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Surge? End of eviction moratorium may see increase in filings
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Surge? End of eviction moratorium may see increase in filings

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Advocates for landlords and tenants may not always agree, but both sides are saying that the end of an eviction moratorium on Saturday will see an increase in eviction filings.

Dan Rose, an activist with Housing Justice Now, is predicting a worst-case scenario.

"We are anticipating a bloodbath in terms of evictions," Rose said this week.

Housing Justice Now has been active during the pandemic, pleading for an end to all evictions.

Jon Lowder, who represents landlords as the executive director of the Piedmont Triad Apartment Association doesn't think conditions will be nearly as bad as Rose predicts, but also believes that the number of eviction filings will rise.

"I really think we are going to see a lot of pressure on that rental assistance program very quickly," Lowder said. "People who have not thought about it are going to worry."

Whatever happens, many tenants will have to navigate the new terrain. Advocates for both landlords and tenants are wondering if the county's Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) will be up to snuff.

Victor Isler, the director of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, said he intends to see that tenants get the help they need: Department of Social Services is logging every tenant and landlord who encounters the court system through eviction procedures and spreading the word to those people about the assistance available and how to get it.

Winston-Salem and the county are pooling their ERAP efforts through the DSS and with the help of an outside company and software provider to review applications, contact tenants and landlords to gather missing documentation.

People can apply online, but because of the digital divide, Isler said, it is important to have face-to-face applications as well. Called the ERAP lab, staffers work directly with tenants to guide them through their applications.

"We have noticed an uptick over the past three weeks as we get to the moratorium ending," Isler said.

Dropping evictions

The data show that the number of eviction filings in Forsyth County dropped dramatically starting in the spring of 2020, after the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic led to the imposition of a series of eviction moratoriums designed to keep people from losing their housing in the midst of the pandemic.

During the 15 months prior to March 2020, before the first moratorium was put in place, Forsyth County averaged 880 eviction filings per month. In the 15-month period from April 2020 to the end of June, there was an average of 262 eviction filings per month in Forsyth. That's a decline of about 70%.

Evictions did not stop altogether over most of the period because landlords could still evict for criminal behavior, lease violations or other factors outside non-payment of rent arising from the impacts of COVID.

Lowder said many landlords did not want to put people out in the midst of a pandemic. Most would rather rather work out a payment arrangement with a tenant than go through the time-consuming eviction process, he said.

Rose and other members of his Housing Justice Now group have accused some landlords of pushing too hard to pursue evictions despite the moratorium. They cite instances in which landlord attorneys tried to prove that tenants hadn't tried hard enough to find a way to make their rent payments. 

"We think automatically nonpayment should have been covered," Rose said. "The landlord should have had to prove that the reason for the eviction was for something other than non-payment, or we should have closed down the eviction courts altogether."

The data show that not only were fewer evictions getting filed, but that landlords were also winning a smaller percentage of the cases. In the pre-COVID era, Forsyth County landlords were typically winning around 60% of cases filed. Post-COVID, that dropped to 50%.

At the same time, the percentage of cases resolved by an involuntary dismissal rose from around 3% of the volume to around 11%. That's significant because an involuntary dismissal typically happens when the landlord fails to show up in court, or both landlord and tenant fail to show up.

Multiple factors

The number of involuntary dismissals could have changed because more tenants moved out before their court date, or because the landlord and tenant worked something out, Lowder said. At the same time, he said, evictions for reasons other than non-payment of rent are more complicated, and that could have led to landlords winning fewer cases.

"There was a lot of confusion about who could do what," Lowder said. "Magistrates at the beginning were probably not sure what they could do and if there was any reason they could keep a tenant in place they would do that. Non-payment is a pretty straightforward issue. (Other types of cases) are way too risky to pursue unless it is an egregious case."

Rose pointed out that unemployment benefits from COVID may be playing a part in fewer eviction filings. Rose also gives high marks to the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem, which he said has been exemplary in not pursuing evictions for non-payment.

Cathy Robertson, the vice president of T.E. Johnson & Sons, one of the city's major property managers, said her company took a forward-looking approach as the pandemic hit.

"We manage 850 doors," Robertson said. "We have been fortunate through the pandemic, and most of our tenants are paying. We started being proactive before we were required to send out information. We were sending CDC forms with our late notices. We started out trying to get help for the tenants right away."

Robertson said that while ERAP has made "hundreds of millions of dollars" available for assistance to tenants, the process could work a lot better if landlords were allowed to file for the money on their tenants' behalf. 

Although the county's ERAP program contacts landlords for the documents needed to verify the help a tenant is seeking, Robertson said not enough tenants have been taking that first step.

"We have told our tenants about the application days, where to go and what time to be there," she said. "A large majority of the tenants are not seeking help. If we could submit a list and say, here is the number of people and here are the names of the tenants ..."

Strained relationships

As Isler describes it, the effort to get help for tenants sometimes runs against a strained relationship between landlord and tenant. But both have to cooperate to make the ERAP application succeed.

