Leegraciea Lewis had lived at the Landings at Steele Creek, an apartment complex in Charlotte, North Carolina, for eight years until she was evicted the morning of September 30, 2020. A team of sheriff’s deputies arrived at her door and told her she needed to change out of her pajamas and leave immediately. The events leading up to that day had begun almost two years earlier, well before the Covid-19 pandemic. It was November 2018 when the owner of her building, a subsidiary of the Ohio-based Miller-Valentine Group, claimed she had violated her lease by refusing to allow staff into her apartment to make repairs. Her landlord then began declining her rent payments, a move that Lewis believed was retaliation after an October call to the housing code enforcement agency to report a persistent mold issue. After refusing her rent, her landlord took her to court, and in February 2020, she was ordered by a judge to leave her apartment by the end of March.
She began looking for another apartment but found that each had income requirements she couldn’t meet. “I had nowhere to go,” Lewis told me. The pandemic was just beginning to pick up steam, and the prospect of moving grew more frightening. She had no good options: “I had to stay.” The temporary eviction ban in the Cares Act, passed just as her move-out date loomed, bought her time. Lewis’s ground-floor apartment, which she could only barely afford on her fixed income—she paid $820 in rent out of the $1,338 she receives every month in Social Security disability benefits—was a sanctuary, even with all of its issues. Beyond the mold, there was the fact that Lewis, who uses a motorized scooter to get around, couldn’t access the mailbox, and her bathroom didn’t have grab bars on the walls. (In May 2019, the Miller-Valentine Group was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for discriminating against people with disabilities like Lewis in buildings the company owns in more than a dozen states, including the Landings at Steele Creek; they later reached a settlement agreement.) It wasn’t a perfect place, but it was her home.
In August, as the eviction ban in the Cares Act expired, her court proceedings resumed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had, just weeks earlier, issued its own Covid-19 temporary eviction moratorium, and she had even shared a copy of it with her apartment management. “They still did it anyway,” she said. “They didn’t care.” The moratorium didn’t apply to her; she hadn’t lost income, or work—she just had a landlord who wanted to kick her out. The day of her eviction, Lewis moved to an extended-stay hotel, where the rent was $700 each week, scarcely less than what she paid every month for her former apartment.
Lewis’s experience isn’t an outlier, or even an unfortunate, unintended consequence of a well-intended policy—it’s precisely what housing rights advocates predicted would happen. The requirements renters were forced to meet under the moratorium determined who was deserving of assistance—the hardworking American who through no fault of their own lost a job during a global pandemic—and who would be left largely on their own. “She was allowed to fall through the cracks,” Apryl Lewis (no relation to Leegraciea), a housing justice organizer at the group Action NC who has been working with Leegraciea since last year, told me.
Accounts of renters down on their luck during the pandemic largely paint a picture where no one is to blame except a devastating virus. In these stories, tenants and landlords are both victims of circumstance, facing the same challenges. But that’s an easily digestible trap that deflects blame and attention from the structural, and long-standing, causes of housing instability: rapidly rising rents not matched by wage growth, a dire lack of affordable housing stemming from turning a basic human need into a profit-making commodity, predatory landlords looking to increase rents through turnover, and a punitive system rigged against tenants. The eviction moratoriums put in place since the start of the pandemic, while offering protection to millions, have also largely been written to protect a version of a tenant that often has little bearing in reality. This tenant has never had a housing issue prior to the pandemic, lives in safe and stable housing, and is negotiating with a cooperative and supportive landlord who wants them to remain in place. No wonder so many people are falling through the cracks.
The holes in the Biden administration’s eleventh-hour eviction moratorium—which applies to tenants in counties with high rates of infection, have applied for rent relief, and are unable to pay due to pandemic-related income loss or medical expenses—have only grown wider. Eviction filings slowed down in 2020 but didn’t cease. Landlords have continued to kick their renters out of their homes by claiming they are violating the terms of their leases—using reasons that are often minor, like an unmowed lawn or an unauthorized trampoline. Landlords can also evict tenants by relying on the fact that many people continue to be unaware of the moratorium’s existence, as well as the rent relief that is available (if dribbling out excruciatingly slowly). Like so much of the relief meant to soften the consequences of living through a global pandemic, navigating the anti-eviction relief process, even if you qualify, is confusing and byzantine.
The best-case scenario is often living in a state of limbo. Valeria Allietti, a single mother of three living in Las Vegas, applied this May for assistance to pay off her rent debt, which she accrued after most of the clients for her cleaning business dropped away during the pandemic. “For two or three months, I didn’t make anything,” Allietti said. She is still waiting for relief to come. “In my case, the rental company has been really patient, but not everybody is lucky like me,” she said.
For some renters, it ultimately doesn’t matter how successfully they work their way through the process: Stories abound of landlords who refuse to accept the cold hard cash offered them and of judges who have interpreted the provisions of the moratorium however they see fit, often against tenants. Apryl of Action NC, who often accompanies tenants facing eviction to court, has seen all of this firsthand. “It can literally depend on the judge,” she said of whether a tenant will receive a favorable ruling. One client of hers was able to obtain rent relief, only to have her landlord refuse to accept it. It’s experiences like those that make her scoff at the idea, promoted by sympathetic news accounts of supposedly struggling landlords, that it’s landlords who are being victimized. Landlords are not without their own forms of assistance, including Covid-related mortgage forbearance programs. At the end of the day, many are only temporarily losing income or taking a loss on an investment property, Apryl said. “But tenants are going to lose their actual homes.”
Lewis was due back in court again this week. The extended-stay hotel that has become her home—the second one she has lived in since being evicted from her apartment—was attempting to kick her out, too. For a while, she had been able to pay for her room using the rent money that her previous landlord had refused to accept, but that had run out quickly. Lewis had reached out to various organizations in Charlotte to see if she could obtain rent relief but said she was turned down every time. One group, she recalled, told her she didn’t qualify because her rent debt wasn’t a direct result of the pandemic.
Long term, it may be difficult for Lewis to find a permanent home. Earlier this year, Lewis had applied for an apartment in a low-income housing complex; she was turned down after her eviction case showed up in her background report. “That one eviction” has significantly hurt her chances of finding another affordable place, Apryl pointed out. “And that’s going to be the story of everyone that has an eviction case right now. That’s a scarlet letter.” Lewis is, once again, relying on the current eviction moratorium to keep her housed. The rates of Covid-19 in Charlotte are high enough at the moment to qualify under the latest CDC order. When Lewis showed up on Tuesday for her court date, she found that the building had been abruptly shuttered, due to a Covid outbreak. So for now, she waits.