An eviction crisis looms for Charlotte

An eviction crisis looms for Charlotte
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Editor’s note: The interview with Maria has been translated from Spanish. Axios is using only Maria’s first name to protect her identity as she searches for a new job. We examined documents with details of her eviction case and rental assistance application.

Update: A new eviction moratorium was issued by the Biden administration on Aug. 4, protecting tenants from being evicted for non-payment through October 3. 

Maria breaks down into tears as she talks about the day she and her two children almost lost their home.

Maria lost her job at a pizzeria in July 2020 after contracting COVID-19, and fell thousands of dollars behind on rent.

In February 2021 she applied to RAMPCLT, a city- and county-funded program designed to help struggling renters like her. The Latin American Coalition helped her with the application process.

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The rental aid did come through, but it took nearly five months.

  • In the meantime, the landlord kept asking about the rent, she says, and eventually began the process of evicting her.
  • One day in late June, the sheriff showed up, and she spent all day scrambling to come up with the money she owed.

She was able to get a loan from a friend and returned to pay the balance. By then, the sheriff had already changed the lock on her apartment. But she paid the balance, and was allowed to stay in her home.

It was a very stressful day,” she says. “I cried a lot that day.”

Soon, thousands of people could be facing similar situations across the city.

What’s happening: In Charlotte and elsewhere, local officials are scrambling to distribute money from the federal government to renters impacted by COVID-19.

  • But time is running out, as a federal eviction moratorium expires in less than a week.

More than 28,000 Mecklenburg County households are estimated to be behind on their rent, the highest of any county in the state, according to data from the National Equity Atlas, a project from the University of South California’s Equity Research Institute and nonprofit research group PolicyLink.

Nearly 5,500 households here are still in the application process for the RAMPCLT rent relief program, said Noelle Bell, a spokeswoman for DreamKey Partners, the nonprofit charged with administering the funds.

Context: The city and Mecklenburg County each directed COVID-19 relief money from the federal stimulus packages to RAMPCLT, a program which provides rental, mortgage and utility assistance.

  • The dollars provided by the county were exhausted in late June, but $9.5 million from the city for rent and utility aid has yet to be distributed. And millions more are expected to become available from the American Rescue Plan.

What they’re saying: Advocates charge that the rent relief has been too slow to flow to tenants, putting them at risk for eviction while their balances continue to pile up.

Apryl Lewis, a housing justice organizer with Action NC, has helped tenants apply to RAMPCLT and other housing support programs. She says there is a lack of communication with applicants and with landlords on the timing, qualifications and the reasons for any holdup in the process.

Lewis said she understands there was incredible demand for the program. But, she says they could work with other grassroots organizations to get the assistance out faster.

The other side: DreamKey directed a request for an interview to the city. Pam Wideman, director of the city’s housing and neighborhood services department, tells me that the city and DreamKey tried to streamline the process as much as possible.

  • DreamKey ramped up staffing to meet the need, Wideman says.
  • “We believe we have a very good infrastructure in place with DreamKey,” she says.
  • People with outstanding applications should follow back up with the program, Wideman says.

Zoom out: State and local governments have rushed to disburse rent relief, but the U.S. Treasury Department said last week that many are not getting the money out quick enough.

  • Just a fraction of the $46 billion Congress has designated for emergency rental assistance has been spent, per The Washington Post.
  • Bell also noted that Charlotte has in 2021 disbursed a greater share of its emergency rental assistance funding (from the December COVID-19 federal relief package and spending bill) than many other comparable markets, according to a July report from the Treasury Department, at 52.5%. That’s higher than Raleigh, which has only distributed 11.9% of its available funds, but less than Austin, which has spent 77% of its money.

Isaac Sturgill, housing practice group manager at Legal Aid of North Carolina, says service providers like DreamKey faced a massive challenge.

What this crisis has revealed is that there is no federal or even statewide existing infrastructure for distributing rental assistance,” he said.

“They have to rely on a lot of organizations to step up and create infrastructure from nothing.”

Sturgill said he’s had clients who haven’t received rental relief until they’ve already been kicked out of their homes. Juan Hernandez, a staff attorney with the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, said his clients, most of whom are Spanish-speaking, have had to wait three to four months to receive help.

The big picture: About 30,000 eviction notices are filed per year in Mecklenburg County, according to a UNC Charlotte Urban Institute Report.

  • An eviction is a permanent stain on an individual’s financial record and often makes it nearly impossible to find housing again.

Between the lines: U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, who represents much of Charlotte, is asking local officials including the sheriff to pause evictions here for another month. But in a letter in response to her request, Sheriff Garry McFadden says his department doesn’t have the authority to do so, and must carry out evictions ordered by the courts.

It’s hard to predict how many of the tens of thousands of people who are behind on their rent in Mecklenburg might wind up in court. But if even a fraction do, it could have devastating impacts on the community and fuel homelessness.

The big picture: As the eviction moratorium comes to an end, RAMPCLT is shifting to prioritize households at or below 80% of the area median income that have been served an eviction notice and have a court date in the next 90 days, Bell said.

Maria’s story: She’s started looking for work again, but even a year after contracting COVID, she still feels tired, and not like herself. When she was sick, she says she was the most worried about what would happen to her 16-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter if she died. Her son also fell ill with COVID, but he’s recuperated.

Thanks to the money from RAMPCLT, Maria’s rent is now paid through December.

But she questions why the process was so drawn out. As she recalled the nerve-wracking day where she was nearly evicted, she tried to hold back her tears in front of her daughter.

“They helped me out, but I just ask myself why did it take so long?” she says. “If they had helped me within the first three months, I wouldn’t have had to go to court and what happened to me wouldn’t have happened.”

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