Since March, COVID-19 has caused millions to lose their jobs. Industries that once relied on in-person human contact have halted. Many people have had their work hours reduced, while still others became sick and had to quarantine, unable to work.
Caught in the middle of all of this: the rent.
The extreme income loss has caused community members to fall behind on their bills, and our federal, state and municipal governments have not provided adequate relief. Without rent forgiveness, and without encompassing eviction moratoriums, landlords have capitalized on this suffering and the already existing eviction crises occurring in our communities have become exacerbated.
Attempts at rental assistance and eviction moratoriums have been put in place that have lowered current eviction numbers, but they are not enough to solve the massive eviction problem. They are simply attempts at delaying inevitable crisis.
Organizers and activists in North Carolina have been doing the crucial work to defend our community members from eviction. In this ongoing crisis, some of the critical points of action organizers have been working on involve spreading information to tenants about their housing rights, utilizing relief methods, and organizing our communities against eviction.
Let’s talk about the moratorium.
After more than two months without national eviction protections, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention enacted an eviction moratorium in early September, lasting until the end of 2020.
The moratorium leaves the burden of filing on the tenant—in essence, making it a court defense rather than a true moratorium. Landlords are still allowed to file evictions, courts can still hear these filed cases, and sheriffs can still execute a padlock on a home.
Dr. Alexis Clark, Community Resource Coordinator with the Durham Eviction Diversion Program, noted that the moratorium is broad in scope but not automatically applied to all tenants facing eviction. Tenants are required to take action in order to have it applied to them.
“Having that signed attestation that you have presented to your landlord can act as a critical piece of defense in a small claims trial,” she said.
Under the order, the person being evicted has to fill out a form to give their landlord that puts them under penalty of perjury that they meet all of the CDC’s conditions:
- They must attest that they are working with a government agency to acquire financial assistance towards past due rent.
- They can’t expect to make more than $99,000 in a single income household (or more than $198,000 in a dual income household) in 2020.
- They must be unable to afford rent due to loss of household income.
- They must be doing their best efforts to make “timely partial payments” to their landlord.
- If evicted they would likely become homeless due to lack of other housing options.
The moratorium also does not halt rent payments or interest. Because of this, landlords can require the full amount of missed payments, plus interest and additional fees, at the moratorium’s expiration on December 31.
Clark said there is no current indication of any possible rent forgiveness, nor any government plan for what will happen.
“In January we anticipate a crush of evictions. This simply kicks the can down the road, it doesn’t prevent any future filings or writs of possession against these people,” she said.
The Durham Eviction Diversion Program is working to spread information about the CDC moratorium in hopes of more tenants knowing their rights in eviction proceedings. Clark said that this education leads tenants to be able to act proactively in their own defenses, and to protect their own housing rights.
“Too often the law tends to be opaque to people. It protects people who have the ability to often hire legal representatives, and that means landlords,” she said.
She also said it’s critical to mobilize around the issue of eviction record expungement. Currently eviction proceedings cannot be expunged from a person’s record in North Carolina, which creates extreme problems for people when looking for work, new housing, and other things involving a credit score.
“In the future, having these eviction filings will create these two classes of renters: those that are privileged without an eviction filing and those that will have a permanent mark on their record. This will exacerbate the division between two classes of renters.”
What else has the government done in terms of relief?
On March 27 the federal government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a $2.2 trillion stimulus package. This law prohibited new evictions due to nonpayment of rent for people in certain types of housing through July 25.
This relief funding included a $500 billion fund to bail out corporations, while protections for the homeless, for undocumented immigrants, and for those uninsured remained absent.
“We see that certain industries and certain corporations are able to be bailed out,” said Dedan Waciuri, Greenville housing advocate with the Coalition Against Racism. “But when it comes to the people, the people aren’t being bailed out. We know that this country is more than capable of taking care of people it should be taking care of.”
The CARES Act additionally included a provision of an extra $600 per week for those on Unemployment, as well as a one-time $1,200 check for qualifying adults. That extra $600 in weekly compensation for those unemployed ended on July 31, despite the pandemic being nowhere near a decline and millions still out of jobs.
Instead of finding an agreement on further relief for those struggling, Congress chose in August to recess until early September without a decision. Congress has yet to pass further relief packages.
“What I see as kind of a slow motion tsunami. It’s gathering steam to be sure. How it crashes will depend on whether or not Congress intervenes,” said Bruce Rich, project director of UNC Greensboro’s Center for Housing and Community Studies.
Octavia Rainey, a fair housing advocate in Raleigh that has been doing this work since 1973, said Congress’ inaction will cause eviction rates to double and triple.
“No decision has been made at all, but people still have to live in the meantime. What is going to happen to the people that were getting the $600, where they still had to struggle and that still wasn’t enough to pay the rent?”
Rainey emphasized that regardless of income spectrum, people are hit hard from every angle. She noted that homeowners are becoming housing insecure as well as tenants.
“That’s why there needs to be relief efforts, certainly more than we’re doing now,” she said. “There is nothing for your rent, there’s nothing for your mortgage, there’s nothing to help you pay your taxes.”
How severely are NC community members being impacted?
Stephen Sills, founder of UNC Greensboro’s Center for Housing and Community Studies, stated that he anticipates with the housing squeeze, the existing lack of affordability, the low paying jobs, and the high unemployment rate that more people will be displaced from their homes.
“We know that this disproportionately impacts communities of color, low income communities, and people who are cost burdened in their rent (paying more than 30% of their income in housing and in housing expenses),” he said.
