With Evictions Returning to Pre-Pandemic Levels, Charlotte Attorneys Describe Human Consequences

By Sam Carnes, Queens University News Service

Evictions in Mecklenburg County have returned to pre-pandemic levels and are now averaging 2,500 per month, a rate that keeps Charlotte among the nation’s top cities for evictions, say attorneys with legal aid organizations that represent tenants. 

The most recent data from the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts indicates a level of 30,000 eviction cases annually, said Isaac Sturgill, an attorney specializing in housing with Legal Aid of North Carolina. The Eviction Lab, a project of Princeton University, ranks Charlotte sixth in the nation for evictions. A 2017 UNC Charlotte Urban Institute report indicated that 28,471 eviction complaints were filed in the 2015-16 fiscal year.  

These rates have human consequences, said Toussaint Romain, who recently became chief executive officer for the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy. Romain recalls visiting Charlotte’s tent city of homeless people in August 2020. 

“We really saw whole families, like a mom and a dad and three babies who were living in a tent for the first time in their lives,” Romain said. “They were there because they worked in the service industry. And when COVID happened, shut all that down, and they were kicked out of their places because of not paying rent. … and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a 2-year-old baby, you know, that was homeless.” 

Sturgill and Romain are two of dozens of attorneys who represent people experiencing the worst consequences of the rising cost of housing in Mecklenburg County. Without a course correction in the cost of housing, these lawyers say, Charlotte risks becoming a city like San Francisco. 

“Charlotte is on track to be a city for white-collar professionals that make a certain income, [with] an underclass of people who serve the professional class,” said Ismaail Qaiyim, who founded the Queen City Community Law Firm and works with the Housing Justice Coalition CLT and the Latin American Coalition. 

Who is Charlotte For?

Charlotte is well-known for a focus on growth, development, and progress, Qaiyim said. But the 2014 Chetty study, which ranked Charlotte as 50th out of 50 cities for economic mobility, as well as its updates, make him question who benefits from that strategy. 

“This is very much not only about the character, not only about, I think, right and wrong and justice,” Qaiyim said. “It’s also just fundamentally about what kind of place we live in, and what kind of place you want to live in.” 

The single issue of ensuring stable housing conditions, including protections for renters, preventing eviction, creating home ownership, and building equity,  creates a well-rounded range of health and living outcomes, Romain said. “If we’re able to get people to handle their public benefits, get food on the table, have a roof over their head, and create some stability, then they won’t be self-medicating to get away from their life,” said Romain. “We’ll also avoid a rising crime rate because there’s less frustration.” 

Limitations on Solutions in Charlotte 

Qaiyim explained that the state of North Carolina has historically supported land owners over tenants, and that state law restrains what local city governments can and cannot accomplish in housing regulation. Cities are not allowed to pass rent control, for example, and not allowed to require inclusionary zoning, which reserves a certain number of units within a housing development for affordable housing. 

This means that Charlotte needs to be creative with solutions. One solution, adopted first in Los Angeles in 2001, and more recently in New York City, Detroit, and Richmond, Virginia, is a community benefits agreement. Qaiyim explained that a CBA enables city governments to have a direct say in what investment is used for. Research by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston points to other characteristics of CBAs, including a focus on local hiring, training, and living wages; local procurement; environmental considerations; technical training, assistance, and mentoring; new school construction; and community involvement. 

Another solution, Sturgill said, is educating residents, because underserved populations often don’t realize that they have rights. Legal representation also helps. In eviction proceedings, the Urban Institute report indicated that almost all Mecklenburg County property owners are represented legally, but tenants rarely have legal representation. Almost once a week, Sturgill said, attorneys from Legal Aid of North Carolina show up in courthouse hallways near where eviction proceedings are taking place, and offer support. 

Tenants have the power to change the course of their neighborhood, Romain said. He once heard from a community that consisted mostly of seniors on fixed incomes. Developers were planning apartments along the LYNX rail line between uptown and UNC Charlotte. Their plans included evicting every tenant, who were mostly fixed income seniors, then tearing down the facility and restricting the new complex to single-family households. 

The residents sued the developers. “You have an entire community that fought for years for safety against gangs, drug violence, and really built a community – in some ways, a retirement community,” Romain said. “The developers didn’t think about how it would displace these individuals down the road.”  

Housing as an Investment Vehicle 

Corporate investment in Mecklenburg County single-family homes drives up the cost of rent and makes a difficult situation even worse, Qaiyim said.  

“Corporate landlords and even mom and pop landlords are very eager to sell the property or rent it out at higher rates,” he said. “And then as the general cost of things continues to go up, the population with more spending power moves in, while the previously existing population is being pushed out.” 

Housing’s Place in the Spectrum of Legal Support 

Housing issues are by far the largest piece of legal work performed by Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Charlotte office, said Cindy Patton, managing attorney. The office also addresses protections for debt collection, unemployment compensation, bankruptcy, battered immigrants, victims of sexual assault, human trafficking, and other issues. 

But the forecast for evictions and affordable housing in Charlotte is bleak, Patton said. 

“We’re going to see more homelessness in our communities, we will see more families doubling up, more people living in their cars, and then more people just not being able to afford to live in the city,” she said. “It’ll become more like places like San Francisco, where you might work in the city, but you can’t live in the city. So you have these very long commutes. And we don’t even have a good transportation system in place to deal with that issue. So I can see a snowball effect.” 

Sam Carnes is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local community news. Her summer 2022 work is supported by the James E. Rogers Research Program.  

The Charlotte Journalism Collaborative is supported by the Local Media Project, an initiative launched by the Solutions Journalism Network with support from the Knight Foundation to strengthen and reinvigorate local media ecosystems.