This story was originally posted by Projector New Mexico and is republished here with permission.
In the weeks following the arrival of the coronavirus on U.S. shores, state and national lawmakers passed laws to ensure the safety, food and housing of people in what promised to be a devastating economic crisis. .
Congress banned evictions for non-payment of rent, and when that ban ended, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stepped in and had their own stay. In New Mexico, unlike most places, the state Supreme Court implemented its own ban on evictions, as have some cities like Santa Fe, where the mere threat was prohibited.
In April, it appeared that a protective wall had been erected.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be more of an unlocked door, slowing but not stopping a barrage of evictions.
One seven months Projector New Mexico The investigation found that hundreds of tenants in Albuquerque alone were evicted – or threatened with eviction – in the first four months, when the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) law specifically prohibited landlords from even file an eviction notice. Since the start of the pandemic, New Mexico property owners and managers have filed more than 11,000 eviction notices, despite government attempts to prevent them.
According to Projector database – one compiled over months and based on state court records – the bulk of evictions were carried out by a tiny fraction of homeowners. Indeed, only seven properties in Albuquerque have been the site of more than half of all illegal evictions in the city identified by Projector.
New Mexico laws make it relatively easy to deport someone. As Maria Griego of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty put it, the housing courts here operate like a âfactory,â producing evictions on a virtual assembly line, rarely spending more than 20 minutes in a single hearing.
THIS IS THE RARE TENANT who is ready to fight. An eviction notice does not mean you have to get up and go; it is a threat that gives you the opportunity to explain your point of view in court. But during the pandemic, many people, never having faced eviction before, were caught in the buzz of the factory.
âA lot of things are accidental. They could have avoided an eviction, âsaid Brie Sillery, a housing advocate. As someone who has experienced homelessness and poverty herself, she knows the threat alone is daunting.
âThey are notified of the eviction, there is a court hearing, and they do not attend because they have already moved. And now they have an eviction on their record.
Sillery likens it to a parking ticket: just showing up and fighting increases the likelihood of it being rejected.
91% of tenants evicted in Albuquerque lacked legal representation
Still, it’s an uphill battle for tenants. In New Mexico, tenants have few rights and little power, and when threatened with eviction, the vast majority go it alone. Nine out of 10 renters in Albuquerque over the past 10 years are not represented in court, while many do not show up, virtually guaranteeing an eviction.
The pandemic has turned the lives of the most fragile New Mexicans upside down, sometimes pushing them to the limit.
Jessica Columbie and Shadriss Wespi, a longtime couple in their forties, were already in trouble when the country went into lockdown. They had recently moved from New Jersey to New Mexico, where they had moved into a one-bedroom apartment in the Alta Vista Apartments, a noisy and at times chaotic complex on the east end of Albuquerque. In the East, they had suffered a cascade of losses: mental illness, financial difficulties, the deaths of loved ones.
âWhen we moved to New Mexico, we wanted to start from scratch,â Columbie said. âAnd it has become more and more difficult with the pandemic. It has been a nightmare – and we are not perfect citizens either. “
Within months, they had fallen behind on their rent and started fighting loudly. Their neighbors called the police and it didn’t take long for them to find themselves evicted following a noise complaint. When the sheriff’s deputies came to pick them up, they lost everything: family photos, IDs and Social Security cards, Wespi’s precious shoe collection, the food in the fridge.
The couple now live in an extended-stay hotel room, where they pay about $ 1,300 per month, more than double what they previously paid in rent. Their only income of $ 1,500 a month comes from Social Security, which leaves them little for anything else.
The loosening of protections in the pandemic era comes as the state faces a crisis of affordability that has lasted for decades.
Advocates are reporting a sea change in the way people think about housing, sparked by the uproar of the past year. A new awareness has crept into all parts of the system, from local housing courts to the federal government‘s sole purpose of keeping people in their homes. Including the deportation ban issued by the CDC this week for much of the country.
But while the protections slowed the eviction assembly line, they didn’t stop it.
âLook, we’ve really, really reduced the number of evictions and we’re doing better,â said Serge Martinez, a professor of law at the University of New Mexico who has argued on behalf of the tenants in the courts for the ‘Economic Justice Clinic. “We have seen that the inability to immediately remove people from their homes has not broken the fabric of society.”
The federal government has invested billions in housing assistance, giving states a tight âuse it or lose itâ deadline and forcing them to remove any barriers to getting money into people’s hands.
In New Mexico, as in many states, that money is virtually untouched – a testament to heavy paperwork, slow bureaucracy, and a lack of systemic urgency around housing. At the beginning of July, the State and its municipalities had spent just over $ 20 million of the available $ 284 million. At the national level, fair $ 1.5 billion out of $ 25 billion has been spent by the end of May.
“Staff remain concerned about the ability of the state and residents to meet these expenses deadline,” a June report from the Legislative Finance Committee States. If the state doesn’t spend about a third of the $ 284 million by the end of September, New Mexico could lose millions in much-needed aid. If this happens, thousands of people will likely be behind on rent and risk eviction.
ONE OF THE OLD SOLUTIONS to eviction was simply to move around the corner to one of the many cheap housing options that existed here in New Mexico.
This is no longer the case. The demand for housing in urban areas of the state exceeds supply, and the number of affordable units is now well below need. In the past four years, New Mexico has experienced the seventh highest rental price hike in the country. Two out of five tenants struggle to make rent, putting a third or more of their salary into it. In May, 20% of renters in New Mexico told the Census Bureau they had little or no confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent.
However, few have said they fear deportation – a fear that will likely change when federal and state bans expire. Sillery, now communications director for the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, likens the situation to a flooded building.
âThe system is inundated. The basement is full. The first floor fills up. All the furniture is in ruins.
As the housing market shrinks, urban centers in New Mexico have become a homeowner’s market. Even with the pandemic, some landlords have found ways to get people out, terminating leases without explanation and increasing rents. Others have stepped up evictions for serious issues like domestic disputes, as well as more minor offenses like allowing family members to surf the couch.
LAUNCH OF EXPULSIONS even the smallest routines of life in disarray. This is what happened to Colombia and Wespi.
After their eviction last July, the couple spent months sleeping on the streets before moving to a hotel. With the eviction now a scarlet letter on their file, permanent accommodation has proven almost impossible to find. Wespi, who turns 50 next month, recently suffered a stroke – an event he attributes to the stress of expulsion.
âIt’s difficult when you don’t have anyone. We don’t have anybody, âsaid Columbie.
Are you a tenant and having trouble paying your rent? You can apply for federal rent assistance here: https://www.renthelpnm.org
Kate Schamel is the editor-in-chief of Projector New Mexico. Kate was the associate editor of High Country News before becoming an editor at Colorado Public Radio.
Dillon Bergin is a journalist for Projector New Mexico. He has written on immigration and migration, climate change and food for New Republic and the Philadelphia Investigator.
E-mail High Country News To [emailÂ protected] or send a letter to the editor.