Two women faced eviction in Mecklenburg County court. Could lawyers help?

For Charlotte-area tenants facing eviction, access to a lawyer can make all the difference.

People facing eviction wait to talk to Legal Aid lawyer Tommy Holderness outside courtroom 2350 on Aug. 23. That day he and other Legal Aid lawyers helped five tenants, three of whom had their cases continued due to possible legal issues lawyers found. Photo by Mary Newsom

It’s a Friday morning in late August, and Nikeia Diaz waits with others outside courtroom 2350 at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse. What happens in court today will determine whether she and her 4-year-old lose their apartment in northeast Charlotte. This is Eviction Court, and it happens almost every weekday.

Diaz lost her manager’s job at a body waxing center in February. She says she has spent her savings and used up her unemployment. She’s had multiple job interviews – even has one this afternoon – but for now can’t pay the $2,127 her landlord says she owes for August and September rent and late fees. 

She says she moved to Charlotte from Connecticut. “For the five years that I’ve been here,” she says, “every year the cost of living has gone up, but my income has not matched it.”

Waiting nearby is Pat, who doesn’t want her full name publicized. She lives in Cornelius, has two children and her story echoes Diaz’s. She lost her $50,000-a-year job at Sears Home Services after the national retailer filed for bankruptcy late last year. A former social worker who took the Sears job for a $15,000 pay increase, she says she has never had trouble finding a new job before. “It’s only in Charlotte that I’ve had this deficit,” she says, “and I’ve been unemployed now for going on eight months.” 

And so she is in this bind. “I’ve always been a model tenant, never been late on my rent,” she says. “Just basically can’t find anything right now. I was unable to make my August payment. And now I’m here facing eviction.”

Her family has helped, but she’s exhausted her resources. Despite a college degree and experience as a social worker, she now owes more than $1,200, and her car was repossessed.

Few Tenants Have Lawyers; Most Landlords Do

Neither woman has a lawyer today. That’s typical for tenants facing eviction. A study from the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute examining one month of eviction cases from 2016 found 82% of landlords had legal representation. And tenants? Eighty-four percent didn’t even show up in court. Over the past 30 years, a number of research studies of housing courts around the country have found the proportion of tenants with legal counsel can range from 0% to 20%.

But today, tenants outside courtroom 2350 may have a small piece of luck. They may get lawyers. Thanks to Mecklenburg County funding, once or twice a week lawyers from Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Charlotte office wait outside eviction court to assist tenants. Today, half a dozen lawyers are available. The next two hours will probably determine whether Diaz and Pat lose their homes within a few days.

The county allocated $300,000 for Legal Aid in the last fiscal year and a total of $800,000 this fiscal year, which started July 1. That puts Mecklenburg among a small but growing number of places such as Virginia, Washington state and Durham, spending government money to give tenants access to lawyers in eviction cases. Three cities – New York, San Francisco and Newark, New Jersey – have even enacted “right-to-counsel” measures to guarantee legal representation to low-income tenants. Results are notable: In New York, 84% of tenants who got legal representation were able to stay in their homes. 

Charlotte’s Legal Aid office is showing similar results: Of the tenants with Legal Aid representation last fiscal year, 85% saw their eviction either prevented or delayed.

How Eviction Mirrors Lack Of Affordable Housing

But why is preventing evictions so important? After all, some evicted tenants are deadbeats who won’t pay, according to landlords. Some trash the place, or even sell drugs. But many simply have jobs that pay too little for them to cover the rent. Or they suffer a financial setback: They get sick, or, like the two women outside courtroom 2350, they lose their jobs. 

Diaz describes what her finances are like these days: “You fall into the trap of living check to check. Struggling and having to decide what is more important this month and, what is less important, as to what gets paid on time. It’s a struggle.” 

After a magistrate orders a tenant to be evicted, in a few days sheriff’s deputies arrive, the landlord changes the locks, and a sign is posted on the door.  2017 photo by Mary Newsom

As housing costs soar in Charlotte, eviction filings are rising, too, from 28,471 in 2015-2016 to 32,724 the past fiscal year. Isaac Sturgill, who supervises the housing unit at Charlotte’s Legal Aid office, explains the situation of many local residents who can’t afford their housing costs:

“If you have a lack of affordable housing, all it takes is one illness, or one car breaking down or one financial setback to put a family in eviction court. Because if they’re living paycheck to paycheck and they’re paying such a huge amount of their income towards rent, there’s not really any money left over. They’re behind at the beginning of each month. It’s a balancing act, and all it takes is one little setback for them to end up in eviction court.”

