Legal loopholes in the moratorium fail to protect some renters
[Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories about renters who face eviction even though a state and federal moratorium are in effect. Got an eviction story you want to share? Contact reporter Yanqi Xu at [email protected]]
Kerston Rankins put all her plans and belongings for a better life in boxes when she moved to Winston-Salem. Five chests of clothes, three cases of DVDs and several other keepsakes, which she and her husband loaded in the car and drove up from Statesville.
The front of their apartment is small, like a foyer, but it’s her living room, permeated with pineapple air freshener. Plants make Kerston feel calm, so two water lilies and three bamboo plants sit atop a coffee table, filling a vacancy left by a television set sold not very long ago. A gray couch is gone, with her other chairs. Several nails still protrude from the walls. They used to hang her honor roll plaque for continued education in medical billing and framed photos of fond memories of her and her husband, Tyrell.
Two balloons shaped in the number 28 have wilted in the corner. Tyrell celebrated his 28th birthday in their new home in September and refused to get rid of his balloons.
Kerston was ecstatic when she and Tyrell first settled in the two-bedroom unit in a duplex in northern Winston-Salem. The landlord didn’t require a deposit and they only needed to pay the first month’s rent of $650. The landlord even allowed her to plant flowers in the front yard.
“When we first got this place, it was like a godsend,” Kerston says.
Then they fell behind on the rent.
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a federal moratorium on evictions beginning Sept. 4, 2020. It originally was to expire March 31, 2021, but has since been extended to June 30.
Nonetheless, many landlords have found legal loopholes to evict their tenants. Some skirted the CDC moratorium by suing for other reasons, including lease violations.
Emily Benfer, a law professor at Wake Forest University, and two sociologists from WFU and Winston-Salem State have trained a group of students who observe eviction cases in Forsyth County courts. Benfer said eviction hearings are still routine, “despite the eviction moratorium that should have protected most renters.”
The Rankins were among more than 700 Forsyth County residents who were failed by the moratorium. Now they are on the verge of homelessness.
After a quarantine, lost wages and falling behind on rent
Bigger city, bigger opportunity. That’s what the Rankins thought when they moved to Winston-Salem.
Having no family in town, they went through a rough patch. From May to early September of 2020, the two lived in a hotel for $300 a week.
For $650 a month, a new two-bedroom apartment was a clean slate for them, a stable place to call home. But after two months, they fell behind on the rent. In November the Rankins’ landlord filed for eviction.
The landlord, Michael Groce, did not respond to multiple voicemails and text messages from Policy Watch.
Kerston remembers their first court appearance. It was December, drizzling and cold.
“Where’s your coat?” Groce asked her.
Kerston replied that she didn’t have one.
In court, Groce agreed to lower the rent from $650 to $500 a month. And when Kerston returned home, she found a bag hanging on the knob of her front door. Inside was a camouflage military security jacket, purchased from Goodwill.
She thought the gift was a kind gesture. “It’s warm,” Kerston says. “I still have it.”
But even with the reduction, the monthly payment was too much.
Tyrell Rankins had been exposed to someone with COVID, and Kerston, under quarantine for three weeks, couldn’t work.
Not receiving timely rent payments, Groce became more adamant about evicting the Rankins.
During normal times, a landlord in North Carolina can file for eviction for four main reasons: nonpayment of rent, a lease violation, failure to vacate after the lease ends, or criminal activities at the property. But under the federal and state moratoria, tenants cannot be evicted if they meet five criteria:
- they earn less than $99,000 a year,
- they have received a CARES Act stimulus check or aren’t required to report any taxable income to the IRS,
- they can’t pay their rent due to medical expenses or a loss of income,
- they try to pay a portion of the rent, and
- if evicted, they would have nowhere to go.
The Rankins met all five.
Landlords finding ways around the eviction moratorium
Kerston says her living room is her favorite of her apartment, because it’s where she can finally catch some sunlight. She has chronic anxiety and depression, and doesn’t sleep well at night, so she spends a large chunk of her day in her bedroom missing the sun.
Her anxiety has worsened since she and Tyrell lost their case in eviction court. What they had worked so hard to gain, they lost again.
Kerston says that when she went to court earlier this year, the second of many hearings, Magistrate Kia Harvey told the Rankins’ landlord that because of the federal moratorium he couldn’t evict them because of nonpayment.
But Groce found another reason to evict the Rankins: They had never turned on the gas. Instead, they were using the electric stove to heat the apartment. Kerston says that Magistrate Harvey told Groce he could amend his eviction claim for a lease violation.
Magistrate Harvey declined to discuss inquiries regarding a pending case with Policy Watch.
Kerston says the landlord had long known she hadn’t turned on the gas, but had never made it an issue until he could use it against her in court.
The Rankins’ lease required them to turn on the gas within 30 days of moving in, but they didn’t have enough for a utility deposit. “A hundred and fifty dollars doesn’t sound like a lot,” Kerston says. “It’s really not a lot of money, but it’s a lot if you don’t have it.”
