This story was originally published by Searchlight New Mexico, an nonprofit investigative news organization, and is published here as part of an ongoing collaboration with The Paper.
Alexander Handboy, an easygoing 40-year-old, moved into Arroyo Villas, a large, well-kept apartment complex in northwest Albuquerque, in December 2019. Less than two months later, he lost his job as a line cook. By the time the pandemic took hold in March and restaurants began to shutter, he’d given up hope of finding work.
By April 2020, things fell apart: His five children, who often lived with him in his one-bedroom apartment, moved to online schooling, and the electricity bill ballooned. When rent came due, he didn’t have the $687 he owed, and by mid-month his landlord tried to evict him.
“All through COVID, I was always just trying to stay one step ahead, trying to keep something on,” Handboy said.
In fact, his landlord had violated federal law in filing to evict him, giving him a permanent black mark on his record. Anybody considering renting to him in the future will easily be able to find the record of that eviction.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, went into effect just a few weeks before Handboy received the eviction notice. For four months, between late March and July, the $2.2 trillion stimulus law banned landlords from filing to evict tenants for failing to pay rent — an effort to prevent people from being forced from their homes during a deadly pandemic. The ban applied to any property that was federally subsidized or where people received federal housing aid.
That included Handboy’s apartment building.
A Searchlight New Mexico investigation found that Handboy is one of 260 tenants whom landlords at over 50 different properties attempted to unlawfully evict between April and July 2020 in Albuquerque alone. While many landlords did cut back on evictions, others continued filing during the CARES Act ban at a handful of properties in Albuquerque, many of them eviction hotspots in the past decade. Some tenants received as many as three or four eviction notices during the ban.
In short, the CARES Act — one of the strongest defenses for tenants facing eviction ever to exist in the state or beyond — couldn’t completely halt business as usual.
Searchlight examined hundreds of eviction filings, mortgage documents and federal laws to identify landlords who tried to illegally evict people during the CARES Act moratorium. It found the CARES Act stay had no teeth, and state agencies and the courts largely failed to step in to protect tenants. New Mexico does little to track evictions and ensure landlords are complying with the law. In addition to looking at evictions during the ban, Searchlight compiled eviction records over the past 10 years — and reviewed more than 100,000 court records. This investigation marks the first time that statewide eviction data has been gathered, analyzed and published to identify which landlords are evicting tenants.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, thousands of other New Mexicans have faced evictions in spite of other federal, state and local bans. However, unlike those covered by the CARES Act, these unlawful evictions are nearly impossible to verify, due to the lack of documentation required by the courts.
What remains in place today is a state ban on evictions for tenants who prove in court they can’t pay rent along with a new federal ban that applies to coronavirus hotspots. When they finally end, thousands more could be at risk of eviction.
Cases Kept Coming
Around the time Handboy received his illegal eviction notice, Tom Prettyman, an attorney with New Mexico Legal Aid, started to get worried: He kept seeing landlords whose properties were covered by the CARES Act filing paperwork in court to evict their tenants anyway.
Prettyman remembers emailing the handful of attorneys who typically represent Albuquerque landlords to tell them about the ban. He also contacted the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority, an agency charged with overseeing the mortgages for many low-income properties. Apart from sending an email in late April informing property owners, agents and managers of the law’s requirements, the agency said it couldn’t get involved.
Finally, Prettyman and Legal Aid went to the courts. “We sent a fax to every single district and magistrate court judge in the state that we could find a fax or email address for,” he said.
Still, the cases kept coming. What Prettyman had noticed was just the tip of the iceberg: He’d identified a handful of landlords who were flouting the eviction ban, but landlords at 52 properties in total in Albuquerque violated the CARES Act by filing 278 evictions against 260 people.
Just seven of those properties make up half of the total illegal eviction filings: Rising Phoenix, the Villas at Uptown, Casa Bella Apartments, Alvarado Apartment Homes, Arioso Apartments, Sun Village Apartments (now called Union 505) and Aztec Village Apartments (now called Via Apartments). Each filed 10 or more evictions in spite of the moratorium.
Rising Phoenix, a troubled property in southeast Albuquerque with a history of code violations, filed nearly 50, almost twice as many as the next highest property.
Virtually all of these properties have been among Albuquerque’s highest evictors in the past decade, according to an analysis of 10 years of court records. Other landlords slowed their filings substantially: Eviction filings overall dropped by roughly half from 2019 statewide.
“I’m surprised to hear that we were evicting people,” said Chad Rennaker, owner of PacifiCap, a national real estate company that owned Arioso and Aztec Village during the CARES Act moratorium. Both properties are required to provide affordable housing and are now owned by a California firm. Rennaker said he knew that “we were not allowed to do any evictions.” Anna Lopez, PacifiCap’s regional manager for New Mexico and Arizona, wrote in an email that “we followed all legal guidelines.”
Despite their claims to the contrary, 26 evictions were illegally filed at Arioso and Aztec Village during the CARES Act moratorium.
Representatives for the remaining properties never responded to requests for comment.
Few of the tenants at these properties knew they were protected by the CARES Act moratorium.
“I don’t know if it was illegal or not, but it definitely felt wrong,” said one tenant at the Villas at Uptown, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from property management. He has worked as a tutor and teacher, and spent months unemployed during the pandemic.
