Editor’s note: This is part two in a series about the first wave of evictions in New Mexico for nonpayment of rent.
Clovis resident Sabrina Sisneros, 26, separated from her husband in August and brought her young daughter to a small apartment. It was a month-to-month lease, and Sisneros said she never got paid from her job at Allsup’s in time to avoid being late on rent and coming up against the landlord’s late fee.
“He got payments,” she said in a recent interview on her living room couch, her daughter and their puppy sitting next to her. “He was just getting them late.”
She said he wasn’t willing to work with her. He served her an eviction notice, saying she owed $540.
The landlord couldn’t be reached for comment.
At her eviction hearing Sisneros arrived with her child, Sadriana. Sisneros said she had no one to watch her 6-year-old. Judge Shaun Burns raised concerns about having the girl in the courtroom during an eviction hearing.
“We’re just gonna postpone. You cannot bring a child that age,” he told her. “She’s old enough to be scared and not old enough to know what’s going on.”
In the interview at Sisneros’ apartment, Sadriana seemed to know another move might be coming soon, but she was more worried about picture day at school. She interrupted her mother to ask if she could wear a long sleeve shirt and skirt, with pants underneath.
“We’ll see. We’ll see,” her mom said. “We’re not worried about that right now.”
Sisneros is primarily interested in getting her damage deposit back. She needs the cash to look for a new apartment.
For now, she’s found a place to stay – back with her husband. She’s cautiously optimistic it will work out this time.
“I hope,” she said. “I hope it’s for the better.”
Sisneros is one of at least 19 people in Curry County who have faced or will face eviction hearings this month, according to court calendars, and more are being added daily. Pre-pandemic, Curry County saw about 32 evictions a month, according to Princeton Eviction Lab data. The rural county of 48,000 borders Texas and is near Cannon Air Force base.
Assistant City Manager Claire Burroughes was born in England and came to Clovis with her husband, who is in the Air Force, about 20 years ago.
To the best of her knowledge, Burroughes said, the two-year statewide eviction ban in New Mexico did what it was supposed to – kept people housed, preventing them from being forced to cram into shelters while a contagious and sometimes deadly virus raged.
She said housing policy is a passion of hers, though there’s not much the city can do to directly provide affordable shelter to its residents. Among the city government’s tools: designating certain areas as Metropolitan Redevelopment Act areas, which enables Clovis to issue bonds, sell assets or enter into public-private agreements for new development to replace blight and deteriorating housing stock.
She pointed to the Hotel Clovis as a recent success, an affordable housing complex with 70 units made possible through state tax breaks for historic properties and those that house people with low incomes.
There’s also the 132-unit Grant Avenue homes, operated by the Clovis housing authority, which offers Section 8 vouchers to cover most of a tenant’s rent. The waitlist is six to eight months there, according to the latest estimates.
Another tool could have been a citywide affordable housing plan, Burroughes said. That would have allowed the city to donate land or property to such an effort, waive fees and spur the construction of affordable housing properties.
Such a plan was drafted and approved by the City Commission in 2011.
But the High Plains Patriots, the area’s local faction of the Tea Party movement, waged a campaign against the idea, saying they feared more low-income tenants coming to Clovis, higher taxes and the use of eminent domain for the projects. They used the city’s “negative referendum” provision to set up another vote.
“The Affordable Housing Plan does not make housing affordable to everyone,” the since-disbanded group wrote on its website 11 years ago. “It pays developers to provide housing for income restricted groups while undermining developers who build housing for the rest of the people.”
It was ultimately defeated by 58% of voters. Burroughes still keeps the defeated proposal on a bookshelf in her office.
“I kept a copy of it, because the city paid good money for it,” she said, laughing. “And I’m thinking that at some point, they might want to look at it again.”
It is rare in New Mexico that a town like Clovis doesn’t have an affordable housing plan, she said. But Clovis is similar to other cities and towns in the state in that inexpensive housing is increasingly hard to come by.
A report from the newly formed Housing New Mexico Advisory Committee found that the state lacks 32,000 affordable housing units. The committee contains a wide array of housing-related organizations trying to tackle worsening housing problems here.
Clovis is now relying primarily on community groups to handle affordable housing and homelessness.
Debbie Montoya runs the women’s shelter at the Lighthouse Mission, the only one in the city. The small shelter is connected to a 20-foot cement lighthouse built in a patch of sand on a back road near the Santa Fe Railroad tracks. “A lighthouse in the desert,” its website proclaims. It serves about 65 women and children a year, Montoya said.
She doesn’t know what to expect now that the eviction ban has been lifted in the city, but she said the shelter will cope with whatever comes. Everyone there has been doing just that since the pandemic began, despite many challenges.
“We are going to house them. Of course we are,” she said. “They’re God’s children.”
It’s not easy to tell if someone who arrives seeking shelter had been evicted months or weeks prior. It’s rare for Montoya to house somebody immediately after eviction, she said, because folks usually find somewhere to stay for a while. Still, not one of the people who stayed at the shelter during the pandemic went there right after being evicted, she said, adding that it suggests the ban was working.
Montoya knew non-payment eviction cases were happening again in Clovis, she said, but she hasn’t really considered what it could mean for her shelter and community.
“I haven’t even wrapped my mind around it. I don’t even want to think about it,’ she said. “Because to me, whoever walks in the door, I ask the question, ‘Hello. How can we help you?’ And then let’s get moving.”
This story was originally published in Source New Mexico – sourcenm.com – which is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news provider.