Stevie Littrell’s place is in boxes. It’s hard to find anything in her three-bedroom apartment these days, she explains as she rummages through the containers, but she’s prepared. She’s packed away most of her essentials and valuables in case she needs to leave her home at Canterbury Heights Apartments with little notice.
Littrell has received three eviction notices in the past year. Because of a severe blood disease, she is unable to work; her husband, Darrell, lost his job as a car detailer when COVID-19 hit, forcing him to pick up as many hours working at Ingles Markets as he could. So far, they’ve scraped together the money to pay their $900 rent, but debt from Littrell’s medical bills hangs over their heads. If their case is brought to court and a judge forces them out of their home, Littrell says, she doesn’t know where they will go.
Over 9,000 eviction cases are pending in North Carolina courts. In March, responding to the economic impact of COVID-19, Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order prohibiting landlords from taking further action in the eviction of residential or commercial tenants for nonpayment. The order was set to expire on June 1; just two 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 Sunday, June 21.
The last-minute decision grants a momentary reprieve for renters unsure where their next paycheck will come from. But fear and frustration cloud Littrell’s every step.
“The landlords don’t care,” Littrell says. “You’re finding out from everyone that’s calling about being evicted from their properties that the landlords are ignoring these moratoriums that have been put down statewide and nationally. It doesn’t matter to them. They just want their money. They don’t care if you have a roof over your head — if you don’t have the money for rent, then get out.”
The pandemic further upends an already unstable housing market for area renters. According to a regional housing needs assessment commissioned for the city of Asheville by Bowen National Research, more than 17,000 renter households in Buncombe County — 46% of all county renters — are cost burdened, meaning they pay over 30% of their income toward housing costs. The report was revised on March 10, just days before the city and county declared coronavirus-related states of emergency.
In Buncombe County, 13,059 residents filed unemployment claims in April after losing a job to COVID-19, down slightly from 13,255 claims filed in March. But roughly a third of those who have filed for unemployment since the start of the pandemic still haven’t received benefits, says Robin Merrell, a managing attorney at Pisgah Legal Services who oversees housing cases.
The Pisgah Legal team has been inundated with calls for assistance with housing, including tenants who aren’t sure what their rights are under new executive orders or whose landlords are threatening eviction measures outside of the court process. The nonprofit is only able to take 40% of cases during normal times, Merrell says, and right now, resources are stretched even thinner.
“What we’re seeing right now are people without the ability to pay, not sure what they’re going to do and not sure when things are going to change,” Merrell says. “The whole process, I think, has been just sort of fraught with anxiety and a lot of uncertainties.”
Pisgah Legal was expecting an onslaught of cases on June 1, when the first emergency order was set to expire. The new directives kick the ball just three weeks down the road, Merrell notes, but with some additional protections for tenants.
The latest order from Chief Justice Beasley directs state courts to create a new affidavit, which must be filed with any new eviction order, to certify the property is not subject to a federally subsidized lease. If the property is under a federal mortgage, it’s subject to a separate federal moratorium on evictions that lasts through Friday, July 24. The state is also working to develop a mediation program to resolve eviction orders.
But when eviction cases ultimately do make their way to the courtroom, the court “really has its hands tied,” Merrell says. “They can either say you owe nothing or you owe X amount and it’s all due right now. It’s really negotiation between the parties that results in payment plans.
“I anticipate that without some change, many individuals are likely to become homeless,” Merrell continues. “I think that the ones who can will double up with family members, which is probably going to make tight living quarters tighter. Without summer camp and school and people able to go into work, everyone’s going to be together all the time.”
‘We’ll work with you’
Some landlords, including Tom Leslie of Leslie and Associates, recognize the enormous financial burdens facing renters. As soon as he realized the impacts of COVID-19 would be long-lasting, his company decided not to issue any evictions or late penalties for any of its 1,200 estimated rental units and defer rent as needed.
“Our biggest effort with all tenants who have been displaced job-wise has been to provide a list of all relief funds that would be available to them,” Leslie says. “And then their part is to work diligently to try and secure relief, one of the biggest ones being unemployment benefits, if eligible. We will support them and be patient with them, and they know they have a safe, secure place to live without being concerned about eviction.”
Bly Connor-Lloyd, owner and broker-in-charge at Property Management of Asheville, has also not filed any evictions during the pandemic. The majority of her tenants have paid monthly rent on time, and her team is working closely with renters who don’t have the funds to pay right now. Some property owners have forgiven rent for a month or two, she explains, while others have knocked a few hundred dollars off the usual monthly rate.
Several of Connor-Lloyd’s tenants sought assistance from the One Buncombe Fund, a Buncombe County-initiated assistance program for individuals and businesses suffering from pandemic-related income loss. To date, the fund’s individual assistance program has approved $423,660.08 for 982 individuals, according to data updated daily by the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. More than $288,000 of this funding, or 68%, has gone to cover rent payments for Buncombe residents.
The decision to defer or forgive rent is partly strategic, Merrill says. It’s a difficult time to try to re-rent a property, she explains, and it’s in the landlord’s best interests to work out a payment plan to get what money they can. Leslie agrees.
“We want our tenants back in their units when this contagion passes and they are able to get their jobs back or get new jobs. We couldn’t have had better tenants prior to the pandemic, and we want them when we come out of it on the other end,” Leslie says. “So from a human point of view, it’s been, obviously, a good policy, but from a business point of view, it’s also a very good policy.”
Living in uncertainty
In her 20 years working as an attorney, Merrell has seen more proactive help for renters in the last few months than she has during any other time over her career. Yet she acknowledges the decisions facing renters remain staggering.
Her advice to clients is to access as many resources as possible. If they now qualify for food stamps and can use those to pay for groceries, thus saving grocery money for rent, Merrill suggests they do so. She tells them to be in constant conversations with landlords, stay informed about new assistance programs or moratorium extensions and check social media for additional resources.
But Littrell — who says she has been staying up to date on all things eviction-related and is working with Pisgah Legal for professional assistance — is tired. She’s watched as her apartment complex has changed ownership to Georgia-based ML Property group, which she claims goes out of its way to limit transparency. She’s fought back over hidden fees, changes in billing and mistaken late payments.
Xpress reached out to ML Property via multiple phone calls and emailed requests for comment on Littrell’s claims but received no response.
Since the start of the pandemic, Littrell continues, she says she’s watched several families leave Canterbury Heights because of eviction notices, a lack of understanding of tenant rights and an unwillingness to put up with tactics she believes are meant to intimidate renters. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen if her own case is finally heard in court or when that might be.
“You keep seeing splashed all over the media, ‘We’re in this together,’” Littrell sighs. “Are we really? That’s my question: Are we really in this together? Or is it just a few of us standing up for a whole lot of us, who are willing to step out and say this is wrong, in the face of whatever may happen to us? If we’re really in this together, then it’s time for us to join hands and really be in it together.”