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'The Numbers Are Going To Be Really Bad': What An End To The Eviction Moratorium Means

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention's nearly yearlong eviction moratorium has been extended through July 31, but that doesn't mean evictions have been at a standstill. A review of court records shows judges are continuing to order evictions for Mecklenburg County — renters who fail to pay rent and for other reasons.

WFAE's David Boraks has been working on this story with reporters from five other local news outlets as part of the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative. He joins WFAE's "All Things Considered" host Gwendolyn Glenn to discuss the story.

Gwendolyn Glenn: David, first remind us, what is the moratorium?

David Boraks: The CDC ordered a halt to some evictions in September 2020, and it's been extended several times since then by Congress and the CDC. Now, it's set to expire on July 31. The CDC is involved because of its role in protecting public health. The idea is that if people are evicted during the coronavirus pandemic, that could pose a health risk. Some people might become homeless, others might be forced to move into close quarters with friends or relatives, and they risk catching the virus.

But now that half the country is vaccinated, that's less of a concern. The main issue now is that people who haven't been paying have racked up some big debts.

RELATED: Moratorium Slowed But Didn't Halt Evictions; End Could Bring A Wave In North Carolina

Glenn: Right. So if there's a moratorium, why are people still being evicted?

Boraks: The CDC order applies to some evictions, but not all. We have to look at the fine print here. The CDC said you can't be evicted if you can't pay your rent because you lost your job or lost income. It also applies to people who've had to pay extraordinary medical bills during the pandemic.

But the order puts up some hurdles. It requires tenants to give their landlord sworn statements that they meet the requirements. If tenants fail to do that, they can still be evicted. Tommy Holderness is a lawyer with Legal Aid of North Carolina.

Tommy Holderness: Tenants had to submit the CDC declaration and a lot of tenants either didn't know they had to do it or just didn't do it. And then also there were some, you know, requirements.

Boraks: Requirements such as you need to be making a good-faith effort to pay at least partial rent. You have to have applied for government rental assistance and you can't make more than $99,000 a year or double that for those who file joint returns.

And the order also doesn't prohibit other kinds of evictions — for overstaying or violating the lease, criminal activity, that sort of thing.

Glenn: So how many people have been evicted in Mecklenburg County despite the moratorium?

Boraks: We don't have exact numbers, but it's been no more than a couple of hundred per month. That's compared with an average of more than 2,700 a month before the pandemic. We examined by hand hundreds of eviction orders issued at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse between October and March. Despite the federal ban, most of those were for nonpayment of rent.

The Charlotte Journalism Collaborative has sought statewide and local figures, but it's been difficult to get hard numbers out of the court system. They say either they don't have them or there are barriers, even though these are public records. In one case, we were told we'd have to pay nearly $6,000 in fees for a state data set, which is a public record. We've been trying to negotiate with them. That's why we ended up going to the courthouse and examining files by hand.

Some tenants owe just a month or two. But others were $10,000 to $12,000 or more behind. Lawyer James Surane represents landlords and reviews their books. He says they're seeing what he calls "unprecedented" amounts of overdue rent.

James Surane: Normally we see one or two months or whatever, $1,500 to $2,000. We're seeing ledgers now at $20,000 to 25,000 that these tenants don't realize it, but they still owe that money.

Boraks: Often, he says, landlords don't even ask the court for the money, but just to get back possession of their property.

Glenn: So, David, at some point the moratorium is going to end. What will happen then?

Boraks: Everyone who's behind on payments will be subject to eviction. One reason the CDC extended the moratorium is because federal and local rental assistance has been slow to reach renters and landlords. The extra time here is supposed to help ensure more people to get rental aid so there won't be a massive wave of evictions.

An estimated 250,000 North Carolinians are behind on their rent, or about 1 in 7 renter households. That's according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That has tenant advocates and social service agencies worried.

Holderness: I'm concerned that there're going to be a lot of people get evicted. And so I just I think the numbers are going to be really bad.

Boraks: Organizations like Crisis Assistance Ministry are staffing up to prepare for a potential onslaught. We talked to CEO Carol Hardison and she says they've hired a new team of navigators that will help tenants get help. Requests for assistance already have tripled over the past three weeks to 180 a day as the end of the moratorium nears. But Hardison worries it could keep rising to levels not seen since the Great Recession in 2008.

Carol Hardison: What I'm picturing in my mind, is we'll have dozens of people at the front door greeting them. On the recession, we had 300 on many days. We know how to prepare for that. If you think about the tic going up already this unbelievable surge, it could easily be 300 people.

Boraks: So that would be five times the demand during the moratorium, but it's just a guess.

Glenn: So the federal ban ends July 31. Any idea how many court cases there are?

Boraks: A Mecklenburg County court spokesperson told me this week 1,070 eviction files are pending as of this week. And there's no good way to know how many landlords have waited until the end of the moratorium to seek evictions. People we talked to think it will take months for the courts to hear all these cases. And just how ugly it gets will depend on how quickly the courts get back to normal.

Right now, they're limiting the number of cases judges hear every day and doing some by video conference. Legal Aid folks worry it could go back to as many as 300 cases per courtroom per hour, which would bring that wave of evictions some are warning about.

Glenn: Now, one more thing. North Carolina's Council of State voted Tuesday to end North Carolina's own ban on evictions as of June 30. That's Wednesday. What does that mean?

Boraks: You're right. In the past, North Carolina's orders have been extended to match the CDC orders. But this week, the Republican majority voted to end the ban. It has no immediate practical effect.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.
David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.