At 9:40 a.m. on Sept. 30, Mecklenburg County sheriff's deputies showed up at Leegraciea Lewis' apartment door. Lewis hadn't changed into her day clothes yet.
"The sheriff came to my house and said he was going to evict me," said Lewis. "I said, 'For what?'"
Deputies told her to get dressed and to come with them. They had a court order that she had to leave the Landing at Steele Creek Apartments in Charlotte.
"I said, 'I'm not going to leave my home! This is the only place I have left to go!'" Lewis said.
Despite her protests, Lewis was evicted that day. Not knowing anywhere else to turn, she checked in to an extended stay hotel. As of Tuesday, she was still there, though she feared her funds would soon run out and she would be left without a place to turn.
She's not alone.
From July through September, almost 25,000 eviction cases have been filed statewide according to data from the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts. Almost 15,000 have been granted.
But that doesn't tell the whole story. In those same three months of 2019, well before the pandemic hit, when the economy was still strong, the courts logged almost 50,000 initial eviction filings.
But housing advocates say just because eviction proceedings aren't making it to the courts, that doesn't mean people aren't being forced out of their homes. It's just happening under the radar, or will come through the court system soon.
"Everything is still wide open," said Peter Gilbert, a staff attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina who works with clients at threat of being evicted. "Eviction filings are down. But there are a large number of people who are under the threat of eviction."
An analysis of past due rent prepared for the National Council of State Housing Agencies by Stout, a global investment bank and advisory firm, estimates that between 300,000 and 410,000 North Carolina households are unable to pay rent and are at risk of eviction. The report estimates some 240,000 total eviction filings by January 2021 and that the estimated rental shortfall could exceed $800 million.
Some landlords simply tell a tenant they have to leave, and since tenants know they haven't paid rent, they go, without knowing what protections are in place. In some cases, landlords leave broken appliances unfixed, or have been unresponsive to tenant complaints to the point that tenants simply leave. In North Carolina, the only legal process for eviction is through the courts, and these methods to push tenants out are not permitted.
"I speak to tenants all the time who are weighing whether to move out of their homes because the landlord never responds to repair requests," said Bennett Heine, a volunteer with Bull City Tenants United, a group working to end evictions in Durham.
"The data may not call it an eviction, but when you move out because the landlord hasn't promptly responded to a repair request in months, because your apartment always floods when it rains, or because you have mold blackening entire walls – that's an eviction. It happens all the time, and is a strategy landlords use to illegally force tenants out."
That's not to say all landlords simply try to get rid of tenants.
"Our members are going above and beyond to work with tenants," said Dustin Engelken, the Triangle Apartment Association government affairs director. "They have been from the beginning. That was true before the eviction moratoriums, it will be true after."
Given the option, most landlords would prefer to have tenants in their units. An eviction means an empty unit that doesn't generate revenue. Tenant rights advocates agree, noting most landlords carry mortgages on their properties, and have their own bills to pay.
That's why – in many cases – legitimate landlords and well-meaning tenants are actually on the same side during the pandemic. They say the solution is simple: Money. The government needs to step in with rental assistance programs.
"We've been advocating strenuously for rental assistance from the very beginning," Engelken said.
"People were given a $1,200 stimulus at the beginning of the summer and told to fend for themselves. Here in the Triangle, that's an average (month's) rent for a two bedroom. So best case scenario, you got one month of rent out of that, and then you're on your own. So, no; there hasn't been enough. And we certainly are going to need more."
Questions surround Lewis' eviction from her Charlotte apartment. Representatives of Landing at Steele Creek Apartments did not return multiple calls and emails seeking comment and would not answer questions during an in-person visit from reporters. The complex's parent company, Miller-Valentine Group based in Dayton, Ohio, also did not return multiple calls seeking more information about the eviction.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention evictions moratorium began Sept. 4. It's possible Lewis would have qualified, though court proceedings for her eviction began in August of 2019, before the pandemic.
Either way, Lewis said she did not know about the moratorium or how to apply.
