RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Years of eviction moratoriums and pandemic relief money have worn off and the impacts are showing across the state.
Last year, eviction filings in small claims courts across the state increased by at least 70%, according to NC civil court data.
North Carolina civil court data shows both statewide and across our major counties, filings bounced back to levels reported in 2019.
Dustin Engelken, the government affairs director at the Triangle Apartment Association, said he is not surprised by these numbers but is concerned about their potential ramifications.
"It's concerning to me that there's not any permanent coordinated rental assistance program available. And so I think, you know, that obviously is going to contribute to some bad situations for folks where they might find themselves getting filed on," he said.
During the pandemic, the federal assistance program offered funds to struggling renters. Three years later this money has dried up and counties and municipalities are largely left on their own to handle these rising numbers.
"The counties and municipalities across the state, across the country, really don't have the resources to provide the kind of robust aid we saw during the pandemic," Engelken said. "That kind of level of assistance I think needs to probably come from the state or from the federal government... right now that doesn't exist. There isn't really any kind of clear indication right now that we should be expecting anything in the short term. So that's a concern."
Affordable housing is an issue that was growing before the pandemic hit and Engelken said the type of assistance awarded through COVID-19 should have been resources available beforehand. And while this added funding was always needed, the importance of it grows as rent continues to rise in the area.
Average monthly rates have increased drastically in the last four years. Data from Apartment List show average monthly rent in North Carolina increased by $280 between 2019-2022.
Locally, monthly rates increased even higher in some of our major counties (Wake: $348, Durham: $292, Cumberland: $373).
"The higher these rent rates get and the less money that's available to offset that, then the more children and families and just people you're going to see who were unhoused which leads to instability across the board in a variety of ways that leads to all sorts of problems," said Emily Mistr, an adjunct clinical professor at Campbell Law School.
Mistr saw the rising demand firsthand when she assisted Campbell Law School last semester in starting the Landlord Tenant Eviction Defense Program. The program brought in law students to help field some of the eviction cases and provide representation to residents on the brink of homelessness.
"The reason that it's important is that the only other eviction defense firm in Wake County that I know of is Legal Aid. And when they're staffed at capacity, they have five housing attorneys," she explained.
Mistr said a majority of the cases that the program assisted with led to positive results for tenants.
"I have been absolutely shocked about the difference between having an attorney present with you in court and not having an attorney present with you in court," Mistr said.
When cases don't end successfully, some families have nowhere to turn. Organizations that help with shelter and affordable housing across the Triangle have been ringing the alarm for months about the level of demand they are experiencing.
The Raleigh Wake Partnership to End & Prevent Homelessness said its emergency shelters are full and the number of call for help are increasing. The organization received 400 more calls than in February 2022.
As the issue continues to grow, Engelken and others are pushing for legislators to make funding for affordable housing a priority. He said the state has surplus money they just need to be invested in funding long-term affordable housing projects and assistance programs.
"The root cause of this problem is an inability to pay. We saw during the pandemic that when we provide resources for folks we can we can prevent these things from happening, we can solve the problem or at least mitigate it for a lot of folks," he said. "I just hope that our legislators are listening."
He would like to see funding go to create a long-term assistance program like the ones that were available at the height of the pandemic.
Wake County is continuing to invest in its Affordable Housing Preservation Fund. Both the county and the City of Raleigh have invested $14.5 million to hopefully preserve 3,170 affordable units. Next month, County Commissioners will vote on tax credit funding for affordable housing.
Engelken said he is optimistic about the bipartisan consensus that this is an area that needs to be addressed, however, he is unsure what level that support will look like this legislative session.
"The other piece of it too is that you know, this is not a problem we're going to buy our way out of and so while we need those huge investments and while we need that social safety net, we also need to do zoning and land use reform to make sure that we can build the housing we need for all parts of the market," he said.
In addition to statewide funding. Mistr said she would like to see Wake County create an eviction diversion program similar to other counties, including Durham County. She believes creating a stepped approach to help people throughout the process would help ease the burden on the court system and maximize efforts like Campbell Law School's program.