Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
In June, a couple of months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Mirisa Lucero, her husband and their three elementary-age children moved into a small two-bedroom house in northern New Mexico.
Matthew Lucero had just gotten a job at a behavioral health agency, moving their family from Springer to Raton – a town of about 6,000 residents less than 10 miles from the Colorado border.
Then, just as quickly as her husband had gotten the position, he was told they no longer had the budget to keep him, Lucero said. This left the family unable to pay off the remainder of their deposit and the $600-a-month rent, and sent them spiraling quickly into the court system, eviction and living out of a cramped room at the Rodeway Inn & Suites. Mirisa Lucero said her husband applied for unemployment benefits – and was approved – but has not yet received anything.
All this occurred despite the New Mexico Supreme Court’s suspension of evictions due to non-payment of rent, issued in late March, in order to minimize the risks of spreading the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. And the situation is tough not only for the Lucero family – an attorney for their landlords said his elderly clients depend on rental income to survive and are in dire straits without it.
Thomas Prettyman, managing attorney for NM Legal Aid, said he doesn’t believe his clients should have been brought before the court for this matter, but in any case they certainly shouldn’t have been removed from their home.
“If the case had gone as it should have, they should be in their home …,” Prettyman said. “What should have happened according to the Supreme Court rules, the magistrate judge would have said ‘yes, you owe rent’ – if the landlord was right, the magistrate judge would have entered a judgment for the money and said no eviction.”
Instead, court filings show that the landlords, Charles and Lucia Hyde, gave the Luceros three days’ notice that they owed $267 and legal action would be brought against them if they didn’t pay. Five days later, the Hydes filed a petition in Raton Magistrate Court stating the couple misrepresented their rental history since their previous landlord had filed a suit against them for non-payment. Prettyman said this is not grounds for eviction.
Both parties attended a telephonic court hearing on the matter on July 17. That same day, Judge Warren Walton issued a writ of restitution ordering the sheriff’s office to remove the family from their home.
By the following week, they were living out of a motel room. Lucero says most of their belongings were left at the house.
Ray Allen Floersheim, an attorney based in Raton who is representing their landlords, said his clients are 84 and 87 years old, and depend on the money they would have gotten from rent to pay their own bills, and for food and utilities. He pointed out that, at some point, the eviction suspension will be lifted and the Hydes will not have made their income.
“When (the pandemic) ends, whatever happens, who’s going to pay what’s owed to the Hydes?,” Floersheim asked. “Is Legal Aid? Are the Luceros? Who? In the interim, my clients need the money to survive … See the dilemma? I sure wish I knew the answer. We feel for the Luceros, absolutely, but does anyone care about the Hydes?”
In late-July, Prettyman filed a 22-page petition with the New Mexico Supreme Court over the matter. In the petition, he asked the judges to order the Colfax County Sheriff’s Office and Magistrate Court to let the Luceros return to their home, in part because their circumstances should have been covered under the state Supreme Court’s order suspending evictions throughout the pandemic. The Supreme Court hasn’t acted yet in the case. A clerk from the Raton Magistrate Court did not return calls from the Journal asking about the order to remove the Luceros from the home.
As for the family of five, an anonymous donor provided enough money for them to stay in the motel room through next week, easing their money woes for the time being. They have already been there for six weeks.
Matthew Lucero, Mirisa’s husband, just got a job as an assistant manager at Family Dollar and they’re hoping their luck will turn around.
“It’s a scary thing to go through,” Mirisa said. “Not knowing what’s going to happen day to day.”
‘Already in a crisis’
It’s hard to say how many people have been brought to court for eviction proceedings since the COVID-19 pandemic entered New Mexico in mid-March. It’s even harder to quantify how many of those households, such as the Luceros, were evicted for non-payment despite the Supreme Court’s prohibition, although attorneys say they have heard about it anecdotally.
A spokesman from the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts provided data on the number of landlord/tenant cases throughout the state. He said that, while the numbers may include more than just evictions, most will likely be eviction proceedings.
The data shows that, throughout the state, there were about 4,300 fewer landlord/tenant cases filed between April and August of 2020 than in the same time period the previous year.
Maria Griego, an attorney and director of economic equity for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said that, particularly in the beginning of the health crisis, some judges were saying only people who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and resulting public health orders could qualify for an eviction stay. This isn’t true – the Supreme Court order says anyone who cannot pay is eligible for a stay, not just those who can’t pay due to COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown.
“We were already in a crisis before the pandemic started,” Griego said, referencing reports of a 27% increase in homelessness statewide between 2018 and 2019. “New Mexicans have been really left in a pinch right now in regards to the right to housing. There are so many families across the state who just don’t know how they’re going to make their rent each month.”
National data from the Eviction Lab shows that in 2016 – the most recent year available – New Mexico had 16.41 evictions per day and a rate of 3.18% per 100 rental households. The rate is 0.84 percentage points above the national average. In Albuquerque the eviction rate was even higher, at 4.72%.
‘Kicking the can’
This week, following the direction of President Donald Trump, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an order halting evictions nationwide through the end of the year for people who prove they have exhausted all efforts to pay rent – including looking into government assistance – earn less than $99,000 as individuals and are likely to become homeless if removed from their house.
However, there is a possibility that tenants will owe the full amount when the moratorium ends in January, and landlords are not prohibited from charging or collecting fees, penalties or interest due to non-payment in the meantime.
Griego said this is a promising step, but she worries the problems will be even greater for everyone once the pandemic is over and the moratorium is lifted. Many landlords, like the Hydes, are small-business owners themselves and cannot afford to indefinitely forgo rent.
“Without a solution by way of rental assistance, we’re only kicking the can down the road, growing the debt that the renters will owe and putting landlords in a bind because they are not able to make their mortgage payments,” Griego said.
Both Albuquerque and the New Mexico government have set up programs for rental assistance.
Last month, the City Council allocated $300,000 – on top of existing federal funds and private donations – to help households pay for rent and utilities. And the state government has allocated $13.3 million from the federal CARES Act funds to go toward emergency housing assistance. The latter program has not yet launched, but a governor’s spokeswoman said the Mortgage Finance Authority hopes to do so in the “near future.”
Griego said these programs are the most effective way to combat the looming housing crisis, but the funds are already insufficient.
“It’s definitely fallen short of early estimates of what is needed,” she said. “But the longer we are in the pandemic, the more money we will need.”
Floersheim, the Hydes’ attorney, said he was unaware of the governor’s statewide initiative until told of it by the Journal, but he was eager to find out if it would help his clients.
“That would truly solve the problem,” he said. “Someone comes in, pays the rent, the Hydes can live, the Luceros can live, and life is good.”