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North Carolina housing advocates felt relieved Monday after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended a national ban on evictions, due to expire this week, through the end of June.
On Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper extended his executive order for a statewide residential eviction moratorium through June 30, in coordination with the CDC moratorium.
“The CDC moratorium has been extended a couple of times now, and it was last minute, but this is a little more last minute than that,” said David Bartholomew, co-director of the homeless prevention program for Pisgah Legal Services in Asheville, ahead of the announcement.
The nationwide moratorium was first issued by the CDC in September as a matter of public health. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement on Monday the virus continued posing a historic threat to public health that warranted the extension through June 30.
“Keeping people in their homes and out of crowded or congregate settings — like homeless shelters — by preventing evictions is a key step in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Walensky said.
Although many people have taken advantage of this grace period, the underlying problems of rental assistance remain, according to UNC School of Law professor Kathryn Sabbeth.
“If we’re going to continue in the exact same place we are now economically and then just lift away the moratorium, of course there’s going to be a world of hurt,” Sabbeth said on the need for an extension.
Exacerbating existing challenges
The CDC order protects tenants from nonpayment evictions by making a declaration that they lost income and cannot pay rent but are making good-faith efforts to do so.
“One of the problems that we’re seeing is that folks simply do not know that,” Sabbeth said. “They simply do not know that burden is on them.”
According to the most recent study by the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank, 1 in 5 tenants were not caught up on their rent as of February of this year.
“That would be 13.5 million Americans, if you were looking at the numbers of renters,” Bartholomew said.
In North Carolina, up to 36% of rental households were at high risk of eviction at the beginning of the year, according to a study by the National Council of State Housing Agencies.
Bartholomew says courts in North Carolina are not ready for the avalanche of cases that have been postponed for months.
“We’ve got counties where there’s a huge amount of cases that have just been continued to April,” he said.
Pisgah Legal Service’s own caseload more than doubled from 2019 to 2020, from 338 cases to 772 — cases that included people like Tracie Covington, a 54-year-old single mother living in Forest City.
After moving into a new town house in the winter of 2019, she immediately saw problems with mold and tried to get her landlord to fix them.
Several months into the pandemic, Covington had to leave her job at Amazon for health reasons but kept paying rent, even as she struggled to look for another job.
After calling her landlord in August to tell him she was going to be late paying rent and raise maintenance concerns again, he at first seemed understanding, she said.
“The next morning, as I’m on my way to the bank to go get the money for him to pay the rent — after he listened to the voicemail I sent him about the mold again — he called me back and said, ‘I know it’s late notice, but I need my apartment back by the end of the month,’” she said.
Covington said she immediately worried about her son, who was at home doing remote learning for his high school.
“It had me stressed,” she said, “because now I have a kid who’s 15 and I have to figure out how I’m going … to get internet for him to go to school.”
Complicating matters, Covington has asthma, and finding work that wouldn’t put her at risk of contracting COVID-19 became not just a priority but a necessity.
“I need to make us have a safe place for my kids,” she said. “I felt horrible because the place that I chose for us was not safe.”
Covington, who had turned to Pisgah Legal once before, reached out again for help. Soon she and her attorney were able to document the mold issues and get the landlord to back off his eviction notice while she looked for a new place, she said. She was able to live in the apartment without paying rent until she found her new place.
Newly employed again and working from a different home, she says there are many who don’t know how to seek help.
Covington’s case highlights a problem with the current CDC order, according to Sabbeth. The burden is almost entirely on the tenant to fill out a declaration.
“Although there are obligations on the landlord, the truth is, if the tenant doesn’t do what they are expected to do … the consequence is that they’ll be evicted, that they’ll lose their home,” she said.
Sabbeth said the current moratorium has only further exposed housing inequalities that existed before the pandemic.
“Given that lawyers are not guaranteed and instead purchased through the market like other services, landlords are overwhelmingly more likely to have legal counsel than tenants,” she said.
The Biden administration signaled its willingness to extend the moratorium earlier this year as a way to give more time for the nearly $50 billion in rental assistance Congress has allocated so far to funnel down to state and local housing agencies.
“The moratorium could be improved … but as it is, it’s still much, much better than nothing,” Sabbeth said. “It still makes a difference.”
In the meantime, Bartholomew’s team is on the lookout for frustrated landlords trying to go outside the court system and do things like “self-help evictions,” which can include anything from changing the locks to refusing maintenance to tenants behind on their rent.
Bartholomew points out the timing is especially critical because more than a year has passed since the pandemic started, meaning many leases will start to come up for renewal around this time.
“We want people to know that you do have to go through the court system,” he said. “Tenants need to know their rights, and they have a right to use the CDC moratorium.”
For Covington, who compares her experience to riding out a storm, she says she feels for those just trying to get back on their feet.
“The ones that did pay their bills and are struggling and maybe fell behind, I feel like they should have a little bit more time,” she said. “Because again, we are opening up very slowly.”
For millions of renters, the three-month extension will be a critical lifeline.
Note: This story was updated to reflect that the Pisgah Legal Services office is in Asheville.