Various state and federal eviction moratoriums went into effect early on in the pandemic, slowing the eviction rate. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed by Congress provided some relief to landlords of some multifamily properties the right to temporary relief from making mortgage payments, but they had to agree to halt most evictions.
A typical month sees about 15,000 initial eviction filings across North Carolina. That dropped to fewer than 4,000 per month from March through June.
But as that and other moratoriums expired, initial filings crept up again. Housing advocates saw the CDC order as helpful, but the onus was on residents to fill out the paperwork attesting to their need. Many don't even know the program is available to them.
Effective Oct. 30, an order by Gov. Roy Cooper aims to help by putting the burden on landlords to let tenants know their rights. Landlords pursuing an eviction must attest in court that they gave the tenant a blank copy of the CDC declaration form.
Even with the latest protections, some tenants are being evicted for nonpayment. Legal Aid of North Carolina filed a lawsuit alleging county clerks are improperly issuing writs for eviction when the tenant has completed the CDC declaration. The suit asserts that the Administrative Office the Courts directed clerks to continue issuing these orders despite the guidance from the governor.
Advocates say that with all the changes, it can leave tenants searching for answers.
"There are no legal requirements that tenants actually know what their rights are, or how eviction law works, or anything, before they're evicted," said Andrew Willis-Garcés, director of Siembra NC, a Latinx advocacy group. "Which is, I would say, a human rights violation."
The challenges are especially pronounced in immigrant communities. Willis-Garcés said current laws do nothing to protect the human rights of people who speak English as a second language.
"I think the media narrative about this is often that these people are just kind of helpless out there in the world – ignorant," he said. "As opposed to: There are a lot of people with that information around Spanish-speaking tenants who are not required to share it with them."
For these and other communities, this isn't a new problem.
"Prior to the pandemic, there was already an eviction crisis in this country, in which about a million people were getting evicted each year," said Kathryn A. Sabbeth, a UNC Law School housing expert. "And we know that the eviction crisis, even before the pandemic, was disproportionately impacting communities of color, particularly women of color, particularly women with children of color."
As the pandemic dragged on, companies have figured out how to work under new protective guidelines. Governments have eased restrictions, allowing the economy to sputter ahead. In March and April, North Carolina lost 850,000 jobs, according to estimates from the N.C. Department of Commerce. From May through September, however, the economy has added back more than 475,000 jobs.
Jesse McCoy, supervising attorney for the Duke Law Civil Justice Clinic, says many people trying to avoid evictions have regained employment.
"So if they're working now, they're able to take care of their rent moving forward," he said. "What they can't take care of is their accumulated deficit that came up before they got the job."
Cooper also launched NC HOPE, a program, which provides $117 million in rental and utility assistance to low- and moderate-income households impacted financially by the pandemic. More than 37,000 people applied for help, according to a spokeswoman for the governor. Funding for the program, called Housing Opportunities + Prevention of Evictions, comes from the CARES Act.
McCoy, who teaches at Duke University, praised the order. He saw it shortly before his 4 p.m. Civil Justice class, and liked it so much that he was late to class because he wanted to read the whole order.
"Everything that I would have wanted in an executive order – with the exception of just outright rent cancellation altogether, which is pie in the sky – is in here," he said. "So kudos to Gov. Cooper."
But, of course, that money will eventually run out, and the evictions moratorium expires at the end of the year. Advocates worry what will happen then.
"There's really an unprecedented eviction crisis that's only been kind of slightly pushed down the road by a couple weeks," said Heine. "Come January first, we're going to be seeing millions of people kicked into the streets if there is not some sort of substantive rental assistance on the scale of hundreds of millions or billions of dollars."
This story was jointly reported and edited by Kate Martin, Laura Lee and Frank Taylor of Carolina Public Press; Lucille Sherman and Jordan Schrader of The News & Observer; Nick Ochsner of WBTV; Emily Featherston of WECT; Travis Fain of WRAL; and Celeste Gracia, Caitlin Leggett and Jason deBruyn of WUNC.