Tuesday, May 24, 2022

With evictions looming, will rent assistance arrive in time, and will it be enough?

Evictions are well underway in North Carolina as the last remaining government protections run out and federal funding to cover rent assistance flows in. (Port City Daily photo/File)

SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — Government protections from eviction during the pandemic have mostly expired. Now, public funding is pouring in to cover late rent payments, aiming to cover gaps — but, almost certainly, some cases will fall through the cracks.

The funding, while helpful, may arrive a few weeks too late for otherwise eligible individuals that may find themselves in the courtroom this week.

Related: The Covid-19 safety nets are gone. Now a flood of evictions is here

At the same time, many landlords with tenants behind on rent have been bearing the debt burden for months. Without jobs restored and the local economy fully rebounding, federal funding acts as a Band-Aid, putting off the inevitable; if tenants aren’t able to find work or enough hours, how long will these programs last?

By next Monday, all property owners and renters — regardless of whether or not the unit is federally-backed — are fair game to be brought through eviction proceedings if they aren’t up-to-date on their rent.

In the Cape Fear region, affordable housing is already in low supply with thousands of households cost-burdened, spending a large proportion of their income on housing.

“So you layer this unimaginable and seemingly never-ending crisis on top of our pre-existing housing crisis — it’s a sobering thought,” Katrina Knight, director of the Good Shepherd Center said Wednesday. “To say that that is concerning or worrisome is really an understatement.”

Housing advocates have been anticipating a nationwide and local flood of evictions, which may ramp up in the coming weeks. That’s because most housing fell under lingering federal protections that just ran out.

Last lapse

About two-thirds of residential units in the U.S. are backed by federally-backed financing programs, according to the National Consumer Law Center. Protection for these renters lapsed Monday. Renters in privately-owned properties with no federal strings have been open to evictions since N.C. Governor Roy Cooper let his three-week all-out eviction moratorium expire June 20.

“I was expecting to see a whole boatload of evictions but that hasn’t really shown up yet,” Steve Lee, a pro bono housing advocate said Wednesday of his recent experience in the New Hanover County courtroom. “I think next Monday will be a really good test.”

Last month, Lee said the court had to double its typical resources to manage the backlog of eviction filings, which at that point, topped 9,000 cases statewide. Now, pending cases are sitting at about 6,500 statewide, with about 70 filed since June in New Hanover County as of last week and about 20 in both Pender and Brunswick County over that timeframe, with more filed weekly.

Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office deputies received 32 writs of possession (when law enforcement escorts tenants out of a property) and served 24 since July, according to a spokesperson. It’s not clear whether this amount is more or less than usual.

For the first time since evictions started back in late June for properties not federally-backed, the New Hanover County courthouse is back down to one magistrate handling the small claims court log, Lee said. He expects the volume to ramp up in the coming weeks.

Lingering protections

It’s hard to keep up with the mix of temporary rules, delays, and blocks put in place since the spring to address evictions during the pandemic. Imposed by an array of state and federal authorities, most have run out by now, with a few less significant interventions still in place.

The 30-day notice of eviction requirement imposed by the CARES Act for federally-backed properties expired Monday, meaning select non-paying tenants will soon be placed on the small claims court calendar for summary ejectment filings (in North Carolina, the eviction notice period is typically 10 days). Next Monday, the eviction block imposed by the Federal Housing Finance Agency to extend the since-expired CARES Act moratorium will dry up, leaving the last remaining exception, single-family homes backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, vulnerable to eviction or foreclosure.

Though it doesn’t stop the process from moving forward, some court proceedings remain delayed — for now. Clerks still have 30 days to schedule a hearing after proper notice is given under a directive extended by N.C. Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley Aug. 15 until Sept. 14; normally, clerks have two weeks to get an ejectment hearing on the calendar.

Chief Beasley added new requirements Monday, closing a potential loophole. In addition to extending a previous requirement that landlords check a box on an affidavit that affirms whether or not a property was covered by the CARES Act, landlords must now also disclose whether the property is under forbearance — a stopgap that allowed federally-backed housing units to delay payments for up to six months.

