Evictions were halted in North Carolina for much of this year, but since late June, Catawba County has seen hundreds of evictions filed and low-income people are seeking legal aid at higher levels than ever.
Since the moratorium was lifted in late June, Catawba County has seen 316 eviction filings. Even with a three-month pause, the Foothills North Carolina Legal Aid office, which helps people who are 185 percent below the federal poverty level, has seen higher rates of people seeking help with evictions than last year, managing attorney Hilary Ventura said.
“The majority of cases we’re seeing right now is people who are seeking assistance for evictions based on nonpayment,” Ventura said. “What’s interesting to me is this year because of the original moratorium there was a stall in a lot of cases we’ve gotten. … But our numbers (in Catawba County) increased just over 30 percent from last year (at this time.) It shows people are in a situation where they are needing assistance.”
A U.S. Centers for Disease Control moratorium on evictions due to nonpayment of rent went into effect Sept. 4, but despite it, Catawba County has still seen 91 evictions filed since the order through Oct. 14, according to data from the Catawba County Clerk of Court’s office.
That’s because evictions can still be filed and even go through if a tenant doesn’t declare that they are protected under the CDC order, Ventura said. That is much of what her office is helping tenants do to get evictions halted and prevent any being filed in the first place, she said.
“A tenant who is being evicted for nonpayment of rent, if they fall in low-income categories, like having lost income, those individuals are generally eligible to fill out a declaration requesting protections,” Ventura said.
All tenants have to do is submit a declaration to their landlord, which the CDC provides an outline for. That can protect vulnerable populations from being evicted, but Ventura worries about those who don’t know about the CDC order, or don’t know where to look for help.
“Unfortunately anyone who doesn't do that isn't going to be eligible for protection,” she said. “That is something that is definitely a concern for me.”
The demand for legal services for low-income tenants is still growing due to COVID-19, Ventura said. Since the CDC moratorium went into place, she’s noticed an increase in people calling seeking help. To help bring awareness of the CDC order before it rises to the level of needing legal help, her office is working to bring awareness to the order.
They’re reaching out to partner agencies who work with low-income people. Her staff went to courthouses to make court staff aware of the order and pass out information on the order. They are also encouraging anyone seeking help or information to reach out to the hotline at 866-219-5262. That state hotline has seen a 300 percent increase in calls this year because of the pandemic, she said, but they work to help each person.
“We’re doing the best we can to get through them and I encourage them to be patient,” she said.
Before an eviction is filed, local agencies are there to help, some with special funds specifically with COVID-19 relief. Eastern Catawba Cooperative Christian Ministry has federal funds from the county to help those affected by COVID-19, but Executive Director Robert Silber hasn’t seen the demand he expected.
“We’re busy with housing requests as far as financial assistance from the stereotypical low-income poverty demographic we typically serve but with the COVID response dollars we have, there isn’t that demand,” he said.
He doesn’t think the need isn’t there, he thinks those people may not know where to turn, he said. The nonprofit had $217,000 of grant money allocated for COVID-19 relief, and $171,800 is still left, and he’d like to use it this year to help people pay balances with their banks, landlords and utility companies.
“My concern is those persons, the workers who through no fault of their own are struggling, they don’t know where to turn,” Silber said.
The organization has been trying to reach out to people in many ways, but Silber worries people who’ve never needed the kind of help they provide before won’t know where to look to get it.
“We were expecting a lot of need, we were pulling away any limits, we were expecting to exhaust the funds,” he said.