This week, WFAE has been reporting on the increasing number of eviction cases in Mecklenburg County. We’ve looked at reasons, such as rising rents, stagnating wages and a lack of affordable housing. We’ve also looked at how eviction cases play out in court. This report focuses on assistance available to people facing eviction, and what they need to know.
Crisis Assistance Ministry near uptown is where people in need come for financial help with utility bills, clothing, and rent assistance. Spokeswoman Liana Humphrey says many come here at the point that their homes are about to be padlocked with their possessions placed on the sidewalk.
“We just need to see documentation of what they owe, their income and other information, the benefits they receive and from there, our caseworkers will interview them, do assessments and see what they qualify for and how much we might be able to help them with,” Humphrey said.
For Kizzy Addison, that help came in the form of all but $100 of the $1,200 she needed to stay in her two-bedroom apartment after a judge ruled against her. Addison says she fell behind on her rent when her son dropped out of college and he, his girlfriend and their new baby moved in with her.
“When they moved up here I basically took one paycheck to help them with their car, maternity clothes, which put me one month behind in my bills,” Addison said. “My landlord was working with me but it came to the point to where they said we’ve been working with you and we need you to catch up or move out.”
When Addison went to court, she did not have an attorney or know how to navigate the process. Most landlords have attorneys and they usually win.
“When you have an attorney the chances of success improve exponentially,” said Jesse McCoy.
McCoy runs an eviction clinic in Durham that provides tenants with free legal advice and represents them in court.
“In our clinic for all the cases we represented people on, we avoided an eviction judgment in 79 percent of those cases. Having an attorney makes a huge difference in the outcome,” McCoy said. “People have to think about court as a place to present their issues and we can help. We might get a temporary restraining order from a judge to get a padlock taken off or if someone is hospitalized and misses a court date we can fight for those situations.”
Charlotte does not have an eviction clinic but Legal Aid is free for those below the poverty line. For a family of four, that’s just above $31,000. However, Legal Aid is swamped. Its attorneys were only able to represent 1 percent of the eviction cases filed last year. Most were Section 8 renters, the most vulnerable says Isaac Sturgill, a Legal Aid supervising attorney.
“When they are evicted, they are not only losing their home but they lose their housing subsidy and then they can’t find another affordable home that cheap,” Sturgill said.
Sturgill says they do take other cases and to increase that, they doubled their housing attorney and paralegal staffs.
“Last year this time, we opened 20 new housing cases a month but for June and July, we opened 80 cases, so we went from 20 cases a month to 40 cases,” Sturgill said. “We’re also trying to work with private attorneys who do pro bono to increase their involvement.”
One thing that plays against renters is that the eviction process moves relatively quickly. Some states have a 30-day notice filing requirement. The filing notice requirement is only 10 days in North Carolina.
“It can be lightning fast," Sturgill said. "Within a week, it’s not uncommon for tenants to get papers for small claims court on a Wednesday and have trial the next Monday or Tuesday in small claims (court)."
According to Sturgill, many renters do not know they can appeal their judgments. If they do appeal, they still have to make rent payments to the clerk of court. He says all renters need to know they can’t withhold rent if their landlord has not made requested repairs. It’s also illegal for a landlord to file an eviction against a renter if it is tied to complaints, so attorneys advise tenants to keep a paper trail of all communications with landlords. A lot of this information is available at the court house’s SelfServe Center. Sturgill says they also have a partnership with Crisis Assistance Ministry to provide eviction advice.
"Four days a week we have non-attorney volunteers who go to Crisis (Assistance Ministry) and give presentations about tenant’s rights and resources in Mecklenburg County, the right to have repairs made, how the process works," Sturgill said. "We’ve served 2,000 people at Crisis."
Community Link, funded mainly by the city, is another organization that provides tenants with that kind of information. Harold Rice, the agency’s chief program officer, says they also help low-income tenants pay back rent on units that pass required inspections.
“If they are facing eviction and the landlord agrees to them remaining, we can pay back rent to get them stable,” Rice said. “If not, we can perhaps relocate them to another unit. Last year we helped 60 people. It could be on average from $1,500 to $3,000 in late fees, back rent and court costs. It adds up.”
But Rice says they have limited funds that usually run out before the end of the year and they have to turn a lot of people away.
Courtney Morton, Charlotte’s housing and homeless research coordinator, says she wants to create a system where tenants and landlords can work out settlements before an eviction is filed — reducing legal and court costs for both sides.
“We are advocating for ways to bring landlords and tenants together to make both parties part of the solution and not make one or the other the bad guy,” Morton said. “I think landlords are willing to take a chance and not just do business as usual. Some of those are initial conversations and I’m excited to see where that goes.”
Morton says they are also lobbying for legislation that would have eviction filings and judgments expunged when a tenant is not actually evicted. That record follows them and makes it hard to get future housing. Charlotte Apartment Association officials say they support such legislation.
All of these things would help but Sturgill and others say it comes down to the availability of affordable housing.
“Underlying all of it this is lack of affordable housing in the county, and that’s something that has to be addressed and improved upon before we see evictions start to drop,” Sturgill said. “There are some great organizations out there doing great work but the need is not being met.”