Although Orange County's evictions are half of what they were before the pandemic, many tenants are still grappling with how to use local and nationwide protections while navigating a complicated court system.
Emila Sutton, director of housing and community development for Orange County, said the decrease in evictions is in part due to the county and the towns of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough putting over $2 million into the Emergency Housing Assistance program.
Sutton said the Emergency Housing Assistance Program has helped over 700 people in the county avoid eviction since January by helping with their housing-related payments. Prior to the pandemic, she said the program helped about 10-12 people per month, but it helped over 300 people in September.
“Our neighboring communities are seeing a big increase in the number of evictions, while we are actually seeing lower than pre-pandemic numbers,” Sutton said.
However, she said the program is running out of funds and stopped covering costs for rent, mortgage and utilities as of Oct. 19. Orange County residents can now apply for help with rent or utility bills through the Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions Program.
The North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency gave the county's Housing and Community Development Department $700,000 to begin administering HOPE on Oct. 19. Over 100 people have requested help as of Oct. 22, Sutton said.
The HOPE program is more restrictive on who qualifies for assistance, as well as what costs it covers, so Sutton said she is hoping the county will give more funding to continue providing assistance through the Emergency Housing Assistance Program.
“Local funds are much more flexible and much easier for us to be able to provide the exact assistance that someone needs," she said.
While the county has been able to prevent many evictions since the pandemic started, the need for housing payment assistance hasn't slowed because many people have remained jobless during the pandemic.
A few protections have been in place to help tenants not get evicted due to nonpayment, such as Gov. Roy Cooper’s eviction moratorium and the Centers for Disease Control’s recent nationwide moratorium.
The CDC ordered a nationwide suspension of evictions of nonpayment from Sept. 4 to Dec. 31. Unlike Cooper’s moratorium, a tenant has to fall under certain qualifications and give a signed declaration to their landlord in order to be protected under the CDC order.
Isaac Sturgill, head of the housing practice group at Legal Aid N.C., said the CDC moratorium is not an automatic protection, but it is a useful tool that can be used by attorneys who are defending tenants and tenants who are representing themselves if they qualify and know how to use it.
Jamie Paulen of Paulen Solidarity Law represents tenants in various counties across the state, including Orange, Chatham and Durham counties, and said her clients often aren’t even aware that they have to give an affidavit to their landlord in order to be protected under the order.
Both Paulen and Sturgill said whether a tenant is protected under the order varies across the state.
“The way that these cases are being handled is different depending on what county you’re in or what individual magistrate you get,” Paulen said.
Paulen is a part of a coalition that wrote a letter to Chief Justice Cheri Beasley on Oct. 16 to ask her to provide specific guidance to magistrates across the state for how to comply with the CDC order.
Sturgill said the state's court system has, for the most part, left it up to the tenants to bring up the affidavit with their landlord. Sturgill said other states, such as Rhode Island, have taken a more active role to protect tenants by making landlords sign a paper saying they are complying with the CDC order.
He said the courts in North Carolina are not checking with landlords that tenants are giving them a signed affidavit under the CDC order.
“I was a little surprised by how the state court system was essentially like, ‘We are not going to change anything about our process, we are gonna completely leave it up to tenants to raise this issue with the judges,'” Sturgill said.
But many tenants are unrepresented, and for tenants who do not have a lawyer, they are unable to argue for themselves effectively in court, Sturgill said.
At the beginning of October, Paulen observed in court two landlord representatives evict eight tenants in Orange County, none of whom were present in court or had representation on their behalf, she said.
In North Carolina, there is a statutory provision that if a tenant doesn’t show up in court for eviction proceedings on the basis of nonpayment, their landlord can still move for judgment on the pleadings, and the magistrate doesn't need to hear evidence.
Sutton said Orange County residents can call the Housing Helpline at 919-245-2655 for more guidance on the CDC order.
“I certainly think that it can be a great tool in preventing people from being immediately evicted, and it can help us be able to create some time so that they are able to get their rent,” Sutton said.
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