An order that allowed thousands of New Mexico renters who fell behind during the pandemic to stay in their homes will soon be gone, and an alternative court program is set to replace it.
A key difference between the two legal frameworks: The prohibition on evicting people for failure to pay was set in stone, and the new scheme is voluntary for landlords. It’s anyone’s guess how many will choose to participate.
After nearly two years, the New Mexico Supreme Court is expected to lift its moratorium on evictions for non-payment starting in April, using a phased approach that’ll be complete in the summer. The court has yet to issue a final order establishing a firm timeline.
The original plan, announced Jan. 4, was to lift the moratorium in March, but that got pushed back to give officials more time to raise awareness of the resources available for renters, Justice Shannon Bacon told Source New Mexico.
The City of Santa Fe has its own temporary ban that’ll end alongside the court order.
City councilors last week unanimously approved $1 million for residents at risk of eviction in an effort to head off an anticipated flood. Officials aim to start distributions in late April or early May.
Still, local renters are worried.
Rebeca Kueber lived in Santa Fe for many years before moving to a mobile home community in Tesuque. She’d been priced out of the city.
Kueber has been unemployed off and on throughout the pandemic, and she’s behind on rent. The restaurant where she worked closed, her kids, who attend El Camino Real Academy, temporarily switched to remote learning, and she and her family contracted COVID-19.
“I already have a letter from my landlord telling me that I need to pay my rent,” Kueber says. “I go to bed and wake up the next day thinking, ‘What am I going to do if I become homeless?’ I don’t want to cry…It is hard and it’s really bad for a lot of people.”
Kueber spoke with SFR on a recent weekend during an eviction-prevention legal clinic city officials and community partners hosted. She was there as a volunteer with Chainbreaker Collective, the local economic and environmental justice organization, because she wants to help other people who are in her position.
While housing advocates and community groups including Chainbreaker have long warned of a coming wave of evictions, it’s unclear how many Santa Feans might be vulnerable.
“It certainly doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a low number, given national trends, but also knowing that there’s a lot of market pressure,” Alexandra Ladd, director of the city’s Office of Affordable Housing, tells SFR. “I think I would be comfortable saying that it’s in the thousands.”
A little over a third of homes in Santa Fe are renter-occupied, according to the Santa Fe Association of Realtors’ 2021 Housing Report. About 86% of renter households earning less than $50,000 a year are cost-burdened, meaning they spend at least 30% of their income on rent, the realtors association reports.
As of early February, 44% of New Mexico households were either very likely or somewhat likely to be evicted or foreclosed on in the next two months, according to the most recent data from the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.
The state ranks fifth nationally on that measure.
An analysis of court records by SFR also shines some light on what might be coming—though it does not answer the question of how many people are facing eviction for failure to pay rent in either the near- or short-term.
The Santa Fe Magistrate Court held about three dozen restitution trials between landlords and renters in February. Seven of those resulted in judges ruling in favor of landlords while issuing a stay on the eviction order, called a writ of restitution, citing the moratorium.
Those seven households collectively owe about $38,700 in missed rent, with utilities and late fees tacked on, court records show. Five of them are from the Bluffs at Tierra Contenta, managed by Arizona-based MEB Management Services.
Asked if the company plans to participate in the alternative program, which officials hope will make landlords whole while keeping people in their homes, spokeswoman Emma Wolff writes that MEB is “in support” of the program. Wolff didn’t respond to follow-up questions about why the company recently filed for evictions and whether it plans to participate in the program in every instance.
The state Administrative Office of the Courts doesn’t have data on how many evictions landlords have filed for in Santa Fe over the past two years.
That’s because evictions are counted in a larger category known as “landlord-tenant cases,” says spokesman Barry Massey. It also include lease disputes and damage to property, among other issues.
When the moratorium ends, cases in which judges already ruled in favor of the landlord won’t result in automatic evictions. Instead, landlords who want to proceed with evictions will have to file what’s called a post-judgement application for a writ of restitution, and courts will schedule a hearing.
A judge last month dismissed one case filed by the Bluffs because the renter provided proof that she’d recently been approved to receive federally funded emergency rent assistance, of which there are tens of millions of dollars available.
Accessing that money has been challenging. Officials and community organizers told SFR last fall that there hadn’t been enough government outreach to raise awareness of the funds and that the application was too complicated, which Kueber, the Tesuque resident, says she experienced.
Plus, some landlords don’t want to cooperate, sometimes because they’re trying to avoid paying taxes, says Ladd, the city affordable housing director.
Rent assistance is a key element of the alternative court program, which officials piloted in Curry and Roosevelt counties last month and are preparing to extend statewide.
If both parties opt into the program, judges will put their cases on hold for a minimum of 60 days, with the aim of giving renters time to obtain emergency rent assistance, and dismiss them in the event of a settlement. Judges will also connect landlords and renters with facilitators.
But if landlords choose to not participate, evictions will proceed.
Once it’s expanded statewide, judges are supposed to inform landlords and renters as hearings begin about how the program works and available assistance.
Ladd says landlords are in a tough position, particularly those who have small operations. She used to rent out a property and had a tenant who temporarily couldn’t pay.
“I said, ‘Look, you’re a great tenant. I get what’s going on, but I have a mortgage to pay. That affects me personally.’ That’s a huge reality,” Ladd says.
The city funding offers some hope for renters and landlords alike.
Kyra Ochoa, director of the Community Health and Safety Department, told councilors that officials aim to execute a sole-source contract with nonprofit UpTogether for distribution of the funds within about a month, after which they’d start providing money as quickly as possible.
RESOURCES FOR RENTERS:
Emergency rent assistance: 1-833-485-1334 or renthelpnm.org
New Mexico Legal Aid: 1-833-LGL-HELP
Chainbreaker eviction prevention hotline: 505-577-5481
For more information about renters’ rights or general housing assistance from Chainbreaker: bit.ly/NMEviction2022
To access city funding for rent assistance: Call 211 or apply through the city’s CONNECT portal at santafenm.gov/connect