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City Housing Task Force Examines Ways To Stave Off Evictions As Filings Mount During Pandemic

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With courts in Mecklenburg County now reopened after being closed for months because of the pandemic, the city's Covid-19 housing task force is assessing ways to address what could be a surge in eviction filings.  More than 1,800 summary ejectments and 140 appeals have been filed in Mecklenburg since the start of the pandemic, according to a presentation made Thursday by Kim Graham, executive director of the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association and a task force member…..

City housing task force examines ways to stave off evictions as filings mount during pandemic

By Ashley Fahey  – Real Estate Editor, Charlotte Business Journal

With courts in Mecklenburg County now reopened after being closed for months because of the pandemic, the city's Covid-19 housing task force is assessing ways to address what could be a surge in eviction filings.

More than 1,800 summary ejectments and 140 appeals have been filed in Mecklenburg since the start of the pandemic, according to a presentation made Thursday by Kim Graham, executive director of the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association and a task force member. Graham has been appointed to make recommendations on how the city or other organizations can work to fix the evictions process, especially in the wake of the pandemic.

Graham referenced a study led by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute first issued in 2017 that looks at the state of evictions in Mecklenburg County. The study came about as a local coalition of housing advocates, governments and nonprofits hosted Matthew Desmond, author of Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction book "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City," in Charlotte for a community conversation.

Both Desmond's book and other research illustrates how an eviction on a renter's record creates barriers to securing another apartment or make purchases reliant on a good credit score, such as a car or a house.

"We know that evictions can be very damaging to reputation and the ability to obtain housing in the future, and we don’t want to exacerbate our homelessness problem in Mecklenburg County," Graham said.

Graham said research — from multiple sources, including the UNCC-led study — has found about 35% of all eviction cases are settled voluntarily and about 17% of all summary ejectment cases resulted in an eviction.

The city has a free dispute settlement program that provides mediation services for landlord and tenant issues outside of the courtroom. Graham said that program has five staff members and about 50 volunteers. Agreements reached in the mediation process are binding.

The GCAA and the North Carolina Justice Center drafted legislation a few years ago for the state General Assembly to consider, which would allow post-judgement relief agreements between landlords and tenants if passed. The legislation would allow a motion for a judgment to be removed permanently from a tenant's record if they pay what's determined to be owed to the former landlord.

"It has teeth ... and (makes sure) that the judgment doesn’t follow the renter," Graham said. "This will ensure that the landlord actually records the satisfaction of judgement."

The legislation is expected to be part of recommendations the housing task force will vote on in July before the full Charlotte City Council considers it eventually. If approved by council, the measure would be added to the city government's legislative agenda for consideration in either a short or a long session at the state.

On a monthly basis, there are, on average, about 350 evictions, Graham said. When applying historic percentages of how many cases result in an actual eviction versus total summary ejectments, of the 1,800 or so filings since the start of the pandemic, about 500 could be dismissed voluntarily.

There isn't a lot of current, real-time data on summary ejectments or how evictions could look different with Covid-19, Graham said. The city could consider commissioning a report to study that topic more thoroughly.

Alieza Durana of The Eviction Lab, a research unit at Princeton University, said in an interview with the Charlotte Business Journal earlier this month that while moratoriums and other mandates have been issued to halt evictions during the pandemic, there remain several complex issues that have very suddenly emerged because of Covid-19.

"Because of the nature of the recession itself, the moratorium acts as sort of a Band-Aid for a gushing wound," Durana said.

While subsidy payments and enhanced unemployment benefits may temporarily buoy those out of work, there remains palpable concern of what happens when stimulus money runs out. The enhanced benefits are set to expire at the end of July, and many families will be facing a material cliff, Durana said.

Anecdotally, she said she's heard of tenants using credit cards and loans to pay rent.

Many who work in the industry have said the real impacts of the pandemic on housing may not be fully realized until later this summer or into the fall, especially if tenants are deferring rent or racking up debt.

"If they accrue rental debt, there’s a very real possibility that it could become an unpayable amount of money," Durana said.

Also unknown: what kind of demand or unique re-housing needs could emerge if a large number of evictions occur because of unemployment and other economic repercussions from the pandemic.

Shelters are already overburdened, and the lack of affordable housing inventory in Charlotte has been well documented, with a deficiency in the range of tens of thousands of units.

"That is a real issue," Graham said at Thursday's meeting. "I think there’s a real likelihood that families will move from Charlotte because the cost of housing is too high."

Task force member Lee Cochran, vice president at Laurel Street Residential, asked whether the federal stimulus money the city received for Covid-19 relief could specifically target renters in danger of eviction, where mediation efforts don't work.

Graham said flyers about the city's programs have been distributed at courthouses and mediators may be able to refer those going through evictions to the program.

Earlier this month, the city approved $8 million in rent and mortgage relief as well as $2 million in supportive housing, on top of $5.7 million in federal money at the start of the pandemic. The funds must be allocated to those who are struggling to pay bills because of Covid-19 impacts.

Last week, Erin Barbee, senior vice president of programs and fund development at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership — which is managing the rent and mortgage relief programs — said there's been significantly higher demand for rent relief so far than mortgage assistance. From April 5 to mid-June, there were 1,422 applicants for the rent relief program, compared to 176 applicants for help with mortgage payments.

About 25% of rent relief applications have been from ZIP codes 28216, which includes west and northwest Charlotte; 28208, west and southwest Charlotte; and 28206, which is the North End.

Council member Braxton Winston said Thursday there's a "donut hole" in how the city addresses evictions. There are options prior to a judgment through mediation and long-term affordable housing solutions but no answer yet on what the city's role is immediately following a judgment, he said.

"The point of this task force is to provide solutions around Covid relief," Winston continued. "That is a big portion of the Covid relief that our community needs, evictions that do go through. ... we do need to attack the issue of what happens the minute after that judgment is issued."

Pamela Wideman, who leads the city's neighborhood and housing services department, said the city could work with more community nonprofits and groups that work with tenants, and potentially tweak its process to better help people on the front end.

Task force member Anthony Lindsey, a Realtor and member of the North Carolina Real Estate Commission, said the 350 evictions that occur, on average, monthly usually represent more than one individual.

"We’re talking about households, not individuals," Lindsey said. "People need to, in their mind, put a multiplier on that number when we talk about how many individuals are really being impacted."