Listen to Port City Daily on WUNC’s State of Things: Landlord Evicting You? ‘You’ve Got Six Minutes To Make Your Case.’

This is significant because landlords with properties under forbearance are not permitted to evict non-paying tenants, according to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Without the required disclosure, magistrates previously may not have been checking if landlords had obtained a forbearance on their property during eviction proceedings.

But even with the disclosures, magistrates may not necessarily be validating the veracity of whether or not a property was or wasn’t covered by the CARES Act at the time of filing.

Though not the norm, there were some cases in New Hanover County and elsewhere in which landlords sought evictions of their tenants living in federally-backed properties during the protected period without submitting the required affidavit. Depending on the magistrate, an improper filing can render the case dismissed.

Though there’s an extensive database federal agencies direct residents to so they can check whether or not a property is federally-backed, its disclaimer warns it’s not exhaustive. Tracking down single-family and multi-family mortgages covered by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac takes more legwork, which many tenants undergoing the eviction process may not have the time or wherewithal to figure out without legal assistance.

Legal Aid of North Carolina, a free legal resource for low-income individuals, is working to block improperly filed evictions and empower tenants with the knowledge of their legal rights through the stressful process.

Help arriving

Compared to the sparse financial assistance landscape of rent assistance in June, this month, federal funds are flowing in. These programs require applicants to prove through documentation that their financial need arose due to the pandemic (not because of other hardships).

While only a temporary solution, the funding is better than nothing after months of financial stress was shifted onto landlords, many of which are small, mom-and-pop operations.

Tuesday, Cooper announced three new programs that will allocate $175 million toward eviction and utility payments. Funding will be distributed to community agencies, state programs, and small local governments.

North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency (NCORR), designated $94 million, is working to quickly identify agencies to funnel the funding through.

“We know that the need is urgent, so we are moving as fast as possible to establish agreements with community agencies that are committed to getting this aid out into their communities quickly,” Bridget Munger, NCORR spokesperson wrote in an email Thursday.

Earlier this month, New Hanover County began distributing its $1.3 million allocation of CARES Act funding designated to alleviate rent and child care payments for low-income residents impacted by the pandemic through the Department of Social Services. To date, 440 families have requested housing assistance, according to county spokesperson Kate Oelslager. About $60,000 has been administered for housing assistance to date. Each household is eligible for up to $2,000 in rent assistance; an eligible one-person household can earn a maximum of $38,280 salary and have no more than $5,500 in accessible resources.

The City of Wilmington’s rent assistance program funded by the CARES Act is being managed and distributed by the Good Shepherd Center. With $370,000 ready to be distributed to eligible families for emergency assistance, the non-profit hopes to help 100 households through its Eviction Protection Program (EPP). The program doesn’t have a set maximum or average payment for applicants. An eligible one-person household can earn a maximum $44,000 salary.

Though the program hasn’t yet disbursed funds to applicants, case managers hope to do so in the coming weeks. “I’m sure there will be gaps,” Knight, the center’s director, said.

The EPP requires landlord buy-in; they must agree not to pursue eviction for at least three months after the center covers a delinquent payment, waive April-June late fees, and allow renters to catch up on three months of late rent.

“Maybe the landlord can’t be made whole, but if we can help with a delinquent payment, maybe that landlord will be able to see money they wouldn’t have seen otherwise,” she said.

Landlords typically do not come out of the eviction process with money owed back in their pockets. Usually, the process is simply to get the property empty so that they can fill it with a paying tenant. Rarely do landlords end up seeing back rent or collect judgments.

Knight worries about families who are evicted for nonpayment. New housing typically requires a security deposit and at least the first month’s rent — significant fees for those already struggling with funds.

“If you are just making it, how do you pull that many hundreds of dollars together when you just don’t have anything left over to pull together when that paycheck comes?” Knight asked.

“At the end of the day, it’s about helping that household remain housed and not experience or God forbid, homeless,” she said.


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