Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
It’s been a hard winter for Rita Martinez.
The 66-year-old with an autoimmune liver disease that makes it impossible to work is raising her son’s three children in a two-bedroom apartment off Tramway and it’s a struggle to pay rent each month.
She gets a regular check from the Children, Youth and Families Department — but not until the 5th of the month — so she often doesn’t have enough money in the bank to pay rent on time. She said that each month lately she has to choose between paying $946 in rent and making a car payment so she doesn’t lose her only mode of transportation. Plus in February she had medical bills and the middle child needed glasses.
In March, rent lost.
On March 11, she was notified that the Prairie Hills Apartments where the family lives had initiated eviction proceedings. That was the day the news broke that COVID-19 had appeared in New Mexico.
A week later, Martinez is terrified she and the kids will lose their home during this global pandemic. With her poor health, even the thought of having to attend an eviction hearing is terrifying.
“It’s a fear, a big fear. The kids rely on me and I try not to let them know too much,” she said, adding that she’s afraid “of being kicked out with nowhere to go.”
“Plus the virus it’s like an enemy,” she said.
A woman who answered the phone at the Prairie Hills Apartments Wednesday declined to comment. The attorney representing the complex did not respond to questions.
Cities, states and courts across the country are halting evictions while residents grapple with being out of work and losing multiple paychecks due to the drastic efforts taken to stem the spread of the virus.
In New Mexico, the governor’s office said she is interested in the idea but doesn’t think she has the authority to order a freeze.
“Our current understanding is that state statute does not allow executive action (from the governor) to do so statewide,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
But some city mayors do appear to have the authority.
Tuesday evening, Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber updated his emergency proclamation to include prohibiting evictions for those whose ability to pay rent has been hampered by the public health emergency.
In Albuquerque, Mayor Tim Keller ordered evictions to be halted from any housing units that the city owns, according to his spokeswoman Jessie Damazyn.
He also joined several advocacy and legal organizations in writing to the New Mexico Supreme Court to ask that eviction trials be halted for the duration of the public health emergency.
“As the Court is aware, this national emergency will have a particularly significant impact on low- and moderate-income families who already live paycheck-to-paycheck,” the letter, which was sent Wednesday, states. “These families typically have hourly wage jobs and are likely to be adversely impacted by the pandemic through a lack of sick leave, layoffs, the close of businesses and the loss of jobs. While the City will do everything it can to provide eviction rental assistance to impacted households, our current funds are limited and we do not anticipate having the ability to provide sufficient funds to all of those likely to be impacted.”
The letter also addresses the impact the emergency will have on landlords and said the city is asking federal authorities to step in.
Last week, New Mexico Legal Aid, an organization that represents people for free in civil proceedings, wrote a letter to the New Mexico Supreme Court asking for evictions to be halted due to the health risks of the hearings and of having people lose their homes during the pandemic.
“The Courts should, as many other entities have done, take all necessary steps to prevent these large gatherings,” the letter states. “Filling eviction courts with sick, poor people, is in no one’s best interest.”
The New Mexico Supreme Court has already issued orders suspending all civil and criminal jury trials that are not already underway but it has also said there will not be blanket cancellations of specific types of cases or proceedings that it has not already authorized.
That means eviction hearings at Metropolitan Court — the state’s busiest courthouse — will continue, according to a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts.
However, “Judges have the discretion under existing rules of procedure to grant continuances and take other actions as they deem necessary based on the facts of a case,” spokesman Barry Massey wrote in an email.
No backup plan
Martinez put herself through college and raised her children by juggling many jobs, including decorating cakes for Albertsons grocery store. After graduating with a medical tech degree she worked as a generalist for labs and hospitals.
Then, in 2008, she fell ill and had to stop working.
Four years ago she gained custody of her three grandchildren, now ages 9, 13 and 15, after it became apparent her son and the children’s mother were not able to care for them, she said.
With schools shuttered for the next several weeks she is trying to keep them occupied and engaged through board games and worksheets. When they have ventured out to do errands, the oldest goes into the store alone, scanning barren shelves for groceries.
While the eviction itself worries Martinez, the thought of having to attend a hearing in a courtroom on March 24 is almost worse. Due to her autoimmune disease, stepping into a crowded room where many others have passed through could be deadly.
“The older one he understands a whole lot,” Martinez said. “He took my temperature, he acts like an adult. He said ‘Grandma don’t worry I can take care of the kids.’ But I don’t want that to ever happen.”
Martinez is not the only one worried about the crowded hearings.
Two attorneys for New Mexico Legal Aid sat outside a crowded courtroom Tuesday morning, observing the eviction proceedings and the steady stream of people going in and out of the room.
“This gentleman sneezed into his hand while he was waiting then put his hand on the table,” said Thomas Prettyman, the managing attorney for NM Legal Aid, describing what he had witnessed. “The Spanish speaker was rubbing his nose and then touching the headphones that go on for his interpreter. He was taking papers from the judge after he rubbed his nose. The clerk is handing people papers.”
Camille Baca, a spokeswoman for Metropolitan Court, said the court is extending the deadline for people to vacate their homes until April so the parties could possibly work out an agreement that would work for both of them.
“Judges retain discretion when making these determinations, however, judges are taking the state of emergency into consideration when making these important decisions,” Baca wrote in an email.
She said the court is also staggering hearing times, opening outdoor windows, rearranging the courtroom to allow for social distancing, and increasing cleaning and the availability of hand sanitizer around the building.
“We are allowing litigants to appear telephonically or via video, and we have propped open interior doors to reduce contact,” she said.
As for Martinez, she said she hopes things will work out for her and her grandchildren, she hopes she can call into the hearing on her phone and hopes she can get an extension until her next check from CYFD. But in the meantime, COVID-19 has made an already stressful living situation that much more dire.
“At our level of poverty, there’s no such thing as savings, there’s no such thing as a backup plan,” Martinez said.