In a tiny New Mexico courtroom, a boost to delay evictions
This is the first part of a series on the first wave of evictions without payment in New Mexico.
A Clovis magistrate’s courtroom this month became a laboratory for a new eviction diversion program, ushering in a major shift in state housing policy that aims to bring the rental market closer to the normal while avoiding a wave of evictions amid an ongoing pandemic.
What happens in Clovis does not stay there. During the month of March, the eviction prevention and diversion program will expand from the 9th Judicial District to all of New Mexico, allowing for the first time in about two years, tenants to be evicted for overdue rent.
It’s the beginning of the end of an eviction ban imposed on March 25, 2020, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The New Mexico ban is the latest statewide restraint in the country.
Two Clovis judges have heard about 10 eviction cases in recent days in the desert town of about 40,000 near the western Texas border, one that has a rock ‘n’ roll museum, an Air Force base Strength, a major cheese distributor, rural charm and minimal compliance with the statewide interior mask mandate.
Tenants facing eviction in the one-story courthouse included a 26-year-old single mother, a man in jail, a woman in hospital, a tenant in subsidized housing, an elderly woman without a stove in her apartment and a couple whose rent went up 20% without explanation.
The landlords were both huge real estate companies and family landlords, all frustrated with having to keep a non-paying tenant. The landlords alleged that some tenants had also been disruptive. They were the first to evict their tenants after the ban was lifted.
To replace the eviction ban, the state Supreme Court created the Eviction Prevention and Diversion Program, which gives landlords and tenants a two-month grace period to hook up with money from the pandemic emergency rent.
It’s unclear exactly why the state Supreme Court chose the 9th Judicial District, which includes Curry County and Roosevelt County, to test the new program.
“It’s a good program because it tries to help both parties find a solution,” magistrate Janemarie Vander Dussen told a disputed landlord and tenant during a hearing on Monday. “It just started Feb. 1, and we’re the only ones in the state trying it out to see how it works.”
Taken together, the few hearings so far show that two years into a pandemic that has significantly disrupted the economy, tenants are struggling to pay their rent and still unaware of the resources available to them.
New Mexico’s emergency rental assistance program has about $75 million to pay for months’ rent, and another $152 million is on the way from the federal government. But experts previously told Source New Mexico they were concerned owners weren’t keen on participating in the diversion program.
By the time tenants and landlords arrive in court, the landlords have usually already received a judgment confirming that they owe rent. Also, landlords have been waiting for the last few years to be able to start evicting people, and the housing market is heating up, even in a small town like Clovis, which has grown only slightly over the past decade.
Assuming they already knew about the Rental Assistance Scheme, experts said, why would they wait another 60 days?
“I’m concerned that in some cases landlords don’t have much incentive to participate,” said Riley Masse, housing director for New Mexico Legal Aid. Still, she added, the program may prevent some tenants from suddenly losing their homes.
Two timeshare owners who filed eviction cases last week had already received money under the program, according to a list of recipients obtained through a request from the Public Records Inspection Act. It’s unclear why they haven’t sought out or received the funds for the tenants they tried to evict recently in Clovis.
The Clovis Housing and Redevelopment Agency also received about $13,000, according to the listing. This agency operates a 132-unit affordable housing complex in the city.
A communication failure
The emergency rent fund was supposed to prevent tenants and landlords from coming to this by helping landlords cover their mortgages and expenses while keeping people housed. However, it is unclear to what extent the state has done outreach in rural New Mexico, and specifically eastern New Mexico, to publicize the program.
None of the four tenants who spoke to Source New Mexico were aware of the tens of millions of dollars available to help them. The manager of the city’s only homeless shelter was vaguely aware of this, she said.
And a senior city official who handles housing policy said she was surprised to learn of its existence during her interview with Source New Mexico.
“I didn’t know there was this program,” Deputy City Manager Claire Burroughes said last week in her office. “So if people are being deported or at risk of being deported…people affected by COVID, they can go and apply.”
She said she plans to start contacting city departments and organizations to make sure they know about the rental assistance fund and recommend it to residents.
Documents obtained through a public records request show that program administrators knew that lack of awareness about emergency rent assistance was an issue about three months after the program launched in March 2021.
The authority of the State Department of Finance commissioned a survey of housing assistance and other financial needs among New Mexicans. The researchers also asked how far word of the program had spread.
The survey found that 50% of respondents had never heard of the Housing Assistance Scheme, and a further 34% had heard of it but did not know enough to apply.
Only 16% of respondents said they had heard of it and felt they had enough information to apply.
“New Mexicans need to know more about assistance programs and the help they can receive on an individual level,” the survey authors wrote as part of a presentation to INAC officials. State.
The firm hired to conduct the survey is led by University of New Mexico political science professor Gabriel Sanchez and Latino pollster for the Biden campaign. They reported interviewing 1,200 adults in New Mexico between June 30 and July 18 of last year, including a disproportionate number of renters and people who had previously received government assistance.
The documents did not indicate where the respondents lived or whether they were in rural or urban areas.
A spokesperson for the Department of Finance and Administration did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether the department was marketing the program to rural New Mexico and specifically eastern New Mexico. New Mexico. Neither do those responsible for the rental assistance program itself. The state is generally allowed to spend 10% of federal funds on programs like these on administrative costs and marketing.
Booming housing market
When Judge Shaun Burns told two homeowners about the new diversion program, they didn’t jump at the chance. A landlord, through a Spanish translator, agreed to wait 60 days to evict his tenant, but told the judge he planned to sell the house.
The housing market in Clovis is heating up. Burroughes, the deputy city manager, said about 200 homes were on the market in the Clovis area two or three years ago. On a recent Sunday, about 70 were for sale, she said. This makes evicting a tenant to sell a home a tempting prospect.
A representative for another landlord told the judge she liked the program, but she didn’t think her boss at the real estate company would.
In this case, the tenant was in jail and owed $1,415 for approximately two months of missed rent and other charges. He called from jail to say he hadn’t been able to pay rent since being incarcerated for assault. He almost missed the hearing entirely because of difficulties with the appeals system, he told the judge.
When he finally got the call, he only had two minutes left of the call, so he had to hang up before giving a full explanation. He never managed to call back.
Instead of waiting any longer or giving the landlord time to consult with his boss, Burns instead ordered the eviction, potentially due to legal deadlines for eviction hearings, experts said. Burns declined to comment.
Sheriff’s deputies were allowed to show up and evict the tenant, according to court records.
The treadmill restarts
The legislation authorized the state House of Representatives that would have given tenants more time to pay their rent after they received an eviction notice and after they went to court. The bill died in the Senate court system with 24 hours remaining in the session.
Clovis officials and attorneys are eager to see what might happen now that evictions for nonpayment are starting up again.
Rent and housing prices in Clovis — as in the rest of the state and country — are rising, and with them, the risk of homelessness, according to city officials and local experts.
Lawyer Maria Griego, who listened to a recent hearing, said she was disappointed to hear landlords were not participating in the scheme, calling it a “win-win” for everyone involved. Now that they’ve restarted, she said she remembers how easy it is to be deported in New Mexico.
“The way our laws are currently written kind of facilitates this kind of eviction treadmill,” she said. “As these cases are dealt with very quickly, a judgment is spat out and the tenant is evicted. And there’s just no flexibility.
This story originally appeared in Source New Mexico – sourcenm.com – part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news provider.