For communities with affordable housing problems, preventing evictions can be an important tool in assisting residents. When someone is evicted, it can start a downward spiral. Tenants in government-subsidized housing, such as Section 8, lose that subsidy. Landlords often won’t rent to people with previous eviction filings. Life gets more expensive, which makes escaping poverty even harder.

The High Cost Of Starting Over

Carol Hardison is CEO at Charlotte’s nonprofit Crisis Assistance Ministry, which offers aid to households in dire situations. She lists ways eviction is expensive: Storage fees for possessions, motel rooms cost more than renting a place, transportation to jobs may rise.  Then, renting a new place can cost hundreds of dollars beyond just rent. “When you go to move into your new apartment,” Hardison says, “because your electricity has been officially cut off, you’re not going to get your electricity turned back on until every dime that you owed in the prior residence is paid out.” 

There’s a deposit and reconnect fees, she says. Her office has seen people paying $300 to $500 just to get electricity turned back on.

Even though preventing evictions can keep people from that downward spiral, and even with the expanded Legal Aid staff in Charlotte, only a small fraction of the thousands of evictees get access to a lawyer.

Last year, county money doubled the staff of housing attorneys at Legal Aid, from three to six. They went from assisting about 1% of potential evictees to 2%. This year, they’re hiring six more attorneys. Their goal is to help 1,000 households. 

In addition to the courthouse clinics, other new measures are sending more clients their way. Now, when tenants are mailed the summons to eviction court, the Mecklenburg County Clerk of Court’s office includes a flyer with information about eviction court as well as a telephone number for a Legal Aid hotline. Sturgill at Legal Aid says the hotline generates about half their eviction clientele.

‘The Need Almost Seems Limitless’

And of course, on some days tenants can meet Legal Aid lawyers outside eviction court. On this day, after Magistrate Thomas Avery tells tenants they can go talk with lawyers, the courtroom empties. 

Diaz talks with Legal Aid lawyer Howard Lintz. Pat talks with volunteer lawyer Max Bertini. (Both gave permission for a reporter to hear their legal discussions.) 

Lintz hears Diaz’s account, then runs some numbers and thinks the landlord might have calculated her late fees incorrectly. N.C. law limits late fees to $15, or up to 5% of the monthly rent, whichever is greater, and limits when the late fees can begin. Sturgill says illegal fees are one of the most common ways Legal Aid lawyers win cases.

Bertini hears Pat’s account of moisture problems and mold in her apartment, fixed now after two and a half years of repeated problems. The city housing code limits landlords’ right to charge rent when problems are considered “imminently dangerous.” 

The lawyers confer about whether to seek continuances. At a minimum, that would pause for a couple of weeks the legal clock that ticks toward padlocking, when they must officially have left the apartment. The two women by now are crying, and they hug each other for support.  

“This sucks,” Diaz says. “It’s humbling, and it’s humiliating.”

“It breaks you,” Pat says.

Waiting outside a courtroom for their eviction cases to be heard, Nikeia Diaz, left and Pat, strangers until today, offer support to each other. Photo by Mary Newsom

They go back into court. Their lawyers win continuances until early September. If they lose in eviction court, they can appeal to District Court, which also delays the padlocking. That would give them more time to find work and a paycheck. 

The interview Diaz has that afternoon pans out. She gets a job that starts a week before her court date, Sept. 6, and as of Sept. 24 is still in her apartment, having paid what she owed.

Pat has moved out, with her landlord agreeing to dismiss the case so there’s no eviction judgment on her record. She has downsized her possessions by half in order to move in with family, and as of this writing is still job-seeking. “I am officially starting from zero,” she reports.

This year, Sturgill says, Legal Aid may be able to help up to 4% of the county’s potential evictees. But that’s still a tiny number.

“To be honest with you,” he says, “the supply, or the need, almost seems limitless right now. If we had 50 attorneys on our payroll, we could find work for all of them just by going and hitting as many dockets at possible at the courthouse.”

This story was produced for the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of six media companies working together in an effort started by the Solutions Journalism Network and funded by The Knight Foundation.

The collaborative includes these six media companies: Q City Metro, WFAE, WCNC-TV, the Charlotte Observer, La Noticia and QNotes, along with several institutional partners, The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library, Queens University and Free Press.

Mary Newsom is a freelance writer and editor. 

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