At 9:40 a.m. on Sept. 30, Mecklenburg County sheriff’s deputies showed up at Leegraciea Lewis’ apartment door. Lewis hadn’t changed into her day clothes yet.
The sheriff came to my house and said he was going to evict me,” said Lewis. “I said, ‘For what?’”
Deputies told her to get dressed and to come with them. They had a court order that she had to leave the Landing at Steele Creek Apartments in Charlotte.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to leave my home! This is the only place I have left to go!’” Lewis said.
Despite her protests, Lewis was evicted that day. Not knowing anywhere else to turn, she checked in to an extended stay hotel. As of Tuesday, she was still there, though she feared her funds would soon run out and she would be left without a place to turn.
She’s not alone.
From July through September, almost 25,000 eviction cases have been filed statewide according to data from the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts. Almost 15,000 have been granted.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. In those same three months of 2019, well before the pandemic hit, when the economy was still strong, the courts logged almost 50,000 initial eviction filings.
But housing advocates say just because eviction proceedings aren’t making it to the courts, that doesn’t mean people aren’t being forced out of their homes. It’s just happening under the radar or will come through the court system soon.
“Everything is still wide open,” said Peter Gilbert, a staff attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina who works with clients facing eviction. “Eviction filings are down. But there are a large number of people who are under the threat of eviction.”
An analysis of past-due rent prepared for the National Council of State Housing Agencies by Stout, a global investment bank and advisory firm, estimates that between 300,000 and 410,000 North Carolina households are unable to pay rent and are at risk of eviction. The report estimates some 240,000 total eviction filings by January and that the estimated rental shortfall could exceed $800 million.
Some landlords simply tell tenants they have to leave, and since tenants know they haven’t paid rent, they go, without knowing what protections are in place. In some cases, landlords leave broken appliances unfixed or have been unresponsive to tenant complaints to the point that tenants simply leave.
In North Carolina, the only legal process for eviction is through the courts, and these methods to push tenants out are not permitted.
“I speak to tenants all the time who are weighing whether to move out of their homes because the landlord never responds to repair requests,” said Bennett Heine, a volunteer with Bull City Tenants United, a group working to end evictions in Durham.
“The data may not call it an eviction, but when you move out because the landlord hasn’t promptly responded to a repair request in months, because your apartment always floods when it rains, or because you have mold blackening entire walls — that’s an eviction. It happens all the time and is a strategy landlords use to illegally force tenants out.”
That’s not to say all landlords simply try to get rid of tenants.
“Our members are going above and beyond to work with tenants,” said Dustin Engelken, the Triangle Apartment Association’s government affairs director. “They have been from the beginning. That was true before the eviction moratoriums, it will be true after.”
Given the option, most landlords would prefer to have tenants in their units. An eviction means an empty unit that doesn’t generate revenue. Tenant rights advocates agree, noting most landlords carry mortgages on their properties and have their own bills to pay.
That’s why — in many cases — legitimate landlords and well-meaning tenants are actually on the same side during the pandemic. They say the solution is simple: money. The government needs to step in with rental assistance programs.
“We’ve been advocating strenuously for rental assistance from the very beginning,” Engelken said.
“People were given a $1,200 stimulus at the beginning of the summer and told to fend for themselves. Here in the Triangle, that’s an average (month’s) rent for a two-bedroom. So best-case scenario, you got one month of rent out of that, and then you’re on your own. So, no; there hasn’t been enough. And we certainly are going to need more.”
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention evictions moratorium began Sept. 4. It’s possible Lewis would have qualified, though court proceedings for her eviction began in August 2019, before the pandemic.
Various state and federal eviction moratoriums went into effect early on in the pandemic, slowing the eviction rate. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act passed by Congress provided some relief to landlords of some multifamily properties, granting them temporary relief from making mortgage payments, but they had to agree to halt most evictions.
A typical month sees about 15,000 initial eviction filings across North Carolina. That dropped to fewer than 4,000 per month from March through June.