Agencies providing rental assistance expect an influx of applications after a pandemic-inspired moratorium against evictions ends nationwide today.
Officials also expect people behind on their rent will be challenged to keep their home because some landlords won’t participate in assistance programs even though is assures they will receive at least a portion of their back rent.
Pitt County Social Services Deputy Director Augustine Frazer reported that as of mid-July only four households had fully completed applications with his agency, and only one was qualified under current guidelines to receive fund. Still many inquiries are coming in. He expects formal applications will increase as the federal eviction moratorium expires.
When the COVID-19 struck in early 2020 and a wave of businesses either shut down or reduced hours, nationwide unemployment reached nearly 15 percent. Fearing a deluge of evictions, state and federal moratoriums were placed on evictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by “keeping people in their homes and out of crowded or congregate settings,” according to the Center’s for Disease Control. The moratoriums were extended several times, and Congress designated portions of CARES Act and American Rescue Plan funding for emergency rental assistance.
Pitt County Department of Social Services received $899,454 in CARES Act dollars for rental and utility assistance. So far it’s awarded $26,856 to settle 55 overdue utility bills.
Rental assistance distribution has been slower because DSS guidelines require applicants to have received an eviction notice. Because of the moratorium, most households haven’t received eviction notices, technically called a magistrate summons complaint in summary ejectment.
Freight train coming
Numbers on how many people are in arrears are hard to determine, officials said, but they fear it’s a lot.
Currently 168 summary ejectment cases are pending in Pitt County small claims court, according to data from the Pitt County Clerk of Court’s office. Another 10 cases are pending in District Court, where appeals of the small claims court are heard.
As of early Friday, 123 summary ejectments had been filed in Pitt County in the month of July, a significant drop compared to July 2019, when 531 were filed and July 2020 when 349 notices were filed.
At that time, it appeared the eviction moratorium would end in August 2020. The July number is even below the 138 notices filed in May and 155 notices filed in June. An influx of filing could begin Monday that surpasses the July 2019 numbers.
To receive assistance, households also have to meet an income threshold and show they experienced income losses or increased expenses due to COVID-19.
DSS officials joined representatives from Community Crossroads Center and other organizations providing aid to talk with landlords about the programs available to tenants. What they found is a number of landlords didn’t want to accept the assistance payments and planned to proceed with their evictions.
“They are willing to take the loss on whatever they have in arrears because, I guess, they think whoever the next tenant will be a better tenant than who they have in there,” said Wanda Montano, interim executive director of Community Crossroads Center which operates a homeless shelter and housing program. “That’s going to create a lot of homeless folks because the eviction moratorium ends July 31 and we have a freight train coming at us,” she said.
The average monthly rent paid by individuals seeking assistance is $800, and the average back rent owed is $11,000, said Kevin Krisher, DSS human services planner, said. “You can see how the problem grows and grows and grows the longer the moratorium is extended,” he said.
Frazer said DSS initially wanted tenants to pay several hundred dollars in back rent to qualify and have landlords forgive up to 5 percent of the back rent. DSS would then pay up to six months of rent. DSS also wanted landlords to continue the tenant’s lease for at least three months.
Because of the landlords’ reluctance, DSS has modified its requirements so landlords and tenants no longer have to contribute, Frazer said. But that might not be enough.
Some landlords are ready to evict tenants is because their relationships with them have soured and they don’t want to deal with them anymore, said Naomi Anderson, Community Crossroads housing counseling.
Community Crossroads’ rental assistance program isn’t limited to households negatively affected by COVID. The organization receives $80,000 annually from DSS to operate a program that not only helps families with back rent but provides funding for security deposits, fees and rent down payments.
Between May and December, Community Crossroads aided 30 families. Seven weren’t able to pay their rent because they lost wages because they contracted COVID, were caring for sick family members or where in quarantine, Anderson said.
The City of Greenville has had more success with its emergency rental assistance program, distributing $231,444 to stave off evictions.
The city used federal relieve funding to provide up to three months back rent, not to exceed $1,500, to qualifying participants. Neither landlords or tenants had to contribute. It also did not require an eviction to be in process, encouraging participants to get on board earlier.
“The intent was to be as flexible as possible so we did not add additional requirements,” said Tiana Berryman, the city’s housing administrator.
