Charlotte housing advocates are stunned at the accelerated pace of evictions in Mecklenburg County during the fall, amid fallout from COVID and the end of a federal moratorium on evictions.
“For the greater part of 2021, landlords weren’t able to move forward with evictions related to non-payment and COVID-related non-payment,” said Hannah Guerrier, a supervising attorney at Legal Aid of North Carolina. “Now they are, and they are going at it with full force. … We are seeing everything move forward very quickly.”
Guerrier and three other local housing experts summarized the state of evictions in a Dec. 2 panel conducted by the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative. They highlighted the need for education about tenant rights, the value of legal representation, the power of collaboration and grassroots work, and financial resources still available.
Erin Barbee, the senior vice president of programs and fund development at DreamKey Partners – a housing organization that advises homeowners and renters and provides assistance programs like the COVID-based relief program, RampCLT – said they are beginning to see a return to pre-pandemic eviction levels.
Since a federal moratorium on evictions was lifted in August, the rate of tenants seeking rent assistance who also face eviction has increased nearly four times, from 10% to 39%, Barbee said.
“More and more people are in highly stressful situations who are feeling very vulnerable and quite possibly about to lose their home,” she said.
When You Don’t Have Money, $7 Is a Lot
Kenneth Robinson, the founder and director of Freedom Fighting Missionaries which helps formerly incarcerated people, said that many tenants facing eviction find it tough to attend hearings. Challenges include finding childcare, missing work (and wages), arranging transportation, or paying parking fees at the court. “Seven dollars may sound like a little to somebody who has money, but it’s a lot when you’re thinking about having to go there, having to be there all day, what do you do when you get there?” said Robinson.
Guerrier explained that court can be an intimidating place for those facing evictions, and the process itself is quite complex, full of legal rights and regulations that most people are unaware of. She said many tenants may not attend their hearing – which results in an immediate eviction – because they don’t know their rights. She encourages anyone facing eviction to seek out legal counsel. Resources suggested by Charlotte housing experts include the Charlotte Housing Justice Coalition, Action NC’s Tenant Organizing Resource Center, United Tenants of Charlotte, Latin American Coalition, and Legal Aid of NC.
Changing the Power Dynamic for Tenants
Ismaail Qaiyim, principal attorney for Queen City Community Law Firm, agreed on the need for representation and education for tenants. Power dynamics are key to the eviction process, he explained. When a tenant has the tools and ability to fight back, the dynamic changes significantly, especially in the court setting.
“This is about those who have power versus those who don’t have power,” he said. Landlords can act with impunity and create arbitrary requirements, or refuse money from a third party, Qaiyim said, and building leverage for tenants will make a difference.
Guerrier agreed on the importance of representation in court. Eviction cases are high-risk for tenants, and their home is on the line, so an attorney is helpful in a stressful, unfamiliar environment.
Qaiyim described his experience working in New York City, where they implemented the right to counsel for tenants in eviction hearings, beginning in zip codes with the highest eviction rates. Before this policy, he said, around 95% of landlords were represented and about 1% of tenants. After the policy change, around 40% of tenants received representation. As a result, evictions in high-risk zip codes dropped, Qaiyim said. He explained that most of Charlotte’s evictions occur in just a few zip codes, and targeting those areas could make a huge difference.
City and state governments need to support grassroots organizations, Robinson said. Grassroots organizations and community organizers are currently doing much of the work to support tenants and fight evictions. “We’re doing this because we care about the community and the populations that we serve,” Robinson said. “The city government and the county government do not make an effort for the grassroots organizations to receive the funding that we need to advocate and to be the intermediaries between legal aid, between Ramp and others.” Much of the funding for these organizations comes from community members, he said.
The Value of Collaboration
Collaboration is important, the experts said. Robinson gave examples of organizations working together, such as the work of the Freedom Fighting Missionaries to create a digital access program to help tenants facing eviction fill out RampCLT applications.
“This work cannot be done in silos,” Barbee said.
DreamKey Partners is also working on collaboration with landlords, Barbee said, because evictions can sometimes be avoided altogether if mediation is provided and rights are explained to tenants and landlords.
“Most of the landlords we’ve worked with don’t want to evict, but they do have rules and regulations that they have to follow,” she said. DreamKey has faced challenges with landlords refusing to accept third-party funding (such as RampCLT assistance) because they don’t want to sign the tenant agreements required. These agreements include tenant protections for the duration of the funding. DreamKey tries to clarify the positive impact of these agreements, but if the funding is refused, they resort to giving the money directly to the tenant to avoid eviction.
Still Available: $43 million in RampCLT Funding
Barbee addressed unfounded worries that RampCLT funding was depleted. RampCLT has placed $40 million into the community so far, helping 10,000 families, and still has $43 million to distribute. The program is using about $60,000 a day, she said, showing the speed and urgency of the need.
The eviction issue needs continued visibility, Qaiyam explained.
“If we want to have favorable policies … there has to be the pressure there to really make it a priority, to keep it in the news, to keep it active. That pressure can only come from the grassroots people organizing on the ground,” he said.
Barbee said that while some people can move on, things are not getting better for everyone yet. Many people are trying to catch up on a year of being behind with childcare, work, rent, etc.
“By focusing on evictions, I think we’re doing our small part, but it’s so much bigger than that,” Barbee said. “The issues are deep, they were deep before COVID, but now they are just so deep, and we need to work together in order to make a change. We need to talk about, as a community, how are we going to sustain change over time, not just band-aid?”
Caroline Willingham of Durham, North Carolina, 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.