By Mary Newsom
October 1, 2019
It’s a Friday morning in late August, and Nikeia Diaz waits with others outside courtroom 2350 at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse. What happens in court today will determine whether she and her 4-year-old lose their apartment in northeast Charlotte. This is Eviction Court, and it happens almost every weekday.
Diaz lost her manager’s job at a body waxing center in February. She says she has spent her savings and used up her unemployment. She’s had multiple job interviews – even has one this afternoon – but for now can’t pay the $2,127 her landlord says she owes for August and September rent and late fees.
She says she moved to Charlotte from Connecticut. “For the five years that I’ve been here,” she says, “every year the cost of living has gone up, but my income has not matched it.”
Waiting nearby is Pat, who doesn’t want her full name publicized. She lives in Cornelius, has two children and her story echoes Diaz’s. She lost her $50,000-a-year job at Sears Home Services after the national retailer filed for bankruptcy late last year. A former social worker who took the Sears job for a $15,000 pay increase, she says she has never had trouble finding a new job before. “It’s only in Charlotte that I’ve had this deficit,” she says, “and I’ve been unemployed now for going on eight months.”
And so she is in this bind. “I’ve always been a model tenant, never been late on my rent,” she says. “Just basically can’t find anything right now. I was unable to make my August payment. And now I’m here facing eviction.”
Her family has helped, but she’s exhausted her resources. Despite a college degree and experience as a social worker, she now owes more than $1,200, and her car was repossessed.
Few Tenants Have Lawyers; Most Landlords Do
Neither woman has a lawyer today. That’s typical for tenants facing eviction. A study from the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute examining one month of eviction cases from 2016 found 82% of landlords had legal representation. And tenants? Eighty-four percent didn’t even show up in court. Over the past 30 years, a number of research studies of housing courts around the country have found the proportion of tenants with legal counsel can range from 0% to 20%.
But today, tenants outside courtroom 2350 may have a small piece of luck. They may get lawyers. Thanks to Mecklenburg County funding, once or twice a week lawyers from Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Charlotte office wait outside eviction court to assist tenants. Today, half a dozen lawyers are available. The next two hours will probably determine whether Diaz and Pat lose their homes within a few days.
The county allocated $300,000 for Legal Aid in the last fiscal year and a total of $800,000 this fiscal year, which started July 1. That puts Mecklenburg among a small but growing number of places such as Virginia, Washington state and Durham, spending government money to give tenants access to lawyers in eviction cases. Three cities – New York, San Francisco and Newark, New Jersey – have even enacted “right-to-counsel” measures to guarantee legal representation to low-income tenants. Results are notable: In New York, 84% of tenants who got legal representation were able to stay in their homes.
Charlotte’s Legal Aid office is showing similar results: Of the tenants with Legal Aid representation last fiscal year, 85% saw their eviction either prevented or delayed.
How Eviction Mirrors Lack Of Affordable Housing
But why is preventing evictions so important? After all, some evicted tenants are deadbeats who won’t pay, according to landlords. Some trash the place, or even sell drugs. But many simply have jobs that pay too little for them to cover the rent. Or they suffer a financial setback: They get sick, or, like the two women outside courtroom 2350, they lose their jobs.
Diaz describes what her finances are like these days: “You fall into the trap of living check to check. Struggling and having to decide what is more important this month and, what is less important, as to what gets paid on time. It’s a struggle.”
As housing costs soar in Charlotte, eviction filings are rising, too, from 28,471 in 2015-2016 to 32,724 the past fiscal year. Isaac Sturgill, who supervises the housing unit at Charlotte’s Legal Aid office, explains the situation of many local residents who can’t afford their housing costs:
“If you have a lack of affordable housing, all it takes is one illness, or one car breaking down or one financial setback to put a family in eviction court. Because if they’re living paycheck to paycheck and they’re paying such a huge amount of their income towards rent, there’s not really any money left over. They’re behind at the beginning of each month. It’s a balancing act, and all it takes is one little setback for them to end up in eviction court.”
For communities with affordable housing problems, preventing evictions can be an important tool in assisting residents. When someone is evicted, it can start a downward spiral. Tenants in government-subsidized housing, such as Section 8, lose that subsidy. Landlords often won’t rent to people with previous eviction filings. Life gets more expensive, which makes escaping poverty even harder.