The city worked with 78 landlords and property managers and the vast majority were willing to work with the program, said Lori Ellyn Guttman, a planner in the housing division. The city approved 187 of the more than 300 applications it received, Guttman said. The payments ranged from about $130 up to $1,500, with the average being $1,232, she said.
In a majority of cases the applicants needed assistance from other organizations to repay all their back rent.
The process for obtaining most emergency assistance only allows tenants to apply, Guttman said.
Once landlords found out a tenant qualified for assistance, they asked if they could refer other clients and Guttman said yes.
“I had several tenants that came to us based on their landlord and property manager referring them to our program, which I thought was quite lovely,” she said.
While Greenville’s rental assistance program closed on Friday, Berryman said officials are continuing to monitor the situation.
“It is the intent of the city to be in tune with what is happening in the community and address it appropriately,” she said. “We will be making some program changes that may include the addition of another program or we may fund rental assistance, a round two. That information will come in the fall.”
Although moratoriums have been in place for more than a year, it hasn’t prevented some landlords from seeking evictions, said Daniel Worrall, supervising attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Greenville office, which serves Beaufort, Carteret, Craven, Hyde, Jones, Martin, Pamlico, Pitt, Tyrrell and Washington counties.
“I’ve definitely had people who were unaware they couldn’t file,” Worrall said. “Landlords who believe their reason (for eviction) wasn’t covered and others who thought the tenant was lying and could have made a partial payment.”
While recent summary ejectment filings have been relatively few, Worrall said Legal Aid of North Carolina is preparing for the worst.
“Our clients’ legal defenses are coming to an end,” he said. “We are seeing the same thing as DSS and the homeless shelter.”
Landlords, especially those in eastern and western North Carolina don’t want to participate in rental assistance programs that require them to continue housing tenants who got behind in their payments.
“The landlords are frustrated. They don’t like how the process has gone,” Worrall said.
Worrall and his Legal Aid colleagues believe it’s because these regions have fewer corporate owned rental units. Most landlords in those areas are people who own a few houses or small apartment buildings and manage them directly, sometimes going as far as picking up the rent check in person.
“It’s not purely a transaction, it’s a relationship,” he said, and the landlords feel betrayed and have lost trust in the tenants.
Since January Worrall’s office has handled 60 eviction cases, with 40 of them being handled in court. His office still has eight to 10 pending cases.
The majority of eviction cases never make it to Worrall’s office because the tenant either handles it or seeks other legal advice.
Worrell said he hopes people recognize that help is out there and the process is being streamlined.
“The White House has been holding summits on how to get people to stay in houses. There’s a ton of money, not enough, but I think these programs are going to be around for a while,” he said. “They were made so quickly that they weren’t great in the beginning but they are much better about getting money to people who need money now. There is a reason for people to keep trying and keep hoping to get something.”
Help is limited
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety announced Friday that the state’s Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions Program has implemented changes that will allow it to accept referrals of tenants from landlords and increase financial awards to North Carolina households applying for pandemic-related rent and utility assistance.
Landlords with struggling tenants can submit names and contact information through www.HOPE.NC.gov or by calling 1-888-927-5467. A program specialist will then follow up with the tenant to help start the application process.
Individuals seeking information on what to do if facing eviction can call 1-866-219-5262 or visit www.legalaidnc.org.
Advocates said the looming eviction crisis highlights the lack of affordable housing in Greenville.
When the evictions occur, the empty units won’t immediately go on the market because landlords must clean them.
There will be no room at Community Crossroad Center’s shelter because it is still operating at half capacity, allowing only 12 women and 29 men at night, Montano said. No families are accepted because the family rooms serve as a quarantine space.
While some families are living in motels, those will fill up when football season begins.
Student housing developments are the only facilities with space, Montano said. In one instance a mother is paying $800 a month to rent two bedrooms for herself and her children. Montano wonders what will happen when a college student is asked to share the communal living space with them.
It’s also likely that landlords will raise rents to recoup some of their losses, Worrall said.
“Anytime you have a bunch of people looking for housing all at once, there’s a good chance they will raise rent and do it across the board,” he said. Good tenants will be affected less if they stay in their current home, Worrall said, but they will be affected if they move.