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Preparing for an eviction tidal wave

The federal moratorium on evictions set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is set to expire at the end of June.

Santa Fe faces a potential eviction “tsunami” when COVID-19 pandemic eviction moratoriums are lifted, according to a recent report by local nonprofit Chainbreaker Collective and California-based Human Impact Partners.

Santa Fe could see as many as 5,700 evictions once government protections end, the report says.

“While local and state eviction moratoria are currently still intact, they lack strong or comprehensive protections to guarantee that all renters will remain housed and healthy,” the study states.

Nearly 6,000 evictions in Santa Fe is an astounding estimate, based on such factors as how many households depend on jobs in COVID-damaged hospitality, entertainment and service industries, even for a city with an acute shortage of affordable housing and rents that are way out of whack with wages.

The Chainbreaker study acknowledges that “predicting exactly how many Santa Fe renters will face eviction in the coming months is challenging.”

But it adds that housing researchers and advocates “have attempted to quantify the scale of the coming eviction crisis in a variety of ways – and all estimates indicate significant impact.”

Even if the number of households facing eviction when eviction pauses are lifted is in the hundreds instead of the thousands, that’s still a major problem for Santa Fe.

The federal eviction moratorium established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, initially set for March 31, has been extended and now is set to expire at the end of June. City and state pauses on evictions have no definitive closing date.

While, for now, renters can’t be kicked out for not paying rent, what’s owed to landlords continues to accumulate. That’s a big part of the looming problem.

Alexandra Ladd, director of the city’s Office of Affordable Housing, notes that landlords are also in a bind. “I think a lot of landlords have also not been able to pay their mortgages,” she said.

The Chainbreaker report also shows that, even during the ongoing moratorium period, evictions have continued, although the overall number of eviction claims filed in court has been reduced by about 50%. With evictions based on rental nonpayment barred by the moratoriums, landlords are increasingly using different reasons when evicting tenants, such as for debt owed to the landlord based on utility costs or other expenses. The report says renters can also still be evicted at the end of a rental contract term.

Mayor Alan Webber and the City Council are taking appropriate steps to prepare for a potential eviction wave.

In November, the city announced that $4 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds would go to support the city’s CONNECT program to cover rent, shelter, food, utility bills, transportation and child care costs. People at risk of eviction because they have been unable to pay rent due to the economic impacts of COVID are eligible for a $3,000 one-time payment.

And the new city budget approved last week includes $3 million for the affordable housing fund, which can be used for rent subsidies. Another $75,000 was appropriated to establish an eviction hotline for tenants and tenant-landlord mediation services.

But the best news for renters, and for landlords, may be that big federal bucks are in the pipeline, a factor not addressed in the Chainbreaker study, understandable because of the changing state of the feds’ response to COVID-19.

Congress approved $25 billion in December and more than $20 billion in March as rental assistance for households damaged by the pandemic-constricted economy.

Still, getting that money out to people will take time as government agencies set up rules and a system for distributing the assistance. So far, little has reached tenants or landlords, the New York Times reported last week. It’s unclear how much of the federal money could end up in New Mexico or Santa Fe, or when it will arrive.

Meanwhile, advocates are calling for another extension of the federal eviction moratorium.

Chainbreaker makes several recommendations, including an extension of Santa Fe’s local moratorium, shifting enforcement of the eviction moratorium from law enforcement to building-code inspectors and forgiveness of city water bill debt. Those ideas deserve consideration.

Santa Fe has chronic problems with affordable housing, and the gap between wages and rental or mortgage costs. Solving those won’t happen any time soon. If New Mexico’s progress in fighting the pandemic continues, maybe the local economy will rebound in the near future, but that won’t address the issues of thousands and thousands of dollars in unpaid rent.

If the potential for mass evictions is as significant as the Chainbreaker report suggests, the best hope in the short term may be for the cavalry – in the form of federal dollars – to arrive ASAP.

The federal moratorium on evictions set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is set to expire at the end of June.