Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
On certain days, usually around the beginning of the month, Cathy Garcia’s phone will ring.
Usually, it is someone living in Santa Fe with a question about rental law, what it is and how it could affect them.
But Garcia, who takes calls for the Chainbreaker Collective’s Rental Assistance Hotline, has noticed more people calling about imminent eviction threats.
“In the past month, we have definitely seen an increase in calls and also an increase in the urgency that the calls are taking,” Garcia told the Journal.
Since the hotline launched in May, around 100 individuals have called seeking assistance of some kind as many struggle to pay rent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of the service industries jobs in Santa Fe are no longer available as businesses close or shrink staff numbers. Unemployment in New Mexico and Santa Fe County stands at 13%, leaving some residents reliant on assistance to make ends meet.
And the number of people facing the threat of eviction has only increased as the pandemic wears on.
Eviction claims filed by landlords in Santa Fe Magistrate Court rose from 16 in April to 40 in July. August also had a large number, with 32 claims filed.
Garcia said August was the first month many callers could no longer afford to pay rent, just as the federal government ceased paying unemployment benefits and let a freeze on evictions from federally subsidized housing expire. As a result, more eviction claims have been filed.
Garcia said clients who call her say they have trouble paying rent, but landlords will sometimes attempt to evict them for failing to comply with other aspects of the lease, such as hanging personal items on a balcony.
“One of the things we’re starting to see … is landlords starting to find other or additional reasons to pressure the tenants to leave,” she said.
After the CARES Act moratorium on evictions ended, multiple apartment complexes began issuing warnings to residents, threatening to evict them if they failed to pay all the rent they owed.
In some cases, the tenant owed rent totaling thousands of dollars.
The warnings also stated residents would be liable for legal bills incurred by the landlord during the eviction process, something Garcia said needs to be decided by a judge.
Garcia said the main problem is that many tenants do not understand the rights they have, especially regarding the various moratoriums on evictions currently in place.
The state Supreme Court and city of Santa Fe have both issued freezes on evictions if the person’s income has been negatively affected by COVID-19, with the court’s order to expire at the end of the year.
The Centers for Disease Control also recently issued its own eviction freeze, but it is unclear if the agency possesses that authority.
Tenants still owe all rent they do not pay during the eviction freeze.
Many fear that Santa Fe, along with other communities in the nation, will endure a wave of evictions once any moratorium is lifted.
Lisa Bybee, a property manager and board member at the Santa Fe Association of Realtors, said that wave could damage an already burdened rental market in the city.
Santa Fe is known for having one of the tightest rental markets in the country, with only around of 2% of its rental units available. A January 2020 survey of the average price of a rental in Santa Fe was $1,102, compared to $896 in Albuquerque.
Bybee said the slim availability of units in Santa Fe puts those evicted at greater risk.
“These people would have nowhere to go,” she said.
Garcia agreed, adding evictions would probably displace many residents, who will then be forced to live in communities such as Rio Rancho or Pojoaque.
They’re just going to get pushed further and further away,” she said. “That I think is my biggest fear.”
And someone evicted for inability to pay may have difficulty finding another place to rent. Bybee said that since COVID-19 hit, property managers are more cautious about who they allow to rent their units.
“We have to be more careful – you may have tenants that run into financial trouble,” she said.
Bybee said she is worried about tenants being unable to pay rent since many landlords in Santa Fe rely on those rent payments to supplement their income and pay their mortgage. In Santa Fe, a unit rented for the right price can produce around $30,000 annually, she said.
However, Garcia said most of her callers live in corporate-owned apartment complexes, rather than properties owned by private landlords.
Most of the eviction claims filed in magistrate court end up being dismissed, especially when inability to pay is cited as the reason. However, Garcia said going through the eviction process – especially for those who don’t know their rights – can be taxing on its own, even if they get to stay.
“These experiences are traumatic,” she said. “There just isn’t enough easy, simple information out there.”
Around a third of Garcia’s callers speak primarily Spanish and she said documents that explain a tenant’s rights are rarely available in languages other than English.
Chainbreaker Collective Executive Director Tomas Rivera said plenty of people are at risk for eviction in Santa Fe, but noted it’s hardly a new issue for the area.
“There’s always been an eviction crisis in Santa Fe,” he said.