In spite of bans, evictions in New Mexico continued during the pandemic

Landlords and property managers filed more than 11,000 eviction notices since April 2020.

 

Jessica Columbie peers out of the window of her room at an extended stay hotel in Albuquerque. “It’s hard,” she said. “We don’t have no family here. We don’t socialize very much. It’s hard staying stuck in this room.”
Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico

This story was originally published by Searchlight New Mexico and is republished here by permission.

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.

91% of evicted renters in Albuquerque did not have legal representation

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 10 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.

Jessica Columbie and Shadriss Wespi sit on the bed in their room at an extended stay hotel in Albuquerque. They were evicted over a noise complaint, and lived on the streets and in shelters before finding a room in the hotel.
Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico

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.

ONE OF THE OLD SOLUTIONS to eviction was simply to move around the corner, to one of the abundant cheap housing options that existed here in New Mexico.

That’s no longer the case. Demand for housing in the state’s urban areas outstrips supply, and the number of affordable units today falls far short of need. In the past four years, New Mexico has seen the seventh-highest rise in rent prices in the country. Two in five renters struggle to make rent, putting a third or more of their paycheck toward it. In May, 20% of New Mexico renters reported to the Census Bureau that they had little or no confidence they could make next month’s rent.

Few, however, reported being worried about facing eviction — a fear that will likely change when state and federal bans expire. Sillery, now communications director for the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, likens the situation to a flooded building.

“The system is inundated. The basement is full. The first floor is filling up. All the furniture is ruined.”

As the housing market shrinks, New Mexico’s urban centers have become a landlord’s market.  Even with the pandemic, some landlords have found ways to push people out, terminating leases with no explanation and raising rent. Others have ramped up evictions for serious issues like domestic disputes, as well as more minor infractions like allowing family members to couch surf.

EVICTIONS THROW even the smallest routines of life into disarray. That’s what happened to Columbie and Wespi.

After their eviction last July, the couple spent months sleeping on the streets before moving into a hotel. With the eviction now a scarlet letter on their record, permanent housing has proven all but impossible to find. Wespi, who turns 50 next month, recently suffered a stroke — an event he attributes to the stress of eviction.

“It’s difficult when you don’t have anybody. We don’t have anybody,” said Columbie.

Are you a tenant struggling to make rent? You can apply for federal rental assistance here: https://www.renthelpnm.org

Kate Schimel is the managing editor of Searchlight New MexicoKate was the deputy editor at High Country News before becoming an editor at Colorado Public Radio. 

Dillon Bergin is a staff reporter for Searchlight New Mexico. He has written about immigration and migration, climate change and food for the New Republic and the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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