Pisgah Legal Services has found a way to entice attorneys of all stripes to contribute to the area’s need for housing law expertise with a new educational fellowship.
The nonprofit will train and mentor its first class of housing fellows on landlord-tenant law so they can take on eviction and housing condition-related cases. Recruited through private firms and bar associations, these attorneys will receive five hours of continuing legal education credits, or CLE, for free. (Active members of the North Carolina State Bar are required to take 12 hours of CLE annually.)
Pisgah Legal Services hopes that training lawyers about evictions and housing conditions can build local capacity to meet the current need for such expertise. Evictions in Asheville have returned to pre-pandemic levels, and many evictions begin when a tenant has raised concerns about housing conditions, says David Bartholomew, the nonprofit’s homelessness prevention services director.
The first training session for the housing fellowship program begins March 23. Katie Russell Miller, director of community engagement, says 14 people have applied as of mid-February and notes that applications are still being accepted.
Bartholomew says he doesn’t anticipate having to cap the number of fellowship participants. “If people are willing to go to court and represent tenants and protect their rights, I don’t think we’re going to try to limit that,” he says.
Pro bono for Pisgah
The co-directors of the Pisgah Legal Services Housing Program, as well as attorneys in private practice in the area, will teach three 2.5-hour training sessions once a month from March-May.
Topics will include the basics of summary ejectment (the N.C. General Statutes official terminology for an eviction), the eviction process in North Carolina, subsidized housing, fair housing and how to deal with housing condition issues and failure to repair issues, Bartholomew says. Housing condition issues often involve rental properties with mold, he notes. He added that during the city’s water system crisis this winter, many tenants contacted Pisgah Legal Services about pipes bursting in their rental properties.
Once trained, the housing fellows will be able to provide pro bono assistance in small claims court and district courts anywhere where he or she is licensed. A Pisgah Legal Services attorney will co-counsel with fellows if requested.
The hope is that each fellow will take three-six pro bono cases for Pisgah Legal Services in 2023 and take additional pro bono cases in the future. Outside the courtroom, fellows might also be able to take volunteer shifts on housing advice hotlines, Bartholomew says.
Pisgah Legal Services receives thousands of applications for assistance with housing-related issues each year. In 2022, 3,149 individuals in Western North Carolina filed such applications, and 3,177 individuals did so in 2021, says Bartholomew. (He notes that Pisgah Legal Services doesn’t have data on the number of applications that were solely for evictions or solely for housing conditions, as there is often crossover between the two.)
Those figures are an increase from previous years: In 2020, Pisgah Legal Services received 2,924 applications for housing assistance across WNC, and it received 2,530 in 2019, Bartholomew says.
Phones ‘burning up’ for help
Within Buncombe County, eviction filings — known as a complaint for summary ejection in the North Carolina judicial system — have decreased from 2019. That year, 2,262 evictions were filed in the county, according to data shared by Phillip Hardin, Buncombe County Health and Human Services economic services director.
In 2021 and 2020, the county saw 1,023 and 1,111 evictions filed, respectively, Hardin says. And the county saw 853 evictions filed from January-November 2022. (December 2022 eviction filing data has not yet been released by the U.S. Census Bureau.)
The decrease in eviction filings during the first few years of the pandemic resulted from federal and statewide measures to keep people housed during the public health emergency, such as emergency rental assistance programs, Bartholomew says. National and statewide eviction moratoriums also served as protective actions.
Emergency rental assistance supports tenants who can use the funds to cover rent, mortgage payments and utility payments. Buncombe County has had multiple infusions since the COVID-19 pandemic began, starting in March 2020, when the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners established One Buncombe, a “rapid relief fund” to help individuals. (The fund also assisted small businesses with low-interest loans.) The county “expended just a tad over $700,000 of One Buncombe fund dollars on rental, utility and mortgage assistance,” Hardin explains.
In fall 2020, Buncombe County received funding for a coronavirus stimulus and “expended another $750,000 or so for rental, utility and mortgage assistance,” Hardin continues.
Other emergency rent relief has been allocated by the state via federal funds. In January and May 2021, the county received two infusions of emergency rental assistance called ERA1 and ERA2, respectively, Hardin says. “Between those two pots of money, we’ve expended probably another $20 million,” he says. Stipulations of the funding required it to be disbursed by September 2022, after which the emergency rental assistance program was effectively put on pause.
Yet the community’s need for rent relief continued. “We had our phones burn up between September and January until we opened back up with more funding,” Hardin recalls. On Jan. 3, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners voted to accept $7,980,669 in another round of ERA2 funds. “I think we opened back up Jan. 6, and in like two weeks, we had taken over 700 applications,” Hardin says.
Individuals can receive assistance from the ERA1 and ERA1 funds for up to 18 months, and Hardin estimated in Buncombe County “maybe 200 or 300 people … have already exhausted the 18-month [limit],” Hardin says.
Emergency rental assistance is still available for qualifying individuals in Buncombe County. According to the Buncombe County Department of Economic Services, the applicant or household must have experienced financial hardship during COVID-19 and must meet income limits. (More information about applications for the relief funds are available at avl.mx/cfw.)
Not everywhere in WNC is so fortunate. “In the rest of the Western North Carolina counties that we serve, there is no rental assistance available,” Bartholomew of Pisgah Legal Services says. He suspects that Buncombe County was allocated emergency rental assistance due to its population compared with the rest of WNC, as well as its rates of eviction compared with other counties, he says.
“Buncombe County should be commended for getting those [rental assistance] funds and quickly making them available — it’s making a huge difference,” Bartholomew says. But the most recent funds must be spent by Sept. 30, 2025, and according to a summary provided to the Board of Commissioners by BCHHS, the county expects to distribute this current round of funds by April 2024. “There needs to be an investment to make sure that [rental assistance] is always available, because it works,” he explains.
Housing advocates hope that decreasing the number of successful evictions — meaning, attorneys like those from Pisgah Legal Services are able to keep tenants in their homes — will slow the growth of homelessness in the area.
“One of the things that I want to make clear is that it’s a choice to evict this many people because we’ve shown what we can do with rental assistance,” says Bartholomew. “We can keep the number of evictions down, and we can prevent thousands of Western North Carolinians from facing homelessness.”
In fact, “court-ordered eviction and displacement due to eviction are primary causes of homelessness,” according to a study published in May in the journal PNAS.
Demographic data about who is affected by eviction filings in Buncombe County is not currently available. (Bartholomew notes that the nonprofits Just Economics and Thrive Asheville are jointly compiling that information with Pisgah Legal Services.) But data from other sources indicates a growing financial strain. The report compiled by the National Alliance to End Homelessness on behalf of Dogwood Health Trust, which cited Zillow Economic Research from the Zillow.com real estate site, found that rents had risen 41.7% in Asheville from March 2020-October 2022.
(According to a 2022 report on the Asheville metro real estate market published by the National Association of Realtors, rents are rising faster and are less affordable than national averages. In the last quarter of 2021, the market rate for rent per unit in a multifamily home was $1,285. One year later, the market asking rate for rent had jumped to $1,523.)
If rents continue to climb, Pisgah Legal Services will be ready with its new trainees. “With rent prices increasing by 40% [in Asheville], and the lack of affordable housing stock, we’re assuming there’s going to be even more of a need [for housing lawyers],” Bartholomew says.
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