Tasha Baker was a young, single Black woman working full-time at a medical center when COVID-19 hit. Already at high risk of getting exposed to the virus, she and her coworkers saw their hours cut so as to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Paying her bills, buying food, and commuting to work became a struggle. She picked up a part-time job at a gas station to supplement her loss of income, but she couldn’t make ends meet.
Baker quickly fell behind on rent and applied for government assistance through North Carolina’s Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions (HOPE) Program, then signed a declaration from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and mailed it to her landlord. The declaration is a component of the CDC’s moratorium that’s supposed to safeguard tenants against eviction. However, the moratorium has failed to stop landlords from putting plenty of people out on the streets in the midst of a pandemic.
On Dec. 30, Gov. Cooper signed Executive Order 184, renewing the statewide eviction moratorium through Jan. 31, but that won’t fill the gaps that have been left by the original order, which does not unilaterally protect all North Carolinian renters. Neither the CDC moratorium nor the state order shut down evictions completely, and landlords still have other means of kicking out their tenants.
The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) is still vacating tenants from their homes. In the last four months of 2020, MCSO carried out 989 evictions, all but 12 of which were in residential homes.
“Executive Order No. 184 does not impact the sheriff’s statutorily mandated duty to execute a writ for possession of real property once it has been issued by a court,” read a statement MCSO sent to Queen City Nerve. “Evictions may still proceed in a variety of circumstances even with the CDC Order and Executive Order No. 184 in effect.”
The pandemic has forced thousands of people to lose their income. In North Carolina, an estimated 485,000 adults in rental housing reported they are not caught up on rent and nearly 3 million adults reported difficulty in covering usual household expenses, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
While those are the people the moratorium was designed to protect, or at least delay their troubles, even those who play by the rules are sometimes forced out. In November, Legal Aid of North Carolina filed suit in Wake County Superior Court against three officials there who have allegedly continued to carry out eviction orders even in cases where a CDC declaration is on file.
Black women bear the brunt of the eviction crisis
The COVID-19 crisis has shined a light on eviction as a form of violence, while raising issues of tenants’ rights, the legalities surrounding them and the disproportionate impact that these have on the Black community.
According to a 2017 report from the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, areas with the highest eviction rates tend to be largely African-American. An ACLU report published in January 2020 found that, on average, Black renters had evictions filed against them by landlords at nearly twice the rate of white renters. It also found that women of color, and particularly Black women, are especially vulnerable to eviction for many reasons, including staggering pay disparities and wealth gaps.
Isaac Sturgill, a lawyer with LANC for eight years, confirmed that the eviction crisis for Black women isn’t a new phenomenon, the pandemic just exacerbated it.
“In the big metropolitan areas, especially in Greensboro, Charlotte, Durham, and Raleigh, it’s way out of whack,” Sturgill said. “We represent low-income tenants and try to help them prevent eviction and in those metropolitan areas, 90% of our clients are Black women and most of them have children too.”
Though Baker doesn’t have kids, she faces similar discrimination. After she submitted her signed declaration that should’ve halted her eviction, her landlord claimed to not have received it. At the advice of her lawyer, Justin Tucker from LANC, Baker emailed the declaration and copied Tucker, though the landlord still proceeded with filing for the eviction action.
At the same time, The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership hadn’t yet finished processing Baker’s paperwork to get her government assistance.
“I had two situations going on. I had a court date because I had already signed the declaration form for him [her landlord] not to evict me, and I had the government funding [from HOPE] coming, but both of those situations were on hold,” Baker said.
She was stuck in a bureaucratic web, forced to wait and see if her rent would be paid or if she’d be on the street. Sturgill noted a key text from Matthew Desmond’s book Eviction that described Black men getting locked up while Black women got locked out.
“I can see this,” Sturgill said. “It’s not just a quote in the book. This is day to day. This is my job. I see this on the ground every single day. There have been times where I walked in that courtroom and I’m representing two or three clients and the only white faces in the courtroom are me and maybe one of the landlords’ attorneys,” he said.
From Sturgill’s perspective, the moratoriums protect some tenants and leave others vulnerable to losing their home.
“Unfortunately, in North Carolina, there’s been a failure in leadership on the state level, as far as the court system and the legislature,” he said. “They have done nothing to implement [the moratoriums] within the courts … North Carolina has been at the back of the pack when it comes to stopping evictions during the moratoriums.”
