Eviction protection is gone — just as many in Charlotte need help for first time

Lauren Lindstrom, The Charlotte Observer

The line had wrapped around the building, people hugging the wall to stay in the shade.

It was Oct. 1 and rent was due again. It was also the day rent relief applications reopened for the month. By day’s end some 300 people had come through the Park Expo & Conference Center in east Charlotte. Inside there was in-person sign-up help for rental and utility assistance through the RAMPCLT program to administer the city and county’s federal aid dollars.

More than six weeks after the Supreme Court knocked down the federal eviction moratorium, renters have fewer protections than nearly any point during the pandemic. And while COVID-19 vaccinations and improving unemployment rates bring an approaching sense of normalcy, thousands of Mecklenburg County residents remain behind on their rent.

But a deluge of evictions that advocates feared has not yet arrived in Mecklenburg County, in part because of a contentious effort to work through a backlog in the courts that has angered area landlords.

Demand for rent help remains high and there are still millions of dollars available for renters who have fallen behind.

It seemingly paints a contradiction, or at minimum a complication, to understand the state of evictions and housing instability in Mecklenburg at this moment.

MONTHS BEHIND

Eviction hearings have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, with only a few cases scheduled per courtroom daily in recent weeks, according to a review of court dockets.

That’s prompted accusations of intentional slow-walking scheduling by Mecklenburg court officials. A trio of landlord and property trade groups wrote to court officials earlier this month, reiterating a request to expedite scheduling hearings for eviction filings and “stop the further extension of the moratorium through procedural delay.”

They’re accusing court officials of violating state law, which requires courts to schedule a hearing within seven to 10 days of filing.

“Rental housing providers have shouldered the burden of providing housing and assisting residents in maintaining housing since the beginning of the pandemic and throughout the moratoria, often with little to no recourse against those that have taken advantage of the moratoria protections,” the letter read.

Landlords, they say, have waited months for payment and have lost thousands of dollars on their properties.

Court officials said the delay is due to the pandemic, a backlog of stayed cases and a reduced docket in line with other court social distancing and safety procedures. There are nearly 2,600 cases that have been scheduled for hearings in October, court officials said last week.

Those Mecklenburg eviction cases that have been heard in recent weeks are old cases, some initially filed late last year.

Balances of $5,000 or more were common, though small claims court rules cap judgments at $10,000.

The frustration of landlords expressed in the industry groups’ letter is also palpable in court. Several landlords told judges in exasperation about months of missed payments while continuing to pay mortgages.

During hearings, a representative from the city’s mediation program enters periodically to update the judge on efforts to approve rent relief and see if parties can come to an agreement out of court.

And many tenants are months and months behind.

One woman quietly told the judge that despite getting some help with her rent earlier in the year, she was still behind while dealing with a family member’s significant mental health needs and waiting to hear if she needed surgery.

“I need to take care of my family,” she said, explaining this was the first time she’d fallen behind in the nearly six years she’s lived in her apartment. “I just need to catch up.”

While the judge appeared sympathetic — “It’s the pandemic,” she echoed — she ultimately issued a judgment against the woman and told her she could appeal, vacate in 10 days, or hopefully find assistance programs to clear her balance.

The demand for rent relief across the county remains high.

The moratorium, while a nearly yearlong reprieve for many from losing their homes, also created a situation where tenants could fall into deep holes of debt.

Area nonprofits that offer rent and utilities help say they’ve been cutting bigger checks than ever before, often $7,000 to $8,000 to cover several months of payments.

Erin Barbee, who oversees the rent relief program for DreamKey Partners, said applications in October are expected to outpace August and September, which had about 2,700 each.

Since August and the end of the moratorium, 1,300 of those applications have been from people with a court date within 90 days, which elevates their priority for processing.

Barbee said a growing share of applicants have been notified that their landlord intends to evict, even if a court date hasn’t been scheduled yet.

“We expect that to continue to increase as we go through the rest of this year,” she said.

Turnout at the Park Expo event exceeded expectations said Sam Spencer, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, whose office co-hosted the event with DreamKey Partners.

Those who spoke to the Observer while waiting in line offered similar stories: Job losses. Growing debts. Illnesses in themselves or family members that forced them out of the workforce for a time.

But only a handful said they’d been warned by their landlord of a potential eviction or gotten a formal notice of one.

Among them was Kelvin Allen, 39.

He’s about four months behind on his rent, after not working for three months during the pandemic. He’s got two jobs now, including a new one at an area restaurant, but it’s not enough to catch up with back payments.

“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” he said of just scraping by, worrying about covering the electric bill and his kids’ needs on top of rent. He said he’s been talking to his landlord about attempts to catch up, but said he knows he’s at risk of eviction.

“I just need some help to get me started back up, “ he said. “It’s been tough.”

‘THE WORLD IS MOVING ON’

RAMPCLT has distributed $32 million to 7,600 Mecklenburg households since February, and has $59 million remaining. The program also administered federal funds from earlier COVID relief last year.

Barbee said about one-third of program applicants return to apply again, a number she said she was surprised isn’t higher given the duration of people’s financial hardships. But the fact that well more than half are new applicants, more than a year and a half into the pandemic, indicates to her there are more people newly in need.

The number of new applicants in Mecklenburg indicates that some people are just now hitting a crisis point while many people are returning to a sense of normalcy, Barbee said.

“The thing that keeps me up at night the most is that I feel like the rest of the world is moving on,” she said.

“And now the plight of these renters is becoming silent. It was so in our face every day for a long time and now I don’t see it as much.”

This story was originally published on October 11, 2021. Read more at The Charlotte Observer.

This story was produced by the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of six media companies working together in an effort started by the Solutions Journalism Network and funded by The Knight Foundation.

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