Temporary eviction protections put in place in spring caused evictions to be very low in Durham County during the months of April, May, and June, according to data from DataWorks NC. They increased again slightly in July and August to around 200 summary ejectments and writs of possession each of those months.
Clark said that while urban areas have started to decline in eviction filings, many rural counties have experienced an uptick.
“There are rural counties that are experiencing spikes in eviction, so there seems to be less knowledge of the moratorium in rural counties, but also less financial assistance programs there,” she said.
According to 2016 data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton, Greensboro is the worst city in the state for its rate of evictions and the seventh worst in the country. Prior to the pandemic, that meant about 14 evictions per day just in Greensboro.
Moreover, Sills stated that there is not a housing shortage in Greensboro, but an affordable housing shortage.
“We have enough housing units overall but we’ve been building units at the high end of the rental spectrum: $1000, $1200 a month, while the population has been increasing in the $400-600 range that can’t keep up with paying the prices for the types of housing that’s being built,” he said.
Sills noted that the virus itself disproportionately spreads among those in low income housing.
“A combination of housing issues, lack of primary care physicians, lack of good food distribution, poor quality of housing and its relation to health already, they create a situation where a respiratory illness like COVID-19 that is spread person to person has a high likelihood of spread,” he said.
He additionally noted that folks displaced from their homes who end up in congregate settings, like homeless shelters, have high rates of COVID-19 spread.
“We’ve been saying for years that the shortage of affordable housing and the disconnect between incomes and housing costs is not sustainable,” said Rich. “And I think the implication when we say that something is not sustainable is that eventually something is going to have to change. But nothing has changed up to now fundamentally.”
The pandemic has additionally exposed a lack of sustainability in college towns across the state, where a large portion of the working population would typically work for the universities. Those workers have had both their income security and health disregarded.
In Greenville, East Carolina University originally brought back students to campus, but closed campus after spikes in cases. This put campus workers in immense danger of COVID-19 infection immediately prior to stripping many of their jobs.
“The workers there make ECU run. There’s people that clean, that cook, all sorts of things in this industry, that have to go without now. This leaves a situation where people are unable to pay their light bills,” Waciuri said.
Waciuri said that gentrification, lack of affordable housing, lack of healthcare, and food deserts that already existed in Black and Brown communities have made the effects of the pandemic disproportionately worse for those communities.
“When we talk about evictions and gentrification, I think we need to talk about them at the same time. They coexist,” he said. “With gentrification comes this increasing of rent, and people that originally stayed in the community don’t have the kind of financial backing.”
Waciuri said, going forward, the eviction crisis should only be analyzed as a form of violence to keep Black and Brown people out of communities.
“This is violence. Gentrification is violence, eviction is violence. When we protest against police violence and vigilante violence perpetrated against Black and Brown people, it’s also just as important we rally around and amplify the same violence that is put toward Black and Brown people through evictions, through gentrification.
How have NC organizers responded?
Organizers in North Carolina have stepped up to meet the need where the government has failed.
Housing advocates like Waciuri and Rainey work directly with community members to provide aid and support.
The Coalition Against Racism, a movement organization that fights for minorities and workers out of Eastern NC, builds consciousness locally through social media and newsletters, fights on the ground against colonial occupation, and has a fund set up for those in housing crisis.
“Sad to say, it doesn’t get people back in the house but it does get people things they need until they can get themselves back in a position where they can be housed again,” said Waciuri.
They additionally provide mutual aid every other weekend by passing out masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and information about COVID-19 to help protect community members from the virus.
The Carolina Federation, a grassroots political organization that works to build progressive political power at the community level, has been working in Forsyth County, Guilford County, and New Hanover County to help those at risk of eviction during the pandemic.
“We started out with a plan to do two things: challenge local large complex property owners to do rent relief, or rent abatement, and secondly to be a point source of information for people about this whole process, but particularly focusing on eviction,” said Steve Lee, housing advocate who works with the federation.
Through their work they have established a tenants union, established social media pages as points of information on housing rights, developed an in-house tracking system for evictions, and have directly supported tenants.
The Carolina Federation has additionally advocated for housing relief with elected officials.
“When we realized the city of Wilmington was going to get $612,000 of CBDG (Community Development Block Programs) funding, we began to actively advocate for that funding to specifically go to tenants with our city council members,” said Daniels.
Ashley Daniels, Southeast Regional Organizer with the federation, said that NC cities like Durham have had some great community organizing around tenants and low income public housing, but that in Wilmington they haven’t seen a large amount of advocacy outside of realtors and lenders.
“Since we didn’t see a concentrated method of organizing in Wilmington, and because of COVID, we saw online as a way to connect with folks,” she said.
“We started using our social media platform as a way to talk about the moratorium and which properties they were protected in. We started telling them about how they couldn’t get their electric cut off and basically all the rights that they had as tenants, as well as resources.”
This work through social media led to the New Hanover Tenants Union on Facebook. The comms team from the Carolina Federation as well as housing attorneys were added to help answer questions for folks.
The dissemination of information about legal rights during the eviction process is incredibly valuable, and could make the difference between eviction and defense.
“The thing about information, even if I can’t afford an attorney, or can’t afford to buy my own house, knowing something as simple as my landlord cannot legally do this, is a silver bullet that I can hold up in court,” said Daniels.
Lee noted that housing advocacy work done prior to COVID was primarily individual casework for a tenant, and that the pandemic has created a necessity to organize for the sake of tenants and for policy changes.
“It provides an opportunity to become more active, more engaged, and more forceful in calling on the community as a whole to address housing issues as a place of concern that impacts all of us,” he said.