Dispatches from a Pandemic: The messy, legally murky eviction of a North Carolina single mother — despite the CDC’s moratorium: ‘Nobody’s enforcing it’

Dispatches from a Pandemic: The messy, legally murky eviction of a North Carolina single mother — despite the CDC’s moratorium: ‘Nobody’s enforcing it’

20 Nov    Finance News

As the nation’s attention was focused on who would be the next president the day after the Nov. 3 election, Sierra Graves was busy grabbing as many of her and her three children’s belongings as she could. Just 10 minutes later, sheriff’s deputies knocked on her apartment door to evict her.

Graves, 31, rushed through her apartment in Rural Hall, N.C., gathering what her family would need for the next few days until they could find a more permanent location for their possessions. She grabbed the Chromebook GOOG, +0.98%   GOOGL, +1.03%  her kids have been using to do virtual schoolwork since the coronavirus pandemic closed schools. She made sure to take the black work pants she would need to start her job waiting tables at the Crazy Crab seafood restaurant in nearby Winston-Salem.

Over 100,000 evictions have occurred in 26 cities since the start of the pandemic.

But then one of the deputies said she’d need to take her family’s dog, too. That was a problem, because Graves wasn’t yet sure where they would be spending the night.

“I thought, ‘You’re kicking my dog out, too?’” Graves told MarketWatch. “It gets so cold at night, so all I could think about is, ‘Am I going to get charged now with animal cruelty because my dog is going to be outside somewhere?’”

Yet Graves and her three children shouldn’t have faced eviction in the first place.

Weeks earlier, Graves had sought to take advantage of the tenant protections offered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national eviction moratorium.

Her story is just one example of what tenant advocates say is happening across the country: evictions are proceeding, even though the CDC order was supposed to stop them. In the 26 cities tracked by the Eviction Lab, a project based out of Princeton University, over 100,000 evictions have occurred since the start of the pandemic. Thousands of these evictions took place after the CDC’s moratorium went into effect in early September.

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The CDC’s moratorium lasts through the end of the year, but while it is nominally a national ban on evictions it doesn’t automatically protect all renters. To be protected under the CDC’s order, tenants must sign a declaration form under penalty of perjury and give it to their landlord. The form states, among other things, that the renter cannot afford to pay all of their rent because of the coronavirus pandemic and that they have sought rental assistance from government programs.

‘I thought, ‘You’re kicking my dog out, too?’’

— Sierra Graves, a waitress and mother of three children

But when Graves tried to take her declaration form to her landlord’s office, an employee refused to take it. At that point, Graves started spreading the word to her neighbors to start mailing the forms instead.

“If we get them mailed, then they have no choice,” she thought.

(MarketWatch was unable to reach Graves’ landlord for comment.)

Enforcement of the national eviction order rests with local judges

The CDC’s order stipulates that landlords who violate the moratorium and proceed with eviction filings against tenants who have requested protection could face criminal charges and hefty fines — though the agency later backtracked somewhat, noting that landlords could challenge the truthfulness of tenants’ declarations in court.

When the CDC moratorium was first announced, legal experts expressed concerns that much of the moratorium’s effectiveness would rest on judges and law enforcement honoring it. That’s because the moratorium did not explicitly prohibit all eviction filings.

“There will be courts all across this country making this determination,” Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society in New York, told MarketWatch in September. “It’s a big country out there with lots of different courts at every level. It would not surprise me that some places in this country would not want to follow a federal rule.”

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North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, in a bid to strengthen enforcement of the CDC’s order, issued his own executive order in late October stating the moratorium applied to all state residents who qualified by providing their landlord with the declaration form. The order specified that landlords are required to notify courts if the tenant had provided them a declaration form.

In North Carolina, eviction cases are heard in small claims court and ruled on by politically-appointed magistrates.

Nevertheless, the worst-case scenario appears to be playing out across North Carolina, according to lawyers at Legal Aid of North Carolina.

In North Carolina, eviction cases are heard in small claims court and ruled on by politically-appointed magistrates. At least one lawyer with Legal Aid has reported that magistrates have disregarded the CDC’s moratorium and the governor’s order, said Isaac Sturgill, staff attorney and head of the housing practice group at Legal Aid of North Carolina.

In one case, Sturgill said a client told him that a magistrate said the eviction order “was not worth the paper that was printed on and that she couldn’t expect her to allow her to stay in her home if she wasn’t paying rent.”

(When asked for comment, a spokesman for the North Carolina Judicial Branch referred MarketWatch to the county clerk’s office. The county clerk’s office could only confirm that Graves’ landlord had filed for eviction.)

Sierra Graves’ struggles are similar to many people facing eviction

If you ask Graves, 2020 was supposed to be her year. Late last year, she managed to score a management position at a new fast-food restaurant that opened up close to where she lived. She loved her job — it gave her family financial stability, and even allowed her to buy a new car.

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“It was like the peak of your life where you feel like everything was right,” she said. But just a few days before Christmas while driving at night with her kids, she rounded a bend and came upon a group of deer in the middle of the road. She swerved to avoid them, but ended up driving into a tree.

The accident totaled her new car, and left her and her kids injured. After missing a few days of work because of the accident she was let go from her fast-food waitressing job.

She told her landlord about her situation, showing him their hospital papers and informing him she was unable to work while going through physical therapy. He filed for eviction in March, but a state moratorium on evictions related to the pandemic that was in effect until June prevented the filing from going through.

Unable to get unemployment benefits following the accident, Graves found a part-time job at a nearby hotel this spring. But with the coronavirus pandemic affecting business, her hours started getting cut. When her children’s school shifted to a virtual setting, she opted to stay home for her family’s safety.

In the meantime, Graves set up a side business called Prettii Hustle designing logos and helping with social media marketing for local small businesses. Graves’ mother gave her a used car, so that she could find a job.

