Thou­sands of ten­ants evicted af­ter mora­to­rium ended in NC

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY BEN SESSOMS bses­soms@new­sob­server.com

Ca­trice Otengo parked her 2007 Ford Fo­cus at an Ex­tended Stay Amer­ica in Greens­boro on an early July morn­ing.

She had just fin­ished third shift as a spec­i­men pro­ces­sor at Quest Di­ag­nos­tics.

In­side her one-bed mo­tel room, stor­age bins sat in the cor­ner and a suit­case filled with clothes was tucked un­der a desk.

This was home.

The pan­demic first brought a cut in Otengo’s hours. Then, a weeks-long fur­lough. Un­em­ploy­ment checks didn’t come quickly enough. An evic­tion did.

“I shouldn’t be here,” Otengo, 49, said. But she’s been liv­ing in this mo­tel room since mid-July.

COVID-19 dec­i­mated Amer­ica’s econ­omy, leav­ing mil­lions of ten­ants with­out the in­come they needed to make rent. Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials tried to keep them shel­tered. The state halted evic­tions at the start of the pan­demic, through June 23. Then, at the start of Septem­ber, the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion blocked evic­tions na­tion­wide for renters af­fected by the virus.

But in that roughly twom­onth gap, Otengo and others fell through the cracks.

Across the state, land­lords filed evic­tions against more than 18,000 ten­ants in be­tween mora­to­ri­ums. It’s un

clear how many peo­ple were dis­placed, but evic­tion fil­ings dou­bled from June to July and con­tin­ued that pace into Au­gust, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis of data pro­vided by the state Ad­min­is­tra­tive Of­fice of the Courts.

Renters had no safety net for much of the sum­mer. The North Carolina Gen­eral As­sem­bly failed to di­rect any COVID-19 re­lief funds to help ten­ants set­tle over­due rent. In late Au­gust, Gov. Roy Cooper di­rected $175 mil­lion in hous­ing re­lief, but for renters al­ready dis­placed, it was too late.

Hous­ing ad­vo­cates pre­dict an­other del­uge of evic­tions in Jan­uary af­ter the fed­eral mora­to­rium ex­pires.

“You’re just essen­tially post­pon­ing those evic­tions from now un­til Jan­uary,” said Jesse Mc­Coy, su­per­vis­ing at­tor­ney at Duke Univer­sity’s Civil Jus­tice Clinic, which helps ten­ants fac­ing evic­tion in Durham.

Un­der the CDC mora­to­rium, renters must pro­vide sworn state­ments that they can’t pay rent due to the virus and failed to find help else­where. Land­lords could face crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion if they try to dis­place those ten­ants.

The CDC or­der couldn’t help Otengo. She said it made her sick to her stom­ach.

“What about the peo­ple that have al­ready been evicted? What about those peo­ple? Where was my pro­tec­tion?” Otengo said.

HELP CAME TOO LATE

Right be­fore the pan­demic hit, a surgery put Otengo out of work for all of Fe­bru­ary, she said. Checks from her short­term dis­abil­ity in­sur­ance were slow to ar­rive.

She fell be­hind on her $ 765 monthly rent.

Otengo re­turned to work by the start of the pan­demic. Soon, though, her hours were cut to 20 a week. In late April, Quest Di­ag­nos­tics fur­loughed her, she said.

Like thou­sands of other work­ers, Otengo bat­tled an over­whelmed un­em­ploy­ment sys­tem. She said only one check came.

With un­paid rent pil­ing up month af­ter month, Otengo drove to Raleigh in mid-June to protest alone at the of­fices of the North Carolina Divi­sion of Em­ploy­ment Se­cu­rity, the state agency that dis­penses un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits.

A con­cerned DES em­ployee helped with her pay­ments. The ben­e­fits be­gan rolling in, but it was too late.

Otengo fell too far be­hind on rent to square up. With the state mora­to­rium lapsed, the court granted her land­lord an evic­tion in July.

She went to Ex­tended Stay Amer­ica, where res­i­dents can se­cure a room week to week with­out pay­ing a de­posit. She pays $220 a week for a room, more each month than she paid for her apart­ment. She pays an­other $174 a month to store her fur­ni­ture.

Otengo searched for bet­ter hous­ing, but the evic­tion fol­lowed her.

It’s a red flag for many land­lords con­sid­er­ing ten­ants.

Af­ter weeks of search­ing, she found on Craigslist a room to rent in Durham. Start­ing Oct. 1, she’ll pay $550 a month to live with four strangers in a five-bed­room house.

That’s on top of the stor­age pay­ment. Her room is too tiny for all her fur­ni­ture.

