Over 700,000 North Carolinians will be at risk for eviction soon after all goverment moratoriums and extensions on rent payments expire on Monday.
The state eviction moratorium expired in June and the federal moratorium, legislated by the CARES Act, expired in late July. Now, a 30-day notice of eviction is expiring as well.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act was stimulus legislation signed into law in March to assist in economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal moratorium in the CARES Act applied to rentals where the property is financed by a federally backed mortgage. In North Carolina, over 5,600 multi-family complexes in North Carolina have federally backed mortgages, according to data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
When the federal eviction moratorium expired, the CARES Act provided an additional protection: It requires landlords to give a 30-day notice of eviction to tenants. But August 24 marks 30 days since the moratorium expired, and landlords with a federally backed mortgage will be able to evict their tenants for nonpayment of rent.
Azaria Lunsford, who lives at the Hoover Road Apartments under the Durham Housing Authority, is one of those tenants.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic started in March, Lunsford, a single mother who lives in Durham, was driving for Uber as a means to support her four children, three boys and one girl.
Once the schools closed, Lunsford, 29, lost her childcare and had to stop working to care for her children.
With the extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits legislated in the CARES Act, Lunsford was able to continue paying the rent, but those benefits ended in late July.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Aug. 8 to extend these benefits at a reduced $400, allocating money from FEMA disaster relief.
On Aug. 12, Gov. Roy Cooper said that North Carolina had started the process of applying for the new benefits, but that will require bipartisan cooperation from the Republican-led legislature.
Without federal or state assistance, Lunsford said she has few options. The limited state unemployment benefits and child support payments are not enough to pay her expenses, she said.
“I am definitely scared especially because I have four children that I’m taking care of,” Lunsford said. “Four hundred or $500 for the whole month is nothing.”
Peter Gilbert at Legal Aid of North Carolina, an organization that represents those facing eviction across the state, said that tenants that were covered by the CARES Act are more likely to face eviction.
“Many of the tenants who are covered by the CARES Act are the most vulnerable, so I expect higher eviction rates among people who are covered by the CARES Act than people who are not,” Gilbert said.
“Not everybody who’s covered by the CARES Act is going to be facing eviction, but they’re going to be at higher risk for it.”
Threat of eviction
On July 31, Lunsford had a letter in her door from her property manager. It said she would be evicted if she didn’t submit recertification documentation by 5 p.m. that day.
People who live in public housing each year must provide proof that their income hasn’t exceeded the federal limit.
Lunsford said the Durham Housing Authority contacted her in March and requested that she go to their offices by the end of the day to submit recertification documents, but she said she wasn’t able to that day because she had to work. Then, she said, the pandemic shut down the office before she could recertify.
After she received the eviction warning in July, Lunsford said she was able to verify her income from unemployment by the end of the day. But she said she was also asked to verify her child support income and wasn’t able to — because the Durham County Social Services office was closed due to the pandemic.
The next Friday, on Aug. 7, Lunsford said she received another letter and another warning of eviction if she didn’t certify her child support income by the end of the day. Lunsford said she was eventually able to certify her child support income, but she said the stress of possible eviction has taken a toll on
“It’s stressful because we’re already below poverty,” Lunsford said. “It’s like they’re just trying to find ways to evict you.”
The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, formed in March to gather eviction data amid the pandemic, came to the 700,000 figure by incorporating data on renter household income, savings and housing cost burdens.
As of 2018, North Carolina has over 330,000 renter households who make 30% or less of the area median income. Of those, 86% spend 30% of their income on housing, and 70% spend 50% or more, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Kathryn Sabbeth, a professor at the UNC School of Law who specializes in housing law, said that landlords sometimes bring eviction cases to tenants because they want to rent to a new tenant.
“Sometimes landlords bring eviction cases because they actually want the tenant out. Other times landlords bring eviction cases because it’s their way of collecting some money, and other times, landlords bring eviction cases to harass tenants into leaving,” Sabbeth said.
Sabbeth said that while the eviction moratoriums did help delay a wave of evictions that many are predicting, she said it’s not a long-term solution as it doesn’t provide assistance to tenants behind on rent.
“We need to do something about the rent because obviously more time doesn’t help tenants catch up. It doesn’t help landlords get the income that they need,” Sabbeth said.
Sabbeth said that nationwide calls of “cancelling rent’ are often misinterpreted as leaving landlords without income. She said most calls for rent cancellation help both tenants and landlords.
“Those who are serious about rent cancellation are talking about a proposal in which the government is going to reimburse the landlords for their lost income,” Sabbeth said. “The alternative to having some form of rent relief or rent cancellation is a balloon payment at the end of the moratorium, which is not in anybody’s interest. That doesn’t help landlords pay their bills and tenants cannot cover that.”
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Ben Sessoms covers housing and gentrification in the Triangle for the News & Observer through Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered issues. Before joining the News & Observer, Ben covered long-term hurricane recovery in eastern North Carolina for Carnegie-Knight News21 and education in Iredell County for the Statesville Record & Landmark. He is a 2019 alum of Appalachian State University.