When he received an unlawful eviction notice, he didn’t fight back. He paid off the back rent, plus a few hundred bucks to cover late charges and court fees — even though the CARES Act moratorium prohibited landlords from charging fees related to nonpayment of rent. “I just didn’t want to be homeless.”
The federal government has put billions towards housing assistance, giving states a tight “use it or lose it” deadline and directing them to clear any barriers to getting money in people’s hands.
In New Mexico, as in many states, that money lies virtually untouched, a testament to the burdensome paperwork, slow-moving bureaucracy and systemic lack of urgency around housing. As of early July, the state and its municipalities had spent just over $20 million out of the $284 million available. Nationally, just $1.5 billion out of $25 billion had been spent by the end of May.
“Staff remain concerned about the ability for the state and locals to meet this expenditure deadline,” a June report from the Legislative Finance Committee states. If the state doesn’t spend roughly a third of the $284 million by the end of September, New Mexico could lose millions in badly needed aid. If that happens, thousands will likely be behind on rent and at risk for eviction.
For years, Albuquerque landlords have treated the city’s housing court like an eviction “factory,” said Maria Griego, director of the economic equity team at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. A housing policy specialist, she has spent the pandemic representing tenants in housing court.
Eviction cases typically don’t receive a traditional trial: Cases usually last a matter of minutes and judges can hear dozens a day, with little back and forth. One observer, a law student at the University of New Mexico, said “they had seen more due process” at the Motor Vehicle Division.
“Oftentimes you just have property managers in there without an attorney, and an unrepresented tenant,” Griego said. “Then the judge spits out [a judgment], and it’s on to the next case.”
According to more than 100,000 court records reviewed from 2010 to 2020, nine out of 10 Albuquerque tenants didn’t have an attorney in their eviction case.
In the midst of the chaos the early months of the pandemic brought, Griego remembers thinking the ban was a “saving grace.” But she quickly learned what Prettyman already knew: “In hindsight, we realized it didn’t have a lot of teeth and there were no penalties” for continuing to evict people unlawfully.
The CARES Act didn’t define a consequence for landlords who violated the law. The judges who oversaw eviction cases could have inquired if the CARES Act and state stays applied to the case. In other words, they could have asked landlords if their property was covered or tenants if they could pay. But especially early on, attorneys said, few did.
The court is “not permitted to conduct its own outside investigations and must depend on evidence presented by the parties in making its rulings,” said Camille Baca, a public information officer with the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court.
Since there was no clear way of enforcing the CARES Act moratorium, landlords who filed illegal evictions got a pass. They even filed eviction notices against people who made reasonable efforts to pay rent.
Punished Despite Payment
A tenant at Villas Esperanza Apartments, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, received an illegal eviction notice in early April last year.
The 65-year-old tenant, who lives with her daughter and five grandkids, worked as a bus driver for Albuquerque Public Schools. Because of pandemic-related school closures, her hours were cut and her route repeatedly canceled. She fell behind at times but always managed to pay rent, even if it was a few days late.
On two occasions, the property management company claimed they hadn’t received payment and the landlord filed an eviction against her. In court documents, she wrote that she had paid the rent in full and that she was “living on very limited income” and “would be homeless” if evicted.
In June 2021, the tenant and her daughter received yet another notice to appear in court for unpaid rent.
When it comes to evictions, “they hand them out like candy,” she said.
A few miles away, at the base of the foothills, in the Standard East, then called Alta Vista Apartments, Tina Giangola, 63, described a similar pattern. She made repeated efforts to pay her rent at the building, then owned by PacifiCap.
Still, her landlord went to court to evict her, in violation of federal law.
“I was scared to death,” Giangola said. “I’d have been homeless.”
The apartment building charged her a late fee, as well as a legal fee of $103.97 for her troubles, a further violation of the CARES Act. She paid the funds, her case was dismissed and she stayed in the apartment.
Lopez of PacifiCap declined to comment on what happened to Giangola.
The effects of these unlawful filings will outlast the pandemic: New Mexico has no mechanism for removing even an illegal eviction from a tenant’s record, which can prevent people from finding new housing. Landlords or property managers can easily see the eviction as part of a routine background check. Tenants who are seen as at risk of missing payments are blacklisted and can be denied housing.
Alexander Handboy is worried that could happen to him. By the beginning of this year, Arroyo Villas had filed a total of five cases against him for not paying rent, including one during the CARES Act moratorium. In three of the hearings, the judge ruled in the landlord’s favor, including the eviction filed during the CARES Act. Handboy has paid back all the missed rent and fees he owed, according to court records.
“They weren’t patient enough and now it’s on my record,” he said. When a person is evicted, it can destabilize the entire family: Children may have to enroll in a new school, parents may struggle to get to work and all household members lose the support network they’ve built up where they live.
This June, Handboy finally found work at a fast-food restaurant. He wants to move out, but he said he hasn’t been able to find anywhere that will rent to him with the eviction filings blemishing his record. While other states offer a way to clear even lawful evictions, Handboy will likely have that mark on his record forever, unless state law changes.
If his landlord forces him out of the apartment, he doesn’t have anywhere to go. “I’m a little lost,” he said. “I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Dillon Bergin collected and analyzed the data for this story, with help from Nick Troutman.