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When Charlotte resident Lynn Stokes, 57, was laid off in December 2019, she was not surprised. The small digital photo lab where she worked often let her go during slow months then rehired her around April.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and Stokes wasn’t called back. She fell behind on her rent and utility bills. In late August, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. That same month, she was also evicted.
When officers from the Mecklenburg County sheriff’s department showed up to oversee the eviction, “we could only grab a few things,” she recalled of the day she and her 20-year-old daughter were ordered to leave their apartment.
Stokes remembers an officer trying to calm her daughter, who replied, “What the f— are you going to do for us? You have a home to go to, we have nowhere to go to.”
Stokes contacted Legal Aid of North Carolina, and an attorney helped her return to the home a few days later. But she hasn’t forgotten the experience.
“It was embarrassing, people were … coming out, watching,” Stokes said. “I don’t wish this on anybody.”
A ‘patchwork’ of protections
Stokes is not alone in the experience of eviction during the pandemic. The threat hangs over 485,000 North Carolinians who are behind on their rent, despite a recently passed federal relief bill that extends a nationwide eviction moratorium through January. The package also includes $25 billion in rent relief for distressed tenants.
Gov. Roy Cooper extended an executive order he issued in October until Jan. 31 as well. The initial order clarified tenant protections and landlord responsibilities regarding the moratorium. But it is unclear whether the extended mandates will stave off a wave of evictions this winter or whether tenants will be able to access relief funds in time to keep their homes.
A “patchwork” of funds and protection policies has been issued since the pandemic began last March, which has led to many families “falling through the cracks” depending on where in North Carolina they live, said Isaac Sturgill, housing practice group manager at Legal Aid of North Carolina.
Tenants in some parts of the state may have access to more relief programs than others. New research shows Black and Hispanic renters are more vulnerable to eviction, particularly during the pandemic.
Even when someone qualifies for rental assistance or other funds, the tenant may not receive the money fast enough to avoid eviction, Sturgill said.
Although Congress earmarked billions of dollars for rent relief in its latest bill, he said, getting that money into people’s hands before the next expiration date requires an impossible turnaround.
“I can tell you that 30 days is not going to be enough time to administer all of that money,” he said. “It could be that yes, there’s this new pot of money that people are applying for. But in the meantime, if the moratorium expires and there’s not something to replace it, you could have people being evicted while they’re waiting on the relief to come through.”
Lack of HOPE
The governor’s executive order includes continued protections for tenants who applied for rental aid through the Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions, or HOPE, program. A press release from Cooper’s office said more than 21,000 tenants will receive $37.4 million in rental and utility payment assistance through the program, which stopped accepting applications in early November.
But some people who applied before applications closed have not yet received the aid.
Delays in distributing funds have led to people losing their homes even if they may have been eligible for assistance, said Rachael Fern, a court observer with the activist group Housing Justice Now Winston-Salem.
“Many people I’ve spoken with were able to successfully apply, and the HOPE letter that stated they had applied provided some protection in court,” she said. “However, very few that I know of have actually received the funds yet, and the program itself expired very quickly.”
Although some counties and local nonprofits offer resources as well, availability varies based on where in the state a tenant lives. Even if money is available, there are still barriers, according to Fern.
“The majority of nonprofits offering rent assistance require documentation that rent was behind or eviction had already been filed, but the application for the funds takes so long to process that by the time money was delivered, the tenant was already kicked out,” she said.
Landlords are also feeling the strain of not receiving HOPE funds.
Husband and wife Leonard and Lori Hawkins of Fayetteville said the tenants who rent their Greenville town house applied for the HOPE program six months ago. But the couple have not received any payment from the tenants or the state since then.
“For six months, we have received no money, and we have bills to pay,” Lori Hawkins said. “But that doesn’t seem to bother the government. We still have to pay the taxes and the insurance and the HOA dues. We have to keep paying those and we’ve received nothing from our tenants.”
