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For two years, WFAE has reported on the Charlotte area's affordable housing crisis through our Finding Home series. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, since 1990, home values have increased 36%, while median household income has gone up only 4%. The appearance of prosperity with new development masks the fact that people are being priced out of their neighborhoods.

Finding Home: Evictions Resume In Mecklenburg, But Money And Mediation Help Keep Some In Their Homes

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MARY NEWSOM
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FOR WFAE

Here's a recipe for an avalanche of evictions: The state's moratorium on evictions amid the coronavirus pandemic is over. Eviction courts have reopened. Unemployment remains high and federal benefits are running out.

Mecklenburg County so far has been able to stave off evictions in about half the cases, thanks to emergency rental assistance and cooperation among Legal Aid, landlords, mediators and social service agencies.

Finding Home

The Mecklenburg County Courthouse is slowly reopening. Last Monday, eviction hearings resumed for the first time since March. At one point, the court had a backlog of about 1,800 pending cases, most over unpaid rent. Last week, magistrates worked their way through 600 eviction cases, known as "summary ejectments.”  

“Our best estimate is that approximately 50% of those may end up in summary ejectments,” Mecklenburg District Judge Kimberly Best said. “And that's why the goal for the court system currently is to not only reduce the backlog of cases, but also to divert those individuals who are being evicted for non-payment to divert them to resources.”

Specifically, she was talking about resources like federal and local COVID-19 relief programs that will pay off some or all of that unpaid rent.

Tough Times For Tenants And Landlords

Tenants are struggling after losing jobs or having their hours cut as the coronavirus pandemic slowed the economy. But many rental property owners are struggling, too, facing mortgage payments and other expenses. The challenge right now affects both sides, said Carol Hardison, CEO of Crisis Assistance Ministry in Charlotte. 

“The property managers are rightfully owed millions of dollars, and so at the end of the day, the system has to make the property managers as whole as possible to keep their residents stably housed, to keep their residents from homelessness," Hardison said.

There are dire predictions of a wave of evictions in the coming weeks, and that's a real fear. The federal government's $600-a-week unemployment bonus officially runs out at the end of this week, barring last-minute efforts in Congress to replace it. A ban on utility shutoffs is also expiring. For now, millions of dollars in local and federal aid are available to help with rent payments. But agencies like Crisis Assistance Ministry are bracing for the worst, Hardison said. 

“The system coming together can only squeeze out so much loss and add in so much support," she said. "At the end of the day, if there's not enough money pouring in, you're looking at more tents on Tryon Street."

She's referring to the tent cities that have sprung up during the pandemic in and near uptown Charlotte.

Making Landlords Whole

For landlords, all that unpaid rent is adding up, and they're eager for the courts to get back to work, said lawyer Jim Surane of Cornelius, who was in court last week representing property owners.  

“The ledger balances in many instances were five figures — that's $10,000-plus," Surane said. "Normally, a high-end one would be maybe $2,500. So there are just massive amounts of money being lost as a result of these delays.”

He said the courts can't digest the backlog of cases fast enough. And even when landlords win eviction orders, he says, it may be 30-45 days before sheriffs can serve them, pushing unpaid balances even higher.  

So Surane and others who represent landlords have joined forces with court and government officials and social service providers to settle cases out of court.

That may mean working with professional mediators through the Charlotte Community Relations Committee's Dispute Resolution Program. Or, said Best, it may mean impromptu negotiations: “They ask me to hold the matter open and they go out in the hallway to negotiate a plan.”

Rental Assistance is the Key

The key to all this is money. The city and county have set aside millions of dollars in local and federal funds to help tenants pay off all that back rent.  Other help is coming from the United Way, Foundation for the Carolinas and other nonprofits raising their own funds.

Kim Graham is executive director of the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association, which advocates for landlords. 

“The federal and or local dollars that can come to bear on rents that are due and eviction cases that have been filed are very, very, I think, important in terms of keeping families in their homes and keeping those residential rental providers whole,” Graham said.

Hardison said the money is critical, but what's also different right now is how organizations on both the landlord and tenant sides are working together. 

“It really is amazing," Hardison said. "Historically, by definition, I should be at odds with the eviction lawyer. And we're in partnership, and in partnership with courts, partnership with the sheriff, partnership with landlords. The system is connected on behalf of the tenant, the customer, the person in need."

Locking Tenants Out Resumes 

Meanwhile, physical evictions also resumed last week. Deputies from the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office are carrying out eviction orders, known as "writs of possession." That means going to tenants' homes and locking them out, said Hannah Guerrier, a lawyer with Legal Aid of North Carolina. 

“I can't say total numbers," she said. "We have had a spike in the number of calls that we've been getting, including the number of what we deem emergency cases, like people who are calling with writs scheduled to be executed within one, two, three days." 

She said they had five such calls last week, up from just one or two in previous months this year. 

A sheriff's office spokesperson would not say how many evictions have been completed recently. She said only that the sheriff's office is carrying out eviction orders as required by law. 

There could be beneficial long-term effects of everyone talking together, said Mary Williams of the Charlotte Community Relations Committee’s Dispute Settlement Program.

“The benefit of mediation is obviously to help with our financial partners to get the landlords their money, and to obviously keep the tenants in their homes,” Williams said. “But the mediation process also opens the door for conversation for future issues.”

See the Charlotte-Mecklenburg COVID-19 Mortgage and Rent Relief webpage for information and applications for rental assistance.

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