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We're preparing for the worst: Legal Aid attorney talks evictions, strain on resources

We're preparing for the worst: Legal Aid attorney talks evictions, strain on resources

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For much of the pandemic, government orders have halted evictions for tenants who cannot pay as a result of the pandemic.

The last of these major orders, the one issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, expired Saturday. 

Isaac Sturgill, an attorney who works on housing issues for the nonprofit Legal Aid of North Carolina, said it is not exactly clear what will happen once pandemic eviction restrictions are removed.

“We’re preparing for the worst, but it’s harder to guess exactly what it’s going to look like other than that I would be extremely shocked if there wasn’t some jump in eviction cases,” Sturgill said. “We just don’t know how large it’s going to be.”

Data compiled by the National Equity Atlas, which is a collaboration between the social policy research and advocacy group PolicyLink and the University of Southern California’s Equity Research Institute, suggests the potential scope of the problem.

In North Carolina, 206,000 households owe an estimated $571.2 million in rent, according to the Atlas’ dashboard. If eviction proceedings are brought against all those debtors at once, “it would completely break our court system, frankly,” Sturgill said.

It is not clear how many of those with debt will face eviction or how many will be able to receive financial assistance or make arrangements with landlords. Local judicial districts would have latitude to add additional court sessions to deal with an overload of cases but broader action would require an order from the N.C. Supreme Court.

Potential strain on resources is also a concern for Legal Aid. If the burden becomes too great, the organization may have to limit the cases it takes on, Sturgill said. He said the organization is already planning to add information to the website that will help provide guidance to individuals who may not be able to get in touch with an attorney right away.

“We’re going to do our best to keep up with the onslaught,” Sturgill said. “We’ve been trying to clean our plates as much as we can to make room for the new cases coming in but, honestly, we don’t have enough funding to keep up with all of the demand, and I think it would be dishonest to say otherwise.”

For more information on Legal Aid’s services, call 866-219-5262 or visit www.legalaidnc.org.

Rural vs. Urban

The number of households with rent debt is concentrated heavily in the state’s most urban counties.

The top five counties with the most debtors — Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Cumberland and Durham — account for nearly 40% of all the household rent debt, according to the National Equity Access dashboard.

Rural counties, however, face certain challenges that are not as significant in urban counties.  At least some urban counties already have established organizations and networks that can get funding to those in need.

“For some of the rural counties, there is nothing like that out there,” Sturgill said. “There is no group that has been doing rental assistance in an organized fashion. Some of the rural places, if you need help for your rent, you just go to a church on Sunday and you talk to the pastor or something like that.”

HOPE Program

One of Sturgill’s greatest concerns is the people who will fall through the cracks, including those who have requested funding but may not receive assistance before facing eviction.

The HOPE Program is a state program offering rental assistance throughout North Carolina. It provides funding in all but 12 counties in North Carolina.

The program is not available in Mecklenburg, Guilford, Forsyth, Buncombe, Durham, Wake, Cabarrus, Union, Johnston, Gaston, Cumberland and New Hanover counties, which are served by local programs.

To qualify for the program, individuals must have been late on rent at some point since April 2020, must have faced financial hardship as a result of the pandemic and must have an income equal to or less than 80% of the median income for their county, according to the program website.

HOPE provides a maximum of 12 months of rental assistance.

While program funds remain available, some landlords have refused HOPE money.

Reasons for this include landlords who want to sell their properties and those who are put off by the restrictions that come with taking the money, things like limitations on filing evictions against tenants. 

Sturgill encouraged people who might benefit from the program to file as soon as possible and to not wait until an eviction claim is filed.

For more information on the program, visit www.rebuildnc.gov and click the “HOPE Program” link or call 888-927-5467.

Kevin Griffin is the City of Hickory reporter at the Hickory Daily Record.

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