to Concord

Peggy Terassi said she has trouble sleeping at night not knowing what the next few weeks will bring.

“This is all very upsetting to me,” she said. “I can’t help but think about it multiple times every day. I don’t know what we’ll return to.”

With hotels also closed in the state due to the pandemic, the Terassis are uncertain what alternatives they have if the court does not take action in the pending landlord-tenant matter before their return to Concord.

“This could go on indefinitely,” Sal Terassi said. “There is a total breakdown in the system and it needs to be addressed.”

The Terassis said they understand COVID-19 has led to a shutdown of many businesses throughout the country, but that the government and the courts must continue to provide relief and assistance to those most in need.

“Every time I see or hear a story on the news and they talk about collateral damage in this pandemic, we feel like part of that story,” Peggy Terassi said.




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