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UNC’s Civil Legal Assistance Clinic and immigrant advocacy group launch COVID-19 hotline

Graphic from Siembra NC's Instagram

In response to the expiration of a statewide moratorium on eviction cases on June 21, an eviction defense hotline for Spanish-speaking tenants has been established to inform and empower tenants with knowledge of their rights.

The CARES Act Eviction Information Line launched the day after the statewide moratorium expired, and is operated by UNC’s Civil Legal Assistance Clinic and immigration advocacy group Siembra NC

Kathryn Sabbeth, associate professor of law and director of UNC’s Civil Legal Assistance Clinic, said the hotline is intended to help tenants identify whether their dwellings are protected from eviction under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

“Not having a house in a moment where we are told to increase our sanitation practices at home and stay home as much as we can is absolutely a public health threat, especially when you take into account the disproportionate impact of COVID on the Latinx population in North Carolina,” Andreina Malki, a research fellow at Siembra NC and a graduate student at UNC, said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hispanic or Latinx people are four times more likely to be hospitalized because of COVID-19 than non-Hispanic white people. 

Sabbeth said landlords in North Carolina are legally permitted to move forward with some evictions at this time, but that a federal moratorium still protects some properties until at least July 25. She said the main categories of protected properties include those participating in certain federal housing programs or those with a federally backed mortgage.

Peter Gilbert, a supervising attorney in the Durham office of Legal Aid of North Carolina who helped create the Eviction Diversion Program, said that even with moratoriums in place, there were still several dozen eviction cases filed in violation of Gov. Roy Cooper’s order and the CARES Act. 

“We saw an increase in unlawful evictions taking place outside of the court process where landlords would take it upon themselves to change the locks or shut off utilities without the court process, which is illegal in North Carolina,” Gilbert said.

Sabbeth said tenants have an information disadvantage in determining whether the CARES Act applies to them since they do not necessarily know the landlord’s finances with respect to the property.

Malki said Siembra NC also thought the hotline, which provides information in Spanish, was necessary because of language access issues that may prevent CARES Act information from reaching Spanish speakers. 

Sabbeth said individuals looking for assistance should send a text message with their full address and, if possible, the name of their property to the hotline at 919-590-9165. The legal clinic’s staff will then look up the address in an online database of properties that may be protected under the CARES Act created by ProPublica. The database is not comprehensive, so homes not listed could still be protected, she said.

Based on what is gathered from the database, staff will send a tenant a bilingual information packet that is believed to apply to their situation via text message and mail, Sabbeth said. Information provided includes guides to CARES Act protections, requesting an interpreter in court and self-representation in an eviction proceeding.

“What I hope that we can do is try to help people be armed with a little bit more information about their situation, a little bit more information about the law that applies and what they can expect and, hopefully, make it easier for them to advocate for themselves,” Sabbeth said.

Sabbeth said due to capacity constraints, the hotline does not provide people with legal representation or tailored legal advice beyond the information packet.

However, Malki said both documented and undocumented people seeking further assistance can contact Siembra NC to discuss court accompaniment, finding a lawyer and organizing neighbors to talk to a landlord.

Sabbeth said eviction — a nationwide crisis that preceded the pandemic — has many negative repercussions ranging from educational to financial to psychological, but COVID-19 has exacerbated the implications.

“I think that the public health threat and, really, the threat to our basic values as a society don't suggest it makes sense to go forward with evictions right now,” Sabbeth said.

Gilbert also said he does not know why the state moratorium was lifted since the conditions that led it to be put in place are worse now — primarily more COVID-19 cases and greater unemployment. He said that there are more people who can’t pay their rent now than there were in the past four months as people are exhausting their resources.

Malki said Siembra NC conducted a survey of over 300 Latinx people across the state in May and found that nearly 50 percent were unable to pay their full May rent.

Gilbert said the majority of eviction cases are due to a tenant’s inability to pay rent. He said staff at Legal Aid of North Carolina try to connect tenants with available financial resources through local community action agencies or the Department of Social Services, but resources are “completely inadequate for the need.”

Based on his experience, Gilbert said that landlords have been generally unwilling to come down on a tenant’s alleged balance or negotiate a partial payment of rent or payment plan, though he said he hopes that will start to change.

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Although Legal Aid of North Carolina attorneys work to prevent evictions, he said unless a tenant can come up with the full balance due, the attorneys are not always able to do so. He said in many cases, they can delay the process to allow a family more time to find a safe and habitable house. 

“We are facing a huge housing crisis,” Gilbert said. “We're only at the beginning of this eviction crisis. I expect it to continue to get worse in the coming months. And I think that the eviction crisis is going to create a crisis of homelessness, which is going to further the spread of this deadly disease.”