Taken by surprise
Since Baker pays her bills online, she doesn’t check her mailbox that often, but on one autumn day she happened to check the box and to her surprise found an eviction notice.
“It was maybe three days before the eviction was supposed to take place and I knew nothing about it,” she said.
She called her landlord and told him she had already applied for the HOPE program. She had been approved, but the funds hadn’t yet been released. She said her landlord was in contact with The Housing Partnership, which was providing her with emergency rent assistance. When Baker spoke to her case worker, she was told the funds should have been released, but the landlord never received them.
“‘I haven’t gotten my money. I have to go forward with evicting you,’” Baker recalled the landlord telling her. The night before the eviction, the landlord told her he’d work something out when the sheriff came.
“He was making it seem like he would stop the sheriff from evicting me because I did have a confirmation email saying that I was going to get the funds,” she said.
On Oct. 27, the landlord told her he would not be accepting payment of rent from her or The Housing Partnership. She was told she had “a few more days” to move her stuff in storage.
“He didn’t even call me. He just texted me that,” she said.
A few days later, while Baker was at work, she would get a call saying the sheriff and the landlord were at her apartment to evict her.
“I got there in enough time to grab maybe a day’s worth of clothes cause the sheriff was like ‘You got 10 minutes.’ I grabbed what I could, having nowhere to go,” Baker said.
The speed of a summary ejectment
The most common cause for an eviction is nonpayment of rent. In Sturgill’s experience, the landlord will usually wait until the middle of the month to file an eviction if the tenant still hasn’t paid rent. Once the case is filed, it becomes a “summary ejectment,” a legal action specific only to evictions.
“There’s two special things about this unique process,” Sturgill said. “It happens quicker than normal court procedures. Usually when you file a civil court case, the other side gets 30 days to respond to the lawsuit and the trial may be several months out from when the case is filed. With eviction cases, once the case is filed, North Carolina law says that the trial is supposed to occur seven days from when the case was filed. Typically, a tenant will be served with the court papers for the eviction proceeding and their trial will be two or three days away. It feels lightning fast.”
The other unique feature about the eviction process is that you don’t have to get “in-person service.” When you’re being sued, the standard legal process states the court cannot get jurisdiction over you unless you are handed court papers or sign a receipt saying you received them.
Eviction cases, however, are the only type of civil case in North Carolina in which you can be served by “posting,” meaning if the sheriff goes to serve the eviction court papers to you and you’re not at home or they can’t hand it to you directly, it’s considered valid service if they just tape a copy of the court order on your door. Here, it’s common for people to not know that they are being evicted.
Eviction courts in session despite moratorium
On an average day in Charlotte’s eviction court, Sturgill estimated there’s usually 100-200 cases to be heard in an hour. He said 90% of the tenants don’t show up for court, as they can’t get the time off of work, they don’t have transportation or face other obstacles.
“Landlords’ attorneys charge the landlords a flat fee to handle their cases. They know that they’re only going to have to deal with 15-20 tenants that actually show up to fight their case,” Sturgill said.
The Urban Institute found that 84% of tenants facing eviction are not present for their court hearings. By comparison, 82% of the landlords filing evictions have lawyers. Describing a common eviction court procedure, Sturgill said when the judge calls a case and a tenant isn’t there, the landlord’s attorney or the landlord tells the judge, “I’m resting on the pleadings,” and the landlord’s request for eviction gets granted.
“If a tenant files an appeal then they get a new court date with an appeals judge and that court date is five to eight weeks out, but the tenant only has 10 days to appeal and they have to know that they can do it,” he said.
The Urban Institute reported that there are approximately 30,000 eviction cases filed in Mecklenburg County each year. In the cases LANC’s Charlotte office takes on, they have an 85% success rate, but their staff of 20 can only help a tiny fraction of the people who need it. Sturgill estimated that the Charlotte office, the state’s biggest, handles just 1,000 of those 30,000 cases, or 3%.
After borrowing money to pay for a place to stay, Baker was able to find temporary housing. Tucker took on her case and her landlord eventually received the HOPE funds for Baker’s rent. She went back to working her regular hours at the medical center, but with another COVID-19 wave on the rise, her hours could get cut again. Though she moved back into her apartment, she plans to find a new place in March.
“Getting evicted can be a stressful process,” Baker said of her recent experience. “It’s important to know your rights and to do what you can to keep your things safe. Try all resources available.”
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