"The tenant and landlord relationship may be so strained that it is impacting how individuals show up for participation" in the program, Isler said. "Some tenants may operate under the assumption that 'my landlord may not give me a chance.' Landlords may say 'I'm willing to give a second chance,' but those conversations have not been had. We need to make sure everyone comes to the table and communicates."

To Robertson's point about landlords submitting tenant names, Isler responded by noting that the system has to respect the tenant's right to make the decision about filing for help.

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Rose notes that the eviction moratorium didn't cancel anyone's rent: It just prevented evictions from taking place for COVID-related non-payment.

"What we have been demanding over the last, say, 16 months is rent cancellation," Rose said. "What we have instead is an overly-complicated rent-relief program that people are struggling to access."

Too complicated?

Rose said he recently got a call from a mother who said she couldn't get help because she didn't have her son's birth certificate. He noted that New York has decided to "completely overhaul" its ERAP application process because of how hard it can be for tenants to get their hands on a lease. North Carolina should also take a look at an overhaul, he said.

"Any poor person can tell you that getting government assistance is difficult," he said. "It needs to be overhauled to make it easier."

As it is, he said, "nobody wins."

"Landlords will go without, tenants will be evicted," he said. "We see this bureaucratic nonsense that is going to be devastating for people facing evictions in the next several months."

Isler said he's proud of the job DSS has done creating a "one-stop shop" for city and county ERAP applications. He acknowledges, though, that as with any subsidy program, there are forms to fill out and documents to submit.

"At the end of the day, we will be accountable through an audit to make sure these things are done correctly," Isler said. "I would ask the community to pause and think how well we have done issuing millions for food and nutrition."

Owner crying

Robertson said most of the people her company manages rental property for own four properties or fewer.

"Early in the pandemic, I got a call from a property owner who has two homes that rent for less than $800 a month," Robertson said.

The woman wanted to know when Robertson would be sending over her money, and as Robertson told her she could not file for non-payment, "she was crying on the phone."

"I asked her what was wrong, and she explained that between the mortgage and the repairs that we had made that month there was only a small amount of money left over, and she used that money to buy her medications," Robertson said. "That is one of the stories we faced on the owners' side. They don't have deep pockets like the housing authority does to wait it out."

One small landlord who would speak only if her name was not used owns only one rental property. She said she had to evict a tenant who could have paid rent but would not do so, but said she worked with her other tenants and they stayed on site.

"I did have people who lost their jobs because of COVID," this landlord said. "They got behind, but they got caught up. I knew that we would never put someone out because they lost their job due to the pandemic. This was an unprecedented spot for everyone."

Even before the pandemic, when landlords were winning 60% of their eviction cases, only a minority of cases proceeded all the way to the stage where a sheriff's deputy serves a writ of possession on a tenant.

In fact, among some 10,600 eviction filings in the 12 months prior to March 2020, only some 3,900 cases went all the way to serving a writ on a tenant.

Robertson explained how that could work:

"Before the pandemic, out of 850 units, we would file (evictions) on 25 tenants per month on average," she said.

By the time the case was heard, 15 of those tenants would have typically paid their rent. Of the remaining 10, she said, five or so would pay during the period that the judge gives to pay up or vacate.

"By the time you get to where the sheriff was going to go out, you were down to maybe none or maybe three," she said.

Missing contacts

At a recent meeting of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, county officials learned that 1,339 ERAP applications were under review, 688 were either paid out or pending, and 127 cases were denied.

Although DSS is logging eviction filings to tell tenants and landlords about ERAP, Isler said in many cases the contact information is simply not there on the court paperwork.

Isler's data show that so far, 45% of tenants had no contact information in the paperwork, and 27% of landlords had none. Another problem is unresponsiveness: Around a quarter of the tenants and landlords contacted about the ERAP program did not respond. Among those who did respond, many more said they were interested or applying rather than not doing so.

DSS staff keep a presence in court during eviction hearings in case they can be of help, Isler said, adding that there are cases being continued when an ERAP application is in the hopper.

Rose advocates an even stronger role, saying DSS should be in the position of making a pre-application verification of eligibility during court that a judge would use to postpone action.

Eviction diversion

Isler notes that efforts are already under way among the various officials who deal with evictions to see what can be done in what would be called eviction diversion.

Lowder said that nationwide, rental assistance programs have been slow in rolling out. He said he hears positive things about efforts in Greensboro and that because Winston-Salem and Forsyth County have a combined program, "I have had almost no complaints about lack of communication."

In surrounding counties such as Davidson, Stokes and Surry, he said, programs have been slower to launch and communication has not been as good.

If landlords and tenants are not talking enough now, Lowder predicts, they'll have to soon, as the moratorium ends.

"I have no way to tell what it is going to look like, but there's a significant amount of unpaid rent out there," he said. "On a case-by-case basis, landlords and tenants are going to have to figure out what to do."

Rose worries that too many tenants will find only frustration as they look for help from ERAP.

"If you tell someone who has run into a brick wall every time they tried to get help, told that the application was incomplete, often they say this is just another program and walk away," he said.

Isler said he's optimistic.

"Everyone has a part, and we all have to do our part to make this work," he said. "I believe we can do it. It is going to require some intentionality."

336-727-7369 

@wyoungWSJ

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