With just over 40% of residents fully vaccinated, it seems safe to hope that New Mexico will soon be on the path to lifting at least some of the more onerous COVID-19 restrictions.
However, for renters who are behind on payments, the end of restrictions also means the end of eviction moratoriums that have stopped thousands from getting kicked out of their homes.
City of Santa Fe officials included funding for several eviction prevention measures in the proposed budget for the 2022 fiscal year that begins July 1. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the budget Wednesday.
“A lot of advocates fear that when those moratoria expire, that dozens and dozens, maybe hundreds of folks will be evicted by their landlords,” Santa Fe Affordable Housing Director Alexandra Ladd said at a news conference about the new budget proposals Monday morning.
Later that evening at a presentation of a new report on eviction data, members of the grassroots advocacy group the Chainbreaker Collective said that number could look closer to 5,700 people—with a disproportionate number of them being Hispanic and lower-income.
The city budget proposals aimed at preventing the encroaching eviction wave include adding $1.8 million to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund this year to bring it up to a baseline of $3 million and allocating another $3 million to the fund in FY22. A sizable chunk of that money would go toward helping people with rental assistance.
Small-scale landlords could benefit from some of the funds as well.
“Not all landlords are evil, mustache twirling villains. I think a lot of landlords also have not been able to pay their mortgages on these properties,” said Ladd, “This would be a new program helping lower-income landlords with home repairs.”
In addition, the city plans to allocate $75,000 to a tenant/landlord eviction hotline.
“What we’re trying to do with this investment is to think about a step ahead of a problem before it becomes a crisis,” Mayor Alan Webber said.
At Monday morning’s news conference, Lara Yoder, a housing program manager at the Lifelink, said misinformation about eviction moratoriums has muddied peoples’ understanding of an already complicated issue. She says in the last year, many people have continued to be evicted because they did not understand how the various orders to stop evictions worked.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued federal guidance that requires tenants to present paperwork in court proving they are facing hardship.
The CDC recently extended the expiration for the moratorium to June 30.
At the state level, the New Mexico Supreme Court issued an eviction moratorium that allows courts to issue eviction orders against tenants that cannot be fulfilled until the moratorium is lifted.
Finally, Santa Fe’s local city order prevents landlords and law enforcement from taking “any action” toward evicting people who can’t pay the rent because of the pandemic. If a landlord does take actions such as changing the locks, the landlord could face arrest or other legal action. However, the tenant has to report the criminal violation to the Santa Fe Police Department.
Santa Fe’s moratorium will expire when the state moratorium is lifted; but there’s no set timeline for that.
The city’s enforcement methods for the moratorium make it ineffective for many people, particularly undocumented immigrants who fear calling the police or getting involved in the court system, Chainbreaker member Cathy Garcia said at the presentation Monday night.
Court data shows that landlords filed 280 eviction claims in 2020—that’s down by half from the 558 average eviction claims filed each year between 2017 and 2019. Yet the reasons for evictions have shifted dramatically, Garcia said. While in the past landlords mostly evicted people for failure to pay rent, in 2020 the number of evictions filed due to the tenant’s failure to pay other debts such as utility bills doubled and evictions due to a landlord’s decision not to renew a lease increased sevenfold.
Sukhdip Purewal Boparai with Chainbreaker said the true numbers of evictions is likely much higher due to the number of people who did not have formal lease agreements to begin with or who were forced out of their homes before the eviction notice ever went to court.
“One very important thing I want to share with you is the fear the members of our community have of being victims of eviction,” Chainbreaker member Cipriana Jurado Herrera said in Spanish. Herrera spent many hours in the last year canvassing in neighborhoods at a high risk for evictions.
The group’s report shows that low-income, Hispanic neighborhoods saw the greatest number of evictions in 2020.
Herrera said many of the people she spoke with were prioritizing rental payments above all else and were falling behind on other bills or borrowing money from family members or banks in their home countries. She said she noticed a dramatic increase in vacancies in mobile home parks in particular, adding that many tenants feared managers might be trying to shut down the parks permanently to make way for lucrative new developments like the new luxury apartment buildings going up around the city.
“If this happens, where are we going to go?” she asked.
Chainbreaker Collective’s short-term recommendations to the city include implementing a landlord licensing ordinance that would help the city keep track of properties and prevent abuses by landlords. They also recommend extending the city’s eviction moratorium, moving the burden of enforcement away from police and onto a different city department, and forgiving city owned water utility debt.