The Hawkinses, who rent out several properties to supplement their retirement income, said they may refuse the HOPE funds even if they are offered. They cited the strict terms landlords must follow if they accept the money, expressing concern that the tenants in question will not pay rent after the aid for their back payments comes through because landlords cannot evict tenants for the remainder of their leases under the program.
They also worry about the costs to repair damage they’ve already observed on the property once the tenants move out.
“What are we accomplishing by taking that past rent money?” Lori Hawkins said. “It delays the inevitable.”
Asked what they would consider appropriate aid for landlords struggling under the moratorium, Leonard Hawkins said, “The damages they caused plus the rent that we’ve lost, that would be a fair compensation.”
“And no moratorium,” Lori Hawkins added.
Jim Barrett, executive director of Pisgah Legal Services in Asheville, a nonprofit serving low-income clients, said landlords with federally insured mortgages may have been able to negotiate the terms or refinance to extend repayment of those loans.
But for people who don’t own property companies and manage the rentals themselves for income, the financial strain can create difficulties in their lives.
“Many landlords, especially those with just one or two properties … if they have loans they’re trying to pay and they’re not able to get those loans extended, they’re at risk of being foreclosed on,” he said. “Some of them, that’s how they live. They’re not rich; they’re just living off their rental income.”
The protection against eviction is not automatic. Landlords in North Carolina are required to provide a blank Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declaration form to tenants. If the tenants qualify for protection under the moratorium, they can sign and submit the form to the landlord, who is obligated to file that declaration with the court. There’s no guarantee, however, that the process will be followed.
“These are new procedures that were put out in October with the governor’s order, and you’re going to see different levels of compliance across the state,” Sturgill said.
“We have seen some cases where the landlord does not comply with everything they’re supposed to do and are able to proceed with the case anyway because the tenant is unable to get into court or effectively argue these issues in front of a judge,” he added. “Other landlords are following it to a T.”
Sturgill noted that Cooper’s order makes it illegal for landlords to lock out tenants who submitted signed declarations, regardless of whether the tenant appears in court.
“If the landlord has received a declaration from the tenant, that landlord needs to realize that even if they move forward with it — even if they get away with it — that’s actually a criminal act under the governor’s order,” he said.
“That’s something where the landlord could be prosecuted for that later on if they choose to break that law.”
But evictions still happen.
Vashaun Williams, a 38-year-old Wilson resident, said he submitted a declaration to his landlord when his hours at the Coca-Cola plant in Clayton were reduced and he fell a few weeks behind on his rent. His landlord charged late fees on the overdue amount, and he couldn’t pay off the total quickly enough to prevent an eviction action, he said.
Despite having submitted the declaration and appearing in court, he was forced out of his house in November, he said.
“So, I had to pack up and go,” he said. “It’s been hard for me. Right now, I’m staying with this relative, that relative, this friend, that friend, my brother.”
“It’s been kind of tough on me,” he said of the months since losing his home. “But I’m making the best of it.”
The next cliff
The protections afforded to tenants under the CDC moratorium and Gov. Cooper’s orders are set to expire Jan. 31.
Before the most recent extension, UNC School of Law professor Kathryn Sabbeth said, “If we don’t see any intervention, we are likely looking at a massive avalanche of evictions.”
Sabbeth called the prospect “a disturbing social experiment,” as the cascading effects of eviction can cripple families’ job, education, housing and financial prospects for years to come.
A wave of evictions could also prove disastrous to public health, particularly as North Carolina and the U.S. more broadly are seeing record high COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
“We know that when people are forced to leave their homes, they often — if they are fortunate enough to move into another home — move into a home that is more crowded, which is the last thing we want to see during a pandemic,” Sabbeth said.
Those who do not have relatives or friends with whom they can stay may seek out shelters, leading to overcrowding and increasing the chances of contracting or spreading COVID-19.
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that an increase in shelter use and “doubling up” of families due to evictions would extend transmission rates and therefore the pandemic.
“The whole idea of stay-at-home orders, people need a place to stay,” Sabbeth said.
With less than three weeks remaining until the moratorium is set to expire, the state could see what Sturgill described as a “huge tsunami” of evictions.