By Kate Schimel and Dillon Bergin, Searchlight NM | In the weeks after the coronavirus reached U.S. shores, state and national legislators passed laws to keep people safe, fed and housed in what promised to be a devastating economic crisis.
Congress banned evictions for not paying rent, and when that ban ended, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stepped in and passed its own stay. In New Mexico, unlike most places, the state Supreme Court implemented its own ban against evictions — as did individual cities like Santa Fe, where the mere threat was prohibited.
By April, it looked as if a wall of protection had been erected.
Unfortunately, it proved to be more of an unlocked door, slowing but not stopping a barrage of evictions.
A seven-month Searchlight New Mexico investigation has found that hundreds of tenants in Albuquerque alone were evicted — or threatened with eviction — during the first four months, when the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act specifically prohibited landlords from even filing an eviction notice. Since the beginning of the pandemic, New Mexico landlords and property managers have filed more than 11,000 eviction notices, in spite of government attempts to prevent them.
According to Searchlight’s database — one compiled over months and based on state court records — the largest chunk of evictions was carried out by a tiny fraction of landlords. Indeed, just seven Albuquerque properties were the site of more than half of all the city’s illegal evictions identified by Searchlight.
New Mexico laws make it relatively easy to evict someone. As Maria Griego with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty put it, housing courts here operate like a “factory,” churning out evictions on a virtual assembly line, rarely spending more than 20 minutes on a single hearing.
It’s the rare tenant who’s willing to fight. An eviction notice does not mean you have to get up and leave; it’s a threat that leaves you the opportunity to explain your side of things in court. But during the pandemic, many people, having never faced an eviction before, were caught up in the factory’s churn.
“A lot of that is accidental. They could have avoided an eviction,” said Brie Sillery, a housing advocate. As someone who’s dealt with homelessness and poverty herself, she knows that the threat alone is daunting.
“They’re served with the eviction, there’s a court hearing, and they don’t attend because they’ve already moved out. And now they have an eviction on their record.”
Sillery likens it to a parking ticket: Just showing up and fighting makes it more likely it’ll be dismissed.
Still, it’s an uphill battle for tenants. In New Mexico, renters have few rights and little power, and when threatened with eviction, the vast majority go it alone. Nine in 10 tenants in Albuquerque over the past ten years have gone unrepresented in court, while many don’t make an appearance, virtually guaranteeing an eviction.
The pandemic has upended the lives of the most fragile New Mexicans, at times pushing them over the edge.
Jessica Columbie and Shadriss Wespi, a longtime couple in their 40s, were already struggling when the country went into lockdown. They had recently left New Jersey for New Mexico, where they’d settled into a one-bedroom unit in Alta Vista Apartments, a noisy, at-times chaotic complex at Albuquerque’s eastern edge. Back east, they’d experienced a cascade of losses: mental illness, financial difficulties, the deaths of loved ones.
“When we moved to New Mexico, we wanted to start fresh,” Columbie said. “And it got harder and harder with the pandemic. It’s been a nightmare — and we’re not perfect citizens, either.”
Within a few months, they’d fallen behind on their rent and begun fighting loudly. Their neighbors called the police and it wasn’t long before they found themselves evicted on a noise complaint. When sheriff’s deputies came to remove them, they lost everything: family photos, IDs and social security cards, Wespi’s prized shoe collection, the food in the fridge.
The couple now lives in an extended-stay hotel room, where they pay roughly $1,300 a month — more than twice what they once paid in rent. Their sole income of $1500 a month comes from Social Security, leaving them with little for anything else.
Searchlight is launching a series to examine the underlying causes of the housing crisis and tell the stories of the people most impacted. Among other things, the stories will focus on:
— The state’s serial evictors: Over the past decade, fewer than 10 landlords across the state — out of more than 10,000 — have filed 1,000 evictions or more.
— The substandard and often unsafe condition of so-called “unprotected” affordable housing, which has no requirement for rent caps or inspections.
— The breakdown of systems intended to help people get on their feet, including rental assistance and housing vouchers.
The loosening of pandemic-era protections comes as the state faces an affordability crisis that’s been decades in the making.
Advocates report a sea change in how people think about housing, sparked by the tumult of the past year. A new awareness has found its way into every part of the system, from local housing courts to the federal government’s single-minded focus on keeping people in their homes. That includes the eviction ban the CDC issued this week for much of the country.
But while the protections have slowed the evictions assembly line, they haven’t stopped it.
“Look, we’ve really, really reduced the numbers of evictions and we are better for it,” said Serge Martinez, a University of New Mexico law professor who has argued on behalf of tenants in court for the Economic Justice Clinic. “We saw the inability to immediately remove people from their homes did not rupture the fabric of society.”
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.
Have you been struggling to get rental assistance or a housing voucher, or to find affordable housing? We want to hear from you for an upcoming story. We will not print your name unless you give us permission. Contact reporter Ike Swetlitz at firstname.lastname@example.org and by phone at (505) 469 0657.
Are you a tenant struggling to make rent? You can apply for federal rental assistance here: https://www.renthelpnm.org
Advocates say even people who unsuccessfully applied before may want to consider to applying again.