CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With the federal eviction moratorium set to expire in just a week, more than 5,000 people are still waiting to receive financial assistance from North Carolina's HOPE Program. Despite the delay in payments, the state is confident some renters will remain protected from eviction after the moratorium is lifted, even if their financial help hasn't yet arrived.
"When the landlord signs the landlord-tenant agreement, they are obligating themselves legally to protect that tenant for the period of assistance we are paying for plus the 60 days," Office of Recovery and Resiliency Chief Operating Officer Laura Hogshead said. "When the legal document is signed, that agreement, the protection is in place, no matter when the check shows up."
While those agreements will help some renters avoid eviction for now, the same contracts will allow landlords to evict others.
Desiree Hull received a 30-day notice to vacate her Charlotte apartment, effective March 31. She and her landlord signed their HOPE agreement in December, yet she said the money hasn't arrived, but her agreement shows a bigger concern. Since she's renting without a formal lease extension, the contract allows her landlord to evict her 90 days after the last month her rent is covered by HOPE assistance, which was January 2021.
"Where am I going?" she asked. "I don't know what to do."
Hull said the pandemic cost her her job, which left her with little money to pay rent, but she thought after finding a new job and the HOPE Program, she'd be in better shape. In fact, she said she's fully caught up on her rent.
"I'm mentally a wreck," Hull said. "My stomach stays in knots."
Her landlord wouldn't discuss specifics of Hull's case.
"This has been an extremely difficult year for both tenants and landlords," Hecht Property Management Broker in Charge Douglas Fisher said. "Many of our landlords rely upon rent payments for retirement income or to pay the property mortgage and expenses. While the Federal and State government has addressed rent payments, unemployment, and funded small businesses, they have failed to take any action to assist landlords. There has not been any meaningful mortgage assistance. Property taxes were still due at the end of the year. Landlords are still expected to make repairs. In some counties the courts have been closed preventing landlords from legally addressing lease violations besides non-payment (such pet violations), squatters, or hold over tenants, further eroding the rights of the landlord."
As of Tuesday, the HOPE Program has provided rent and utility money to about 36,908 of the roughly 42,000 households who applied for help as a result of "financial hardship due to the pandemic," according to the Office of Recovery and Resiliency.
Of the $140.4 million awarded by the program, the state reports it has actually paid $96.1 million to landlords and utility providers. The agency is not committing to delivering the remaining money by March 31.
"Because these are federal funds, we do rely on the landlord and the tenant to provide us information to complete the award and make the payment, so we are dependent on the landlord and the tenant sending in the information so that we can complete the awards," Hogshead said. "In many cases, we are waiting on them and that’s why we can’t commit to when those documents will be done."
Hogshead said workers are making daily calls to landlords and tenants in hopes of speeding up the process.
"We are working our hardest to get the checks out to people," she said. "Everyone is worried and everyone is anxious and having the moratorium expire is producing a level of anxiety that even if you understand all of the political and legal nuances of that document, you’re still worried and you’re worried until your landlord gets that check, so that’s why we’re speeding out checks just as soon as we get all of the paperwork in place."
That money will likely be too little, too late for Serita Russell. Even as she waits for her HOPE assistance to arrive, confusion in the process resulted in her only receiving HOPE assistance through January 2021. She's already received a summons to appear in court.
"That is scary," she said. "I just need some kind of certainty."
It's especially difficult when you consider what she's already overcome. Russell helped lead a class action lawsuit against her former apartment complex, Lake Arbor Apartments, alleging poor maintenance and repair problems, which resulted in code violations. The case recently resulted in a settlement. Even after finalizing the settlement this month, she now faces likely eviction from her new landlord.
"I thought I read the contract clearly," she said. "Maybe I should have had an attorney, my attorney, look at the contract before I signed it because this is serious business."
Russell is a member of Action NC - Tenant Organizing Resource Center. She's urging others facing difficult housing situations to reach out to the Tenant Organizing Hotline (980) 443-3715 to learn about resources and their rights.
Isaac Sturgill with Legal Aid of North Carolina said there is minimal flexibility within the HOPE agreements.
"It's our position that after the landlord has signed the HOPE agreement, the landlord has to abide by its terms, which includes not evicting the tenant for 60 days or 90 days (depending on which version of the agreement was used)," Sturgill said. "After those 60 or 90 days, the landlord wouldn't be bound by the agreement anymore (regardless of whether the HOPE payment had been made). But the landlord would still have to have a valid basis for evicting the tenant after the 60 or 90 days is up, and if the landlord accepted money that paid for rent past the 60 or 90 days, the tenant would be entitled to stay for whatever period was paid for."
Before opening a second round of HOPE financial assistance, the state is hoping to learn from its failures. Hogshead said the agency is hiring 100 new employees, after previously hiring 185 workers to handle the overwhelming number of initial HOPE applications.
"We have learned a lot of lessons and we are going to be faster," she said.