As federal pandemic relief money runs out, evictions across North Carolina are again beginning to increase.
"I feel like I'm constantly trying to get out of a hole. Once I get out, it just goes back. It just adds on every single month. It's the same thing," said Cumberland County renter Maria Davis.
Davis is a single mother of three whose beauty business took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic response and is now affected by inflation.
"I'm an entrepreneur, I don't have a stable income where if you say OK, I can juggle my money and know what is coming in. I had to make sure that I have it in I have everything covered, at least for rent by the first but sometimes that's not how it works," she said.
During the height of the pandemic, Davis received assistance from the Hope Program, but that didn't solve all her problems.
"Now there's no funding. So there's no funding anywhere, not even at the crisis center; nowhere. So it's like I'm like, wow, like I really have to figure this out. You know, it's tough. It's really tough," Davis said.
She was served an eviction notice earlier this month.
Through the help of Legal Aid, she got an extension, caught up on bills, and managed to avoid eviction, but she wonders for how long.
"That's the problem. Now I had to come up with another $1,200 by the first, which I know I'm not going to have because, I mean, I want to have that positive mindset and manifested into existence, but I also want to be realistic in the time that we're living right now," Davis said.
Cumberland County ranks in the top 10% of the state for its rate of evictions, based on an analysis by the ABC11 I-Team using data from the NC Courts and the U.S. Census.
Twelve evictions were filed for every 100 renters' homes last year, three more than the state average.
Compared to five years ago, Cumberland County's eviction rate is lower than many counties across the state.
Durham County cut its eviction rate in half during the past five years.
Sarah D'Amato, the program director of the Durham Eviction Diversion Program, partially credited this reduction in evictions to the program Durham created a few years ago.
The program is run by Legal Aid NC in partnership with the Durham Department of Social Services and Duke's Law Civil Justice Clinic. The program assists and advocates for renters to prevent evictions.
"I do think that the assistance of legal counsel does influence those rights," D'Amato said. "If we have a case, and we're able to negotiate a good, you know, something with the landlord, then the landlord might be less likely to file a new action against the tenant. So that's going to decrease the rates."
D'Amato said the abundance of relief money in the county is likely another element factoring into lower rates of evictions throughout the country.
However, D'Amato said current data might not paint the full picture and these low rates may not last.
She and other stakeholders say they believe the number of evictions will soon turn back to rates seen before the pandemic. D'Amato said the calls for assistance have already begun to creep up in the last two weeks.
"In the past, people would be able to move out or find another place and avoid the eviction or they'd be able to get rent relief and they'd pay and they'd be able to avoid that eviction, but we're just we're not going to be seeing that as much, unfortunately."
While eviction rates are currently lower across a majority of the counties, some counties historically report almost double the rates elsewhere in the state.
More than double the rate of eviction notices was served in Nash and Edgecombe counties in the past 12 months than in Wake and Durham County.
Five years ago, Nash and Edgecombe counties reported serving about 40 evictions per every 100 renter homes; a rate double that of Durham County's.
"Nash and Edgecombe have always been the highest really in terms of eviction rate. And that's not because people are really leaving there necessarily a lot. It's, I mean, once they're evicted, there's a thing called like captive tenancy in a way and that is, that's when somebody is unable to move anywhere else," explained John Killeen, the executive director of DataWorks NC that tracks eviction data.
Killeen said that in these counties, landlords file evictions but don't force the tenants to move out.
"They have nowhere to go really necessary and there's no money to go somewhere else, especially with the expensive markets nearby like ours. And there's a sort of an ongoing tacit arrangement with landlords who are willing to make it like that," Killeen explained.
D'Amato said lack of supply in some of these rural counties also contributes to a higher eviction rate.
As county and state officials press for longer-term solutions, Killeen said public agencies need to take the lead on creatively finding affordable housing options. He pointed to acquiring apartment buildings and keeping them publically controlled.
D'Amato argued that systematic change is really needed across the board.
"Until we accept the idea and embrace the idea that housing is a basic human right, then the market is going to continue to allow folks to evict somebody in order to raise the rent a few $100 a month. So, you know, there's a lot of things that right now are out of control," she said.
Legal Aid NC in Durham does offer a courthouse clinic five days a week that gives tenants legal advice.
Janeen Gordon, Durham County's Assistant Director of Aging and Adult Services, said Durham leaders are also working to create a housing stability unit that will be able to support even more families with additional funding. But she said this is only one part of the solution.
"I think that we have to have a long-term strategy. This isn't a short-term problem that we've had this issue for years and years and years, I think that the leaders in Durham, the city and the county do have a plan. They have been working on different strategies. I think that probably in the next, I want to say 12 months or so, we'll see though some of those strategies come forward," Gordon said.
She pointed to the need to get more landlords on board to keep rent at affordable prices.
Meanwhile, in Wake County, Raleigh leaders have partnered with Campbell University's Law School to provide further legal assistance to renters facing eviction this fall.
"In North Carolina, there's no right to legal counsel in eviction cases. So thousands of people are left to fend for themselves trying to navigate the system on their own," explained professor Tolu Adewale who will be the project's supervising attorney.
He said the legal resources that are available to help are overwhelmed, so this program will help expand assistance.
"Some people are able to navigate the system effectively without legal help. But the eviction rates show that not nearly enough people are able to do that, are able to access the legal help they need." Adewale said. "So, law school connections such as ours can play a unique role in the three in the world of free legal services. There are some ways in which we can expand access to justice and, and extend the reach of organizations that already exist."
For now, renters across North Carolina can receive guidance and assistance through Legal Aid NC.