Eventually, she started receiving unemployment benefits in August, and reached an agreement with her landlord where she could catch up on her unpaid rent starting in July by making partial payments on an ongoing basis. Graves paid her full rent in July and August, with over half of her unemployment payment each week going toward paying her landlord, she told MarketWatch.

A car accident and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have made it a struggle for Sierra Graves, a North Carolina mother of three, to afford her rent. Despite trying to take advantage of the protections offered by the CDC’s eviction moratorium, her landlord evicted her family this month.

Courtesy of Sierra Graves

But then, her car’s battery died and buying a new one meant she couldn’t afford to pay the rent in full. Her landlord said he would work with her, but a week later she received eviction papers. She lost her original case in small-claims court in early October because she accidentally went to the wrong building at first, and ended up being late for her hearing.

Housing advocates have noted that making one’s court date is critical in avoiding the possibility of eviction.

“Some states have adopted rules that require landlords to disclose whether a CDC declaration has been received,” Eric Dunn, director of litigation at the National Housing Law Project, told MarketWatch in October. “But for the most part, if the tenant doesn’t appear and inform the court that they presented a declaration, the court won’t be aware of that and will likely enter a default judgment against the tenant.”

For those facing eviction, it can be challenging to get to the courthouse in the first place.

Yet for those facing eviction, it can be challenging to get to the courthouse in the first place. Graves had until Oct. 19 to appeal — but her car was still broken down, and her landlord wouldn’t allow a mechanic to fix it in her apartment complex’s parking lot. With money still tight, she couldn’t afford the cost of an Uber UBER, +0.30%  to make it to the courthouse and missed the deadline to appeal. That’s when she sought the help of lawyers with Legal Aid.

Another obstacle: Many courthouses and county offices that process evictions have modified their hours because of the pandemic, adding further complications for those looking to avoid being displaced.

“Some courthouses are only open during the mornings, and so there’s only, like, a three or four hour window, where you can actually file stuff,” Sturgill said. In Forsyth County, where Graves lives, a cluster of COVID-19 cases has affected staff at the courthouse, meaning the hours and staff are greatly reduced.

There was a light on the horizon, however, when Gov. Cooper announced the HOPE Program, which assists eligible low- and moderate-income renters facing financial hardship because of the pandemic. Although Graves applied for the program on the first day applications were accepted, she has yet to hear back as to whether she qualified.

Legal Aid assisted Graves in making a last-ditch effort to stop her eviction by appealing at the clerk’s office, where the writ of eviction would be processed. The office proceeded with issuing the writ, even though Graves presented her CDC declaration form. On the day when the sheriff’s deputies showed up to carry out her eviction, they too disregarded the paperwork when she showed it to them, Graves said.

A memo from the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association sent to all sheriffs across the state on Oct. 30 specified that the CDC’s moratorium and Gov. Cooper’s executive order does not preclude sheriffs from carrying out evictions. Sheriffs deputies perform the eviction after receiving the writ of possession from the court clerk — at that point, the eviction is “no longer pending before the court,” the memo noted. Once the writ is received by the sheriff’s office, they are obligated to perform the eviction, the association noted.

This interpretation of the federal and state orders may be emboldening landlords to proceed with evictions. Frances Sullivan, a staff attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina who represented Graves in her case, said that was the case with Graves’ landlord. “He told me that he would go to the sheriff, and if the sheriff told him he couldn’t do it, then he wouldn’t,” Sullivan said. “The sheriff said, ‘Oh, no problem, we’re still executing writs.’”

“When nobody’s enforcing it, landlords are thinking that they can do this because they can,” Sullivan added. On Nov. 9, Legal Aid of North Carolina filed a lawsuit against state and county court officials to stop the issuance of eviction orders that violate the CDC’s nationwide eviction moratorium and Gov. Cooper’s executive order.

Furthermore, Gov. Cooper’s executive order noted that it is the responsibility of state and local law enforcement officials to ensure that landlords are abiding by its provisions.

Now displaced, Graves is helping her neighbors avoid a similar fate

Throughout her ordeal, Graves has not focused just on her family’s plight, but also on what her neighbors were going through. Each apartment building in Grave’s complex has around eight units, and six of the households in Graves’ building alone were also struggling to pay.

“When the CDC order first came out, I bought a printer and I was printing it out for everybody else in my apartment complex who was getting eviction papers,” Graves said. When the HOPE Program was announced, she spread the word about that as well.

Sierra Graves said her landlord threw everything out, including the laptop she used for her side business.

She’s also connected her neighbors with Legal Aid and has offered to accompany them on their court dates for support. And when she was evicted, she went around her complex letting her neighbors know, telling them not to worry about her.

Currently, Graves is taking things one day at a time, keeping in mind her personal motto: “Champions are contenders who never gave up.” Although she was supposed to have a week to collect her remaining belongings from her apartment, Graves said her landlord threw everything out, including the laptop she used for her side business.

She’s living in a hotel for the time being with her kids — her mother offered to take them in, but Graves was concerned about causing her parents stress and putting them at risk amid the pandemic.

Her car is still out of service, but friends and family have offered to give her rides to her new waitressing job. When she can’t hitch a ride, she plans to hire an Uber. She’s also raising money through Cash App SQ, +3.29%  to help her family start over again.

“Even though the sheriff or landlord made it seem like I wasn’t enough or my children weren’t enough during this pandemic, we are enough,” Graves said.

“When they put their uniform on, I just pray that they don’t always put their heart in their pocket,” Graves said. “It’s OK to still have a heart and think about other families because there’s a lot of families that are being affected by this pandemic.”

For anyone looking to assist Sierra Graves and her family, they are accepting donations via Cash App, with the code $Qu33nSi89.

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