About a year ago, Wendell Longshore got a letter saying he and his wife Karen were getting evicted.
“[My landlord] tried to give me notice when the pandemic first happened,” Longshore told the INDY. “She said she was gonna give me 72 hours to move. They tried to strong-arm my wife and I to move out of here. We had to protect ourselves.”
The couple had been paying the bills on their rental home in Burlington with disability money, since both were unable to work. In September, however, an administrative snafu caused a delay in their disability payments, putting them several months behind on rent.
Longshore isn’t alone. As of June 8, more than 20,000 households in Wake County were behind on rent, with debt averaging about $3,855, according to nonprofit research group Surgo Ventures. While Longshore’s nonpayment was due to red tape, thousands of other North Carolinians became unable to pay bills when they lost jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Renters got a last-minute reprieve earlier this month when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued an emergency extension of the moratorium on evictions. But there are still plenty of problems they’re struggling with, not least of which is the fact that the moratorium expires October 3.
The current moratorium covers counties experiencing “high” or “substantial” community spread, which, in North Carolina, is currently all 100. As the pandemic eases or worsens in certain areas, however, that could change, says Isaac Sturgill, a lawyer with Legal Aid of North Carolina. If a county’s transmission rate falls to “low” or “moderate” and stays that way for 14 consecutive days, then people in the county are no longer protected from eviction.
“The hope of the government is to … allow people to stay in place and give enough time for the rest of the (federal) rental assistance to be distributed,” Sturgill says. “What we are worried about … is that without some strong, centralized guidance from the [Administrative Office of the Courts] that we may see variances in how judges and clerks across the state carry out this order.”
Eviction lawyer Jamie Paulen has seen that variance in action. Paulen, who practices in multiple counties and was preparing to go to court in Alamance County earlier this month, says enforcement of the moratorium changes depending on where renters live.
“Some jurisdictions are continuing the cases and saying, ‘You have to wait to have your trial until after the moratorium expires,’” Paulen says. “Some other jurisdictions have been hearing the cases and then they issue a judgment, but the clerk won’t issue a writ of possession or the sheriff won’t execute a lock-out.”
Paulen adds that in some cities, such as Winston-Salem, “they’ve just completely ignored the moratorium full-stop.”
“During the entire pandemic, thousands of people have been evicted in Forsyth County,” Paulen says.
Even with the moratorium in place, there are other ways landlords can force out their tenants, Paulen says. With no rent control, landlords can raise the rent after a one-year lease expires and kick out a tenant if they don’t agree to the new terms—during a pandemic that has already surpassed the one-year mark.
Some landlords have been selling their property or postponing repairs because they can’t afford upkeep, Paulen says. Others have taken matters into their own hands, despite not legally being allowed to evict tenants for nonpayment.
“[On] April 7th of last year, I had a person contact me from Durham because her landlord drilled out the deadbolt in her door because she didn’t pay rent on April 1st,” Paulen says. “There’s no way this guy was that hard up … It was basically like, ‘If you’re not gonna leave, I’m gonna force you out.’”
Likewise, at Longshore’s home, a property manager arrived one day to try to take down his front door. Repairs, as well, were delayed.
Today, Longshore’s situation hasn’t changed much. He’s still behind on rent, but he has nowhere else to go. Longshore has been searching for another place to live, he says, but his main concern at the moment is scraping together enough money to bury his wife Karen, who died two weeks ago after 37 years of marriage.
“I want a service first, but it’s gonna cost me $3,500,” Longshore says. “I have to raise this money so I can see her buried. After that, I can deal with the rest.”
The CDC’s extension of the moratorium bought everyone more time to figure out their next steps, but by all accounts, a housing crisis is on the horizon.
Raleigh city councilman David Cox says he is worried about the imminent influx of people needing a place to live once the moratorium expires. The city is currently dealing with more than 300 people who are homeless and more than 5,000 people on the waiting list for the Raleigh Housing Authority, he says.
“This need combined with the pending end of the moratorium on evictions has me very concerned,” Cox says. “We have great non-profit organizations that we partner with. However, if we see a large increase in evictions, I worry that the need will far exceed our ability to address it.”
Since the start of this year, more than 2,000 eviction cases have been filed at the Wake County Courthouse. Of those, 954 remain active, meaning a decision in the case has yet to come down.
From January to May, the number of active cases filed hovered around 30 each month. In June, however, as the moratorium looked like it was about to expire, filings shot up. The number of active cases filed that month was 110, followed by 495 in July—a 350 percent increase. During the first two weeks of August, 177 active cases were filed, both before and after the moratorium lapsed.
Many of the people behind on rent have no hope of ever “coming current,” Paulen says. “It’s just kicking the can down the road.”
The federal government has dispensed billions of dollars in aid to states and counties in an effort to help people pay back rent and utility bills, but distribution of the money has been slow. Of the $33 million Wake County received in March, only $4.35 million has been distributed to households for rental and utility assistance. As of August 9, according to Wake County officials, 1,777 households had been helped.
In Orange County, about $1.5 million had been distributed through the N.C. HOPE program, which provides aid statewide, as of August 9. Checks went to 687 applicants, according to state spokeswoman Janet Kelly-Scholle.
One of the biggest problems in getting aid to people is that there is no formal framework in place for distributing money, Sturgill says. In the face of such massive demand, some county and state officials are struggling to process the influx of applications.
“It’s a daunting task to try and build that type of infrastructure in such a small amount of time, but [the N.C. HOPE administrators] have been working hard to speed up the process,” Sturgill says. “A lot of the money is still available and has not been spent yet, the challenge has been getting it out fast enough.”
Another issue is that many tenants still don’t know about the N.C. HOPE program, Sturgill says. Even when they do, some may find accessing or completing the application difficult, since much of it is online, he says. A tenant may also have to provide documentation of being laid off, reduction of hours, or increased childcare expenses.
Paulen says that while some of the renters she knows have been able to tap into relief money, others are simply moving, either to smaller units that cost less or similar units with different landlords. With a shortage of affordable housing, that’s exactly what county and state officials are trying to prevent.
“We are really pushing these opportunities to mediate between landlord and tenant, to keep them in their place (of residence),” says Matt Calabria, chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners.
He and other officials are encouraging landlords to participate in federal relief programs where, “everyone’s made whole,” says county manager David Ellis. “The resident has a place to stay. The landlord will have back rent provided to them. In my world, it’s a win-win for everyone.”
Per a recent change by state officials, landlords can now refer their tenants to the N.C. HOPE program for aid, whereas before tenants had to apply on their own. Other landlords have worked with their tenants during the pandemic, accepting less rent but continuing to house them. Those landlords are in the minority, however.
“One of the things I wish landlords would understand is that it really is in their best interest to be supportive and help their tenants,” says Paulen. “Let’s say the moratorium expires at the end of the 60 days. Who is your new tenant gonna be? It’s gonna be somebody who didn’t pay their rent somewhere else.”
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