Realtors want eviction ban to end but housing advocates say tenants need more time

·5 min read

With the statewide eviction moratorium set to end on June 30, the North Carolina Association of Realtors sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper, urging him not to extend the order because of its financial impact on landlords.

“Businesses by and large are operating normally again,” the association’s letter reads. “The same cannot be said for small business housing providers who continue to operate under severe restrictions.”

Cooper’s statewide moratorium is in keeping with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s nationwide moratorium, which has been in effect since early September.

The order, which was initially imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19 from displaced tenants, has been extended three times. Each time, Cooper has extended North Carolina’s moratorium as well.

The moratorium doesn’t allow evictions for nonpayment of rent due to COVID. But other evictions, such as ones due to criminal activity or overstaying an expired lease, are still allowed.

Cathy Robertson, chair of NC Realtors’ property management division, said in an interview that the eviction moratorium, while necessary at the onset of the pandemic, is putting an unfair financial burden on landlords.

“That was absolutely needed in the beginning,” Robertson said. “But as the threat diminishes, I think it’s time for these property owners to receive some of the same relief as businesses.”

NC offers rental aid through the HOPE program

The relief that Robertson is referring to is the state’s COVID-19 rent relief program, the Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Eviction program, or HOPE.

The program, which restarted in May after not accepting applications for several months, has awarded $41.1 million to the 11,456 rental households accepted into the second phase of the program.

Of that amount, $14.3 million has been mailed to landlords and utility providers on behalf of applicant households, according to the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which operates the HOPE program.

But 182,000 households in North Carolina are behind on rent with an average debt of $2,700, according to an analysis of U.S. Census May survey data from the National Equity Atlas, which studies the social equity of states and regions.

“The problem is that a lot of people are dealing with a massive amount of accumulated rental debt,” said Jesse McCoy, an attorney who defends tenants in court at Duke University’s Civil Justice Clinic.

“The moratorium should be extended,” he said, “to give the social services organizations and NC HOPE the opportunity to get through the applications.”

In an emailed statement, Mary Scott Winstead, a spokeswoman for Cooper’s office, said the governor will decide before June 30 whether to extend the moratorium.

“The governor is analyzing the impact of the moratorium, reviewing guidance from the CDC and studying the positive effects of the HOPE program,” Winstead wrote.

‘People over property’

If the eviction moratorium ends June 30, landlords can move to evict for nonpayment come July 1.

But Robertson said most landlords aren’t going to do that.

“That’s not how most of us operate,” Robertson said. “For the vast majority, no one’s in a rush to evict anybody.”

But she said that with reported COVID-19 cases going down, property owners should be given the option to find a tenant who can pay rent.

“While the virus is still a threat, it is becoming more something that’s in our rearview mirror,” Robertson said. “I see more and more things open up. I would hope that the governor would move to open this up for our small business property owners as well.”

These small business property owners are what make up most of Robertson’s clients, she said.

“There’s this perception that landlords are these big corporate investor types,” Robertson said, “but that’s just not who we represent. We represent folks that may have one or two single family homes.”

McCoy said even for landlords with fewer properties and tighter margins, the relationship between owner and tenant always favors the landlord.

“Both sides have financial burdens,” McCoy said. “The difference is the landlords have power that tenants don’t. If there’s a job loss, that affects somebody’s ability to pay rent. It doesn’t help the situation for that person to be evicted.”

He said tenants shouldn’t have to suffer displacement due to a pandemic that they had no control over.

“My philosophy is always going to be people over property,” McCoy said. “It’s not fair that landlords have had to go without getting rent for over a year, but that’s what these programs are designed to try to pay for.”

He said rental aid programs, given the months-long gap in aid and the many households still with rent debt, haven’t lived up to that.

“This isn’t the landlord’s fault. This isn’t the tenant’s fault. This is the effect of not properly preparing for a pandemic,” McCoy said.

NCORR chief executive Laura Hogshead has said that changes made to the HOPE program through feedback from the first phase will help the program get aid out more quickly.

McCoy said he is hopeful that the HOPE program will become more efficient. But tenants still need time beyond the two weeks left in the moratorium, he said.

“America, in general, is rushing back to try to get back to normal, which I understand. It’s been a long time,” McCoy said. “But the problem is, even though things are good for some people in society, they aren’t good for everybody at this point.”

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