Otengo is work­ing two jobs to save up for a bet­ter place. She works full-time at LabCorp and is a wait­ress at Out­back Steak­house, where she earns $2.13 an hour plus tips.

‘LAND­LORDS ARE SUF­FER­ING’

In mid-Au­gust, 115 ten­ants stood in line in a crowded hall­way at the Durham County court­house.

All of them faced evic­tion. They also faced the same plain­tiff, Rick Soles Prop­erty Man­age­ment.

Rick Soles, the owner, is in the busi­ness of shel­ter­ing peo­ple, but with­out rent, it’s a fail­ing one.

It’s why he and hun­dreds of other land­lords and man­age­ment com­pa­nies rushed to court in July and Au­gust for per­mis­sion to evict ten­ants who had failed to pay rent in the spring and early sum­mer.

“Land­lords are suf­fer­ing,” Soles said in a phone in­ter­view.

Soles said he took his ten­ants to court be­cause many of them hadn’t paid rent since the on­set of the pan­demic.

For Soles and other land­lords, rent is monthly in­come used for prop­erty taxes, mort­gages and up­keep.

For much of the year, land­lords have been ex­pected to do with­out that in­come. Soles thinks the new CDC or­der is ask­ing too much. A law­suit has been filed chal­leng­ing the mora­to­rium.

“To tell a land­lord that he can­not have any rent and he can­not evict the ten­ant un­til af­ter the first of the year, he will have ba­si­cally gone 10 months with­out any rent,” Soles said.

And, many land­lords, he said, can’t af­ford to lose that much in­come.

“Most of these peo­ple owe money them­selves, and they’re prob­a­bly in sit­u­a­tions where they can­not af­ford to lose two months worth of rent, much less 10 months,” Soles said.

CAN­CEL RENT?

The re­prieve in evic­tions comes at a cost for ten­ants, too.

The CDC or­der does noth­ing about the rent it­self. Un­paid rent will con­tinue to pile up ev­ery month.

The mo­ment the CDC mora­to­rium lifts on Dec. 31, hous­ing ad­vo­cates warn of an an­tic­i­pated rush of land­lords fil­ing for evic­tion.

This wave will be dif­fer­ent, they said.

Typ­i­cally, land­lords bring an evic­tion if a ten­ant falls a month or two be­hind on rent. In North Carolina, a land­lord can move to eject ten­ants if they are late, no mat­ter how much they owe.

But the land­lord is of­ten will­ing to ac­cept the late rent if the ten­ant can pull it all to­gether within the ap­peal pe­riod, 10 days af­ter the evic­tion is granted.

By Jan­uary, though, a ten­ant could be sev­eral months be­hind on rent. The steeper that cost, the less likely that ten­ants can scrounge enough to­gether and stay in their home.

Kathryn Sab­beth, a law pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who spe­cial­izes in hous­ing law, said it is time for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to step in with hous­ing re­lief.

“The most ob­vi­ous so­lu­tion is some­one has to pay the rent, and it’s not go­ing to be ten­ants who have no in­come,” Sab­beth said. “There needs to be a can­cel­la­tion of the rent, so it’s not just that you can’t be evicted, but that no rent is owed.”

Land­lords would ben­e­fit too, Sab­beth said. It would re­place their lost rental in­come.

In Au­gust, Gov. Cooper di­rected $175 mil­lion in as­sis­tance to com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions that help peo­ple be­hind on rent, mort­gages and util­i­ties.

Hous­ing ad­vo­cates worry that money could fall short of what is needed. Sab­beth said only the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has the re­sources to fund rental as­sis­tance longterm.

Otengo never saw any rental as­sis­tance. She tries not to think about her evic­tion and the lack of help avail­able to her in July. When she does, it takes a toll.

“I try not to think about it be­cause if I think about it, if I think about it too hard, I wouldn’t be out here. I wouldn’t sur­vive. I would prob­a­bly have an emo­tional break­down, and I can’t af­ford to do any of that,” Otengo said. “We were failed.” News& Ob­server data re­porter David Raynor con­tributed to this re­port.

This re­port is brought to you by The North Carolina News Col­lab­o­ra­tive, a coali­tion of 22 news­pa­pers across the state. This oc­ca­sional se­ries, Bounc­ing Back: North Carolina’s Eco­nomic Jour­ney to Re­cov­ery, is made pos­si­ble through a grant from The Pulitzer Cen­ter.

CASEY TOTH ctoth@new­sob­server.com

Ca­trice Otengo, who fell be­hind on her $765 monthly rent, was evicted from her apart­ment in July. She went to Ex­tended Stay Amer­ica in Greens­boro, where she pays $220 a week for a room. Otengo pays an­other $174 a month to store her fur­ni­ture.

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