Mobile homes in Candler, in western Buncombe County. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

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North Carolinians who cannot make their rent payments during the pandemic may be able to delay eviction under a new order from Gov. Roy Cooper.

Renters already had protections under a Sept. 4 order from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but “recent reports have made clear that the CDC order has been enforced inaccurately and inconsistently in some parts of North Carolina,” according to the governor’s order.

The CDC order gave tenants a tool to try to stop evictions by allowing residents who meet certain income qualifications to complete a signed statement and freeze the process. 

Under the CDC order, landlords cannot legally move forward with any attempt to evict once a tenant asserts the protections, said Isaac Sturgill, supervising attorney for Legal Aid NC’s housing practice group.

But in practice, “a lot of landlords are moving forward with the eviction process anyway and are disregarding it,” he said. 

An attempt to clarify

The state order is designed to clarify the process, Gov. Cooper said at a press conference last week.

“Some families are able to seek protection under the current Centers for Disease Control moratorium, preventing evictions for certain people,” he said.

“But there is a lot of confusion with landlords, tenants and courts.” 

The governor’s new order creates a requirement for landlords to notify tenants of their rights.

“When they file an eviction case, they are required to give the tenant information about the CDC declaration,” Sturgill said.

If a landlord disagrees with a tenant’s claims, nothing in the order prevents landlords from presenting the eviction case to a court, and they can still begin eviction proceedings based on reasons other than nonpayment of rent. 

While renters may be in a better position under the new order, many do not know what they need to do to trigger the protections, Sturgill said: “If you don’t know about it, it’s not going to help you.” 

A patchwork of protections

Even before the pandemic, rising costs and stagnant wages created an eviction crisis, said Kathryn Sabbeth, housing law professor at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Law.

The situation was “disproportionately impacting communities of color, particularly women of color, particularly women with children of color families of color.” 

More than 250,000 North Carolina residents are either not current on rent or mortgage payments or are not confident they will be able to pay for housing next month, according to a recent census survey

For many families experiencing financial strain, the pandemic added layers of new challenges to the struggle to pay rent and utilities.

Tenants may not know of the different measures to address the problem, and in some cases the policies have been inconsistently applied, leaving landlords, tenants and court officials confused.

At the outset of the pandemic in early March, N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley closed the courts as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19. She also entered an order directing courts to freeze evictions and requiring landlords seeking evictions to provide documentation showing the lease is not federally subsidized.

In June, Gov. Cooper issued an executive order that provided a three-week moratorium for individuals who were unable to pay their rent because of a loss of income, but summer brought uncertainty for those who were unable to pay their rent. 

Federal law offered some assistance for particular tenants. The CARES Act included a moratorium on evictions from late March to July for certain tenants in federally subsidized housing or who lived in homes with federally backed mortgages. 

Some landlords were granted a reprieve on their loans, and the law requires them to pass that benefit along to the renter.

“If a landlord has a federally backed loan that goes into forbearance, meaning they get some extension on their obligation to pay on their mortgage, they have to share that benefit with their tenant,” Sabbeth said. 

Despite a patchwork of policies at the state and federal level, the financial crunch of the pandemic coupled with confusion about the eviction process left landlords, tenants and court officials in limbo. 

“There has been a lack of knowledge on the part of tenants that they are entitled to this protection, and there has been a lack of clarity on the part of judges as to what their responsibility is in these situations,” Sabbeth said.

What should law enforcement do?

The scattered policies also created confusion for law enforcement officials who serve the writs to evict tenants.

“In the beginning of this, when there was a talk of a moratorium on evictions, it was kind of unclear really what that meant,” said Serenity Norman, attorney for the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office.

“It didn’t take away our obligation to serve a duly executed writ, so if it comes to us, we have to serve it.”

The latest state order clarifies part of the process, Norman said, but there are still practical issues in the procedures that are not addressed. The order relies on the tenant returning the declaration to the landlord, who is then supposed to file it with the court. 

“I do have concerns about how it will work as far as getting it from the tenant to the court because it is also supposed to go back through the landlord, and I don’t know yet how that’s going to work in practice,” she said.

For example, what role law enforcement should play if a deputy sheriff is on a property for an eviction and the tenant then produces the CDC declaration is unclear, she said.

“Clarity and uniformity are always more helpful in situations where you have disparities of power between the actors involved, which in a landlord-tenant situation of the kind we are discussing — one where we have tenants who are in precarious financial situations as it is — there is just a great imbalance of power between the landlord and the tenant,” Sabbeth said. 

The rent is still due

Even if a tenant succeeds in halting an eviction, none of the measures preventing the eviction have the effect of stopping rent from accruing. Unless future policy changes alter the situation, tenants will owe the entirety of their back rents when the orders expire.

Rent assistance programs, such as the N.C. Hope program, are designed to help individuals continue to make payments. The Hope initiative allows individuals with income of 80% or less of the area median income to apply for funds to cover up to six months of rent and/or utilities. The payments are made directly to landlords, who agree to forgo eviction proceedings. 

“As I look at the more than 23,000 applications that we’ve received in less than two weeks, I’ve thought about how each one of those applications represents a family on the edge, having to make hard choices,” Gov. Cooper said.

The temporary relief may not be enough for many renters, and Sturgill worries about what will happen when the orders expire at the end of the year.

“If things don’t get better before the end of the year, we’re likely to see another huge spike of eviction cases in January,” he said.

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Laura Lee

Laura Lee is the News Editor at Carolina Public Press. Contact her at llee@carolinapublicpress.org.

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