HIGH COUNTRY — Housing concerns have been a point of focus during the pandemic, as those who lose their jobs or face a reduction in pay can easily fall behind financially and struggle to pay their rent or mortgage.
Throughout the pandemic, the government has stepped in to help offer relief through the form of financial programs and evictions moratoriums. On Wednesday, Dec. 30, Governor Roy Cooper provided yet another example of this effort by extending the state’s eviction moratorium through Jan. 31.
“Too many families are living on the edge, trying to do the right thing but left with impossible choices. This order will help them stay in their homes, which is essential to slow the spread of the virus,” Gov. Cooper said in a Dec. 30 press conference.
Gov. Cooper also announced that the state expects to receive approximately $700 million in rental assistance through the recent COVID-19 relief bill. However, plans to distribute the money effectively have yet to be decided on by the General Assembly.
Additionally, Gov. Cooper plans on reopening the Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions (HOPE) program, which was designed to assistant renters who make less than 80 percent of their county’s median income. The HOPE program began accepting applications for assistance on Oct. 15 but quickly ran out of funds by Nov. 11. The program continues to not accept applications.
While NC citizens wait for the folks in Raleigh to take action, help for those struggling to pay their rent remains an area of priority for local and regional organizations. Legal Aid of North Carolina in particular has helped assure that families remained housed during the pandemic. A statewide nonprofit that provides free legal assistance to low-income North Carolinians, Legal Aid of NC has been providing its services to those who are facing eviction despite eviction moratoriums being in place.
“With everything that is going on through the moratoriums, we have seen an uptick in self-help evictions. Because of courts not proceeding in North Carolina, the CDC declarations and the governor’s moratorium, there is more incentive for landlords to do something like a self-help eviction to get people out of the homes,” Suzanne Saucier, a lawyer with Legal Aid in Jackson County, said.
Self-help evictions take place when a landlord does not go through the proper legal channels to evict a tenant. These actions usually take the form of making conditions for their tenants unlivable by changing the locks, turning off the electricity or water, or by simply refusing services to the tenant.
While Gov. Cooper’s eviction moratorium has remained in place over the past year, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has also issued a declaration determining that evictions could be detrimental to public health efforts to slow the spread of the virus. Tenants facing eviction have been able to use this declaration, which is available at cdc.gov, by signing it and declaring that they cannot afford their rent due to financial impact and are facing homelessness. The document is supposed to be provided to tenants by their landlords.
“We did have a case where the person had lost her job due to Covid, which was a new job. She did provide a CDC declaration to the landlord. The landlord did file an eviction, and she mentioned it all to the magistrate. She was still evicted. We were able to stop it through a court order, because we got a temporary restraining order that was based on the CDC declaration. She had five children at home and had no place to go. We were able to stop the eviction from proceeding and basically stop it until the moratorium ends,” Saucier said.
Those who may find themselves in a similar situation can contact Legal Aid’s Boone office by calling (828) 355-4890. Legal Aid of the High Country covers Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell, Yancey, Wilkes and Watauga counties.
While the moratorium has helped those struggling financially stay in their homes, once these moratoriums end it likely means that these same individuals and families will have bills to pay that have piled up over the months. Saucier recommends that those who find themselves in this situation reach out to NC 211 by dialing 2-1-1 or by visiting nc211.org. The service helps those in crisis situations apply for assistance and locate services.
The local Department of Social Services also has programs to help those in financial difficulty, such as energy assistance programs. Local nonprofits such as Reaching Avery Ministries also continue to provide crucial services for those facing housing insecurity during the winter months.
“We’ve had a few generous donations from a few different places to help us help those families, whether it be for evictions or heating or power. We’ve been able to meet all of those needs. I feel like we didn’t have the onslaught of requests that I thought we would have for rent, because they did not receive those eviction notices. Not that we haven’t received any, and yes we’ve helped, but I was afraid we were going to be inundated with numbers that we couldn’t provide for,” RAM Director Janet Milsaps said.
Hospitality House in Boone also remains a resource for those facing housing insecurity. HH has historically assisted Avery residents due to the fact that Avery County does not have its own shelter. RAM also provides temporary assistance for those needing a roof over their heads.
“What we end up doing in those kind of situations a lot of times, RAM does help put people up in a motel or hotel for a night or two. We do that quite often, and we may have done more of that this year in order for the person to secure some other means or come up with a plan to get somewhere else,” Milsaps said.
Reaching Avery Ministries can be contacted by calling (828) 733-5127, and the Hospitality House in Boone can be contacted by calling (828) 264-1237.