By Beth Lawrence 

Crises typically do not stop at the root problem; they tend to cause a cascade of effects. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different.

It has caused job losses from economic impacts or loss of the ability to work due to illness. Lost income impacts the ability to pay rent or mortgages leaving record numbers of families facing eviction.

HERE in Jackson County has seen the impact first hand, Director Bob Cochran said.

“The numbers of individuals and families affected by COVID-related housing insecurity and homelessness has increased,” Cochran said. “At the same time, we have experienced a decrease in individual donations since spring when COVID began to have a more direct impact on our region.”

The problem became so bad nationwide that in September, Centers for Disease Control issued an order to temporarily halt evictions for delinquent rent.

The order states halting evictions aids sick people’s ability to self-isolate and allows state and local public health officials to easily enact stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines limiting the spread of illness.

Housing stability also impacts public health because it reduces the chances of the disease spreading through congregate housing and homeless shelters.

Despite the CDC’s efforts, evictions were still taking place in North Carolina leading the state to take further action.

On Oct. 28 Gov. Roy Cooper signed Executive Order 171 clarifying conditions under which a tenant may or may not be evicted.

“In addition to its public health consequences, the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have broadly impacted residential tenants across the state, many of whom have been unable to timely or fully make their rent payments,” the order reads. “Residential evictions remove people from their homes, where they are safest during the COVID-19 pandemic, which therefore increases the risk that such people will contract and spread COVID-19.”

Homelessness impacts people’s ability to work and “maintain a livelihood” and attend school, especially with such activities routinely taking place from home due to the pandemic, the order states.

In September, the National Council of State Housing Agencies, estimated between 300,000 and 410,000 renters across the state could not meet rent and faced eviction. It projected 240,000 eviction suits by January.

EO 171 maintained that eviction protections under the CDC’s order had been inconsistently applied in the state.

“The CDC order came down and it was a surprise to everyone,” Legal Aid Lawyer Suzanne Saucier said. “So each state had to determine how it was going to work in their state. It was being implemented in 100 counties 100 different ways depending on the judges, the magistrate and the clerk.”

Part of the problem was a lack of understanding on the part of renters.

To receive protections, tenants must complete and return a signed declaration form to their landlord.

The form states the tenant has exhausted all options to obtain rent assistance and is making their best effort to provide partial payments as close to full rent as they can and that the tenant meets certain income guidelines.

The protections extend to all qualified renters, not just those in federally subsidized housing.

Landlords are required to provide renters a blank copy of the declaration form and provide proof to the courts before eviction proceedings can take place.

Evictions may still take place for reasons other than nonpayment of rent.

Legal Aid of North Carolina assists clients who need help navigating evictions proceedings under normal circumstances, but the assistance is more crucial during the pandemic.

If a client feels they are being evicted unfairly or evicted for an illegitimate reason despite having an agreement in place under CDC and state guidelines, renters should contact legal aid, Saucier said.

“If people think that their landlord is trying to get them out in violation of the CDC order, yes, that is something we definitely represent,” she said. “Right now there’s so much going on that whoever is facing eviction, we’re just telling them to call us. If you’re facing some sort of eviction regardless of the reason call us.”

Homeowners are not being over looked during the crisis.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 10 percent of homeowners in North Carolina with Federal Housing Administration loans are delinquent.

Language in the CARES Act passed in March allows homeowners with a federally secured loan to seek a forbearance, temporary suspension of payments, for up to six months if they have a COVID related reason. They may also request an extension of the forbearance for an additional six months. The protection extends to those who were already in default on their loan when the act passed.

“By reaching out to their mortgage servicers sooner rather than later, these homeowners could protect themselves from foreclosure for up to a year, giving themselves time to improve their economic situation,” said Jason Pikler, staff attorney at the N.C. Justice Center. “While the missed payments must eventually be paid back, servicers are prohibited from adding fees to the amount owed and cannot require the payments to be paid off in a lump sum.”

Rent protections under EO 171 and mortgage forbearance under the CARES Act expire Dec. 31.

For legal aid assistance, call 586-8931.

Tenants can find a copy of the CDC declaration form at cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/declaration-form.pdf.