At the time, Kerston worked the third shift at a McDonald’s. “At night when I was at work in the drive-thru window, I was cold anyway,” she says.
After learning that her lease required a gas connection, Kerston says she tried to pay the deposit by cutting off her phone service. She was without a phone for a few months, during which time Groce frantically texted her about the rent, leaving multiple messages before she finally replied.
Still she didn’t have enough money. She cancelled her internet. She decided to take a leave of absence from her online school in medical billing and coding at Ultimate Medical Academy as her grades tanked. She borrowed money from her mother to activate her phone so she could call her adult son, who is incarcerated. She thought about going back to school, but decided it was not possible to write a paper on her phone.
Isaac Sturgill is the head of the housing practice group at Legal Aid of North Carolina, which provides free legal assistance to very-low income residents. Sturgill told Policy Watch that many magistrates interpret the federal moratorium as governing only nonpayment cases, so landlords are becoming more sophisticated in circumventing it.
“We’re seeing a jump in cases where people are evicted for minor lease stuff the landlord never used to care about and all of a sudden they do,” Sturgill said, such as keeping a grill on the front porch.
Researchers and housing advocates told Policy Watch that the term “moratorium” is a misnomer. Rather than instituting an automatic bar on evictions due to failure to pay rent, the CDC moratorium provides a legal avenue for tenants to invoke the protection. But they need to know about it first.
“We still run across people all the time who didn’t know about it,” Sturgill said. “Many of them are facing evictions the first time in their lives.”
The Rankins qualified for the moratorium, but they didn’t know about it until the community organization Housing Justice Now told them. Kerston said Groce never gave her a copy of the CDC declaration for her to sign either, which he was required to under a state moratorium issued by Gov. Cooper on Oct. 28 (and extended last week through June 30) to notify tenants of their rights. There’s no affidavit from Groce testifying that he did so in the case files.
When Kerston learned the federal government extended the CDC moratorium through June 30, she was happy for many families who might get temporary relief, though her case was still going forward. “Somebody thought about us,” she says.
“Things are getting tight”
Sheriffs’ offices are tasked with executing what are known as “writs of possession” — eviction notices — and seizing the property if tenants exhaust their appeals.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby F. Kimbrough Jr. called for policymakers to temporarily halt evictions. Then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Beasley had the authority to do so.
Beasley issued an emergency directive a year ago, postponing all nonessential proceedings, including evictions, for 30 days. In April 2020, there were no evictions in Forsyth County. Evictions resumed in May 2020. Since the pandemic began, more than 1,000 evictions have been issued, according to data provided by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.
“We are sympathetic and empathetic with anybody on both sides of the eviction process, both the landlord and the tenant,” said Capt. John Bracken, Judicial Services Division commander at the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office. “However, we don’t have any leeway in the whole process.”
Two officers usually serve the eviction notices, a process that normally lasts for 15 minutes without any resistance from the tenants, Lt. Justin Burcham at the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office said. Landlords come to the property to change locks, and tenants have the right to retrieve their belongings within seven days.
“We go out, if they’re still there, and if the house is still full, we tell them to get what they need for a couple of days and or until they can work something out with the landlord,” Burcham said.
Only the landlord can cancel an eviction when a writ of possession is issued.
When the Rankins moved into their apartment in September, their next-door neighbor Mary Girard was being evicted by Groce for failing to pay the rent. The CDC moratorium had gone into effect in earlier September, but the state moratorium was not in place.
“Defendant is 70+ years old; Defendant collects social security payments.” Groce wrote in an affidavit to the court.
Girard didn’t show up in court to defend her case, according to court filings. There’s no evidence that she signed the CDC moratorium declaration, either. By the time Gov. Cooper signed the state moratorium in late October, a clerk had already issued the final eviction proceeding on Girard’s apartment.
Kerston doesn’t know where her neighbor went. A thin stack of files in a small manila envelope in the Forsyth County Courthouse recorded Girard’s departure.
Soon after the Rankins’ court date last month, Kerston says she offered to pay part of the $650 Groce claimed that they owed him. He wouldn’t take it, Kerston says, and told her they should part ways. “He doesn’t want me here and I don’t really want to be here if he doesn’t want us here,” Kerston said.
The Rankins appealed the court’s decisions. But until their next appearance, they must pay a rent bond each month — $650.
Kerston’s rent bond of $650 came due on April 5. The United Way paid it, according to Housing Justice Now. Kerston is scheduled to start working again on April 9 at the same McDonald’s where Tyrell works. But the money would arrive a little later than when she needs it, like always.
In preparation for the eviction, Kerston contacted a shelter. She was told that she and Tyrell, although married, would be assigned separate beds.
Maybe they can rent a storage unit, Kerston says. Maybe they can sell the boxes of movies that Tyrell’s aunt gave him throughout the years.
“Every day is like a little more air let out of the balloon if you will, because it’s getting closer and closer to time,” Kerston says. “And things are getting tight.”
She’s begun to pack. All their belongings are going back in the boxes they emptied just seven months ago. Kerston had planted the top of a pineapple in a pot. She’s taking it with her, to keep her calm.