By Angela Lindsay
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most pressing issues facing many residents has been the struggle to keep a roof over their heads. The federal eviction moratorium provided relief for tenants for the greater part of 2020 and 2021; however, with its expiration in October, per the Supreme Court’s ruling in August, the housing crisis has roared back in full force.
“COVID-19 has been difficult for the citizens of Mecklenburg County because many lost their jobs, experienced childcare challenges, wage reductions and illness,” said Erin Barbee, senior vice president of programs and fund development at DreamKey Partners. “All of these factors caused people to choose between food, rent and general necessities,” she added.” It’s our experience that rent was an expense that many tenants were no longer able to pay. Tenants who were usually able to pay were thrust into housing instability in a matter of months. As a result, residents in Mecklenburg County experienced a significant increase in evictions.”
DreamKey Partners administers emergency rent, mortgage, hotel and utility assistance for the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. The program provides funds to tenants experiencing a hardship because of COVID-19. Applications are open from the first through the 15th of every month until funds are depleted. Currently, $60 million dollars is available to assist renters in need, according to Barbee. As of August, Charlotte’s Rental and Mortgage Assistance Program (RAMP CLT) statistics showed that of the active and eligible applications they received, Black women accounted for 67 percent of the applications from those who identified as Black or African American. The area codes most affected are 28262, 28216, 28208 and 28269, according to DreamKey Partners.
“The eviction moratorium provided tenants with a sense of safety and security in their homes as they attempted to gain stability,” Barbee said. Each time the ban was slated to be lifted it caused a wave of fear and confusion about how to access resources,” she added. “During the last eviction moratorium, North Carolina and [Mecklenburg] the county felt the sense of stability that was slated to last until October 3, 2021. To have it overturned in a matter of days caused residents to feel panicked. This moving target causes additional trauma for tenants who have already experienced immeasurable difficulties because of COVID-19.”
Isaac Sturgill, supervising attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s eviction prevention project, said their Charlotte office usually opens somewhere between 30 to 50 cases a week, sometimes getting up to 20 calls for assistance in one day, while their statewide hotline gets thousands of calls per week. He said the only legal way to evict a tenant is through the court process where a tenant has the right to present any legal defenses he or she may have in court. There is also an appeal process tenants can take advantage of if they lose their trial or miss their first court date, he added
“The laws have changed a lot throughout the pandemic and the protections for tenants have changed,” Sturgill said. “There have been a few different eviction protections that tenants could use but they had different rules and different timeframes.” Currently there is no eviction moratorium in North Carolina because the U.S. Supreme Court ended the previous protections. “It makes it hard to know what to expect when the law is constantly changing. People also have been frustrated with the amount of time it takes to get rental assistance or other financial help,” said Sturgill.
In August, a U.S. Treasury compliance report found that of the emergency funds that have been distributed across the nation, on average, the national distribution rate is 20 percent while the city of Charlotte has distributed 52.5 percent. RAMP CLT is a program that provides rental, utility and mortgage assistance to those impacted by COVID-19 in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. The program has dispersed $36.7 million since February to those residents in need of relief, and roughly 17,648 people in Charlotte have applied. As of July, it was estimated that there were more than 200,000 families in the state behind on the rent. Although some assistance is available, the application process and wait can be lengthy, Sturgill explained.
To help alleviate some of the burdens facing tenants, Barbee suggests tenants speak with their landlords to make them aware of their situation, create a plan to stay in their homes; apply for rental assistance through the RAMP CLT program as soon as they need help, and, if they are having difficulty with a landlord, contact the city of Charlotte’s dispute settlement team for free assistance with mediation.
“Hopefully the rental assistance that is available will be used and the process for getting help will become more efficient,” Sturgill said. “Some people may not get the money in time even after applying. In the long term, wages or the supply of affordable housing going up would help, he said. “There was an affordable housing and eviction crisis in many places in the state before the pandemic — COVID has only exacerbated the problem.”