Details about hundreds of eviction cases handled in the Santa Fe Magistrate Court over the last decade run across Samuel Taub's computer screen as he watches his coding analyze and organize the information. The cases and resulting data tell a story: Eviction filings by landlords are down month over month in 2020 compared to the averages of 2010 through 2019.
For example, during the second week of October in the past decade, the average number of eviction filings was 22.5. This year, when the state has imposed a moratorium on evictions due to non-payment of rent because of COVID, only four were filed.
This pattern has held throughout the year as the state rule has largely appeared to stop landlords from kicking out tenants. This doesn't particularly surprise Taub or the other University of New Mexico law students and researchers working on what they aim to become the first in-depth, statewide look at eviction data.
Taub and the other researchers wonder how the status of a moratorium at the federal level could also impact New Mexicans.
"There's less filings," Taub tells SFR. "That's a strong indicator that there are fewer evictions…Although I think what the new concern is, the stay ends on Dec. 30, the CDC one does, and so I think people are worried that Congress isn't going to pass any sort of relief this month and then that's going to expire and then next month it's going to be a disaster."
The data, still behind a password-locked website as the team prepares to release it more publicly early next year and with info from more counties, also appears to show the south and west sides of Santa Fe have seen historically higher rates of eviction cases than other parts of the city. That trend has also not surprised Taub, who grew up in Santa Fe.
"I have a heavy bias having grown up here; I just have a narrative in my head of what's happened," Taub says. "But it certainly looks like the eastside of Santa Fe isn't experiencing any of the magnitude of eviction problems that the south and west side are…It's just become more and more, I feel anecdotally, racially imbalanced."
Evictions are also still happening through loopholes in the moratorium that allow landlords to evict for other infractions Taub lists: people not listed on the lease living in the unit, a broken car in the yard or too much debris on the porch.
He and others at UNM hope the preliminary data will eventually inform officials who are working to make better policy to keep people in their homes during and after the pandemic.
Assistant Professor Elizabeth Elia, who teaches property and land use law at UNM and also rotates into the economic justice clinic for landlord-tenant case work, started the research project over the summer with several of her students. The group began with cases in Bernalillo County over the last two years, entering case details such as the reason for a claim and its outcome in the absence of user-friendly aggregation of case data in the court system there.
After he witnessed the slog of the manual process, Taub wrote a program, starting with the Santa Fe Magistrate Court, to aggregate and analyze the data. Now, researchers also have preliminary data for Bernalillo Metro, Doña Ana Magistrate and Sandoval Magistrate courts. Elia wants to get Taub more help to complete the data for the state, which updates on a weekly basis, so the tool can contribute to other national studies.
"We're really lucky in that we've had good models for what type of data that we might expect to be able to see through the National Eviction Lab project," Elia says. "They collect this type of data for all different states around the country for evictions and they had been struggling to get information from New Mexico because we don't have an easy way of accessing the information. So we're trying to help fill that gap for New Mexico."
Elia started thinking about the impact of evictions on New Mexicans before the pandemic, when she wanted to compile the data in order to look for connections between housing stability (or instability) and outcomes in childrens' education. The pandemic was just a foot on the gas pedal for the project because the state was "late in the game" to apply an eviction stay for COVID-related non-payment of rent.
The New Mexico Supreme Court ordered a temporary moratorium on evictions for those who are unable to pay rent during the public health emergency over the spread of COVID-19 in late March. Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber announced the city's eviction moratorium a week before the state did.
"We were very eager to see what was actually happening with evictions as people were out of work and then once we had the moratorium in place from the Supreme Court, we wanted to see what was actually happening in courts, whether it was being upheld by the courts or applied by the courts or not," Elia says. "Now, as we look towards hopefully the end of the pandemic…across the country, there's major concern that we're going to have just an incredible wave of evictions…that have been stayed over the last six months or so."
While the data is already answering some questions, such as how many evictions are being filed and where and for what, it creates more questions than answers, according to Elia: How likely is a "wave" of evictions? How big is it? When is it likely to crest and what can be done to prevent huge numbers of people from being evicted all at once as public health emergency orders expire?
The data might be useful to answer these questions and inform lawmakers in the next several months. One of said lawmakers is already in the loop. Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, is a second-year law student at UNM and also Taub's classmate.
Romero tells SFR she plans to use the data at the upcoming legislative session to push policies that will update "outdated" housing policies, including extending the time people have to legally pay back owed rent as well as trying to fix patterns of housing discrimination.
"We're already utilizing it to support some of our initiatives that we're looking at in a large housing omnibus package," Romero says. "Right now if you're a landlord, you can deny someone on the basis of 'I don't like that you have a subsidy for this,' and it's completely legal, and we think that that is absolutely egregious…things like that are going into our overall package, and of course, increased funds overall…How can we extend these resources to folks who need support and who need it immediately?"