It’s the calm before the housing crisis storm. And when it hits, says Robin Merrell, a managing attorney at Pisgah Legal Services who oversees housing cases, it’s going to be ugly.
The warnings are flooding in, in the form of desperate phone calls. Asheville-based Pisgah Legal Services is fielding over 1,000 calls a week, half of which are eviction-related, Merrell says.
There are calls from people who have lost their jobs completely. Some have experienced temporary job loss, but don’t have enough savings to catch up on missed rent. Others were unable to qualify for unemployment benefits or did not not receive a federal stimulus check. Many more say that even with assistance, it’s not enough.
The looming eviction crisis has threatened renters for months, teasing tenants with temporary relief measures that end just when cash-strapped residents need them the most. What’s coming could be unlike anything Merrell has witnessed, she warns, worse than the housing collapse in 2008, worse than the Great Depression.
The latest projections from the National Low Income Housing Coalition predict that 30 to 40 million Americans will lose their housing in the next several months. In North Carolina, up to 42% of households are at risk of eviction.
“This will be the largest housing crisis the nation has ever seen,” Merrell predicts. “And if that happens, then those of us alive will spend the rest of our lives dealing with the consequences. And a lot of people will go through really horrible experiences that potentially could have been avoided.”
Stable, for now
The mounting crisis comes at no surprise, Merrell says. In March, as the economic realities of the COVID-19 pandemic were settling in, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order prohibiting new eviction proceedings for residential and commercial tenants for nonpayment. The order was set to expire on June 1, but just days before courts prepared to resume hearing eviction cases, N.C. Chief Justice Cheri Beasley issued a new order to stay all pending evictions until June 21.
Concurrently, federal stimulus funding released under the CARES Act halted evictions from properties backed by a federal mortgage; that protection, however, expired on July 24. Landlords are required to give renters 30 days’ notice before an eviction case is filed in court. Thus, the first wave of filings related to properties with government-held mortgages could come at the end of August.
Since the statewide stay on evictions ended on June 21, 121 evictions have been filed in Buncombe County’s Superior Civil Court, as of Aug. 11: Five were filed in June, 90 were filed in July, and 26 were filed in the first two weeks of August. Steven Cogburn, Buncombe’s clerk of court, says he expects to see the numbers rise when the Asheville Housing Authority begins filing eviction notices at the end of the month.
In the same seven-week time span, the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department served 42 writs of possession — the documents issued after a landlord wins an eviction case in court — says Aaron Sarver, spokesperson for the department. Eight of the official notices were recalled or canceled by the plaintiff, he added.
Last year, the sheriff’s office served 62 writs of possession in July and 54 in August, Sarver adds. In 2018, the department served 65 notices in June, 50 in July and 42 in August.
According to documents provided by the Buncombe County small claims court, 1,794 evictions were filed during the 2019-20 fiscal year, 2,205 evictions were filed in 2018-19, and 2,185 were filed in 2017-18.
“Everyone is struggling”
The 2008 housing crisis was largely driven by foreclosures, and homeowners who lost their homes were typically able to become renters, Merrell explains. Now, renters are the ones losing their homes, leaving fewer options.
When renters are unable to pay their landlords, landlords can’t pay their mortgages and the cycle deepens, she notes. According to a regional housing needs assessment commissioned for the city of Asheville by Bowen National Research and updated in March, approximately 46% of county renters — more than 17,000 households — are cost burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their income on housing.
In a statement on behalf of the Apartment Association of Western North Carolina, spokesperson Bryan Holladay says landlords are also feeling financial pressures. Many housing providers operate as “mom and pop” operations and rely on rent payments to cover mortgage payments, property taxes and insurance, he says.
Some industry analysts suggest that rental housing vacancy rates are increasing because existing tenants are moving to less expensive areas, notes Brian Huskey, the city of Asheville’s community development analyst and homelessness lead. Landlords may be less likely to evict when vacancy rates remain high and may be more willing to work out a payment plan with existing tenants to avoid expensive court fees and lost revenue from empty units.
Rental rates for properties owned by the Asheville Housing Authority is income-based, meaning administrators can lower a tenant’s rent to 30% of their new income, explains David Nash, Housing Authority director. Unless it’s an “egregious situation,” he says, most nonpayment cases are worked out before an eviction is filed. Tenants are allowed three eviction filings in a 12-month period; if they trigger a fourth filing, the Housing Authority follows through with the eviction, he says.
“We certainly understand the enhanced risk associated with people becoming homeless at this point in time, and we’re going to make an effort to avoid that in every possible case,” Nash says.
The federal eviction moratorium bought the Housing Authority more time to talk to tenants and work out payment plans. Right now, the biggest challenge is getting more local landlords to accept housing vouchers — at any one time, there are over 1,000 people on the waiting list to apply for housing assistance, Nash notes.
“The best we can tell people is to put their name on a waiting list, and hopefully within a year or two, we might be able to get to them.”
Where to next?
The COVID-19 pandemic adds an extra layer of complexity for individuals facing eviction: It may not be safe for people to go to homeless shelters or stay with family if they lose their housing, Merrell explains. In “normal times,” evictions have severe effects on children’s progress in schools, she says, and with remote learning, those difficulties are going to become greater.
“It really bleeds over, not just into the eviction, but has ripple effects for the entire community,” she says.
It’s crucial that organizations do all they can to keep people housed, explains Debbie Alford, housing placement manager at Homeward Bound. An eviction remains on a tenant’s record for seven years, becoming a barrier to securing housing in the future. If someone has exhausted all options and a landlord is preparing to file for summary ejectment in court, she urges the tenant to leave before official eviction proceedings begin.
Merrell, however, counsels clients to stay put as long as they can. People facing eviction should not voluntarily move out until they’ve talked with the team at Pisgah Legal Services. “Being homeless is far worse than having an eviction on your record,” she says. “And quite frankly, if people can’t get a pass for being evicted right now, when can they ever?”
To stave off the possibility of eviction, she recommends reaching out to local groups to seek rental assistance and any other available resources. Both Homeward Bound and Pisgah Legal have rental assistance programs to help at-risk individuals catch up on rent and utility payments; the city of Asheville has allocated roughly $400,000 of federal Community Development Block Grant funding to the two nonprofits for eviction protection and short-term rental assistance.
The city of Asheville has also received $430,000 in federal emergency solutions grant funding distributed by the state to address housing stability activities and crisis response. Prevention is a key piece in the city’s strategy to end homelessness, Huskey says, and in the coming weeks, he expects the city to receive an additional $800,000 from the same funding source to continue this ongoing effort during the pandemic.
The situation is frightening, Merrell says. She keeps going by trying to find hope in the situation — and to recognize that if nothing else, the conversation has been elevated in a way that’s new.
“Resources are coming from the CARES Act, from local and state government, and we’ve never had that before,” she says. “I think that a lot of people get caught up in blaming poor people for being poor,” she continues. “Right now, a lot of people have lost their employment through no fault of their own, and I think there’s more compassion for people right now than there typically is. And that’s a really good thing.”