Tenant rights collective calls on Santa Fe City Council to boost protections for renters

Temporary eviction bans aren’t enough, they say, as housing prices skyrocket

By: - September 9, 2021 6:20 am

A worker removes a table during an eviction in Ohio. (Photo by Stephen Zenner/Getty Images)

The city of Santa Fe might be ready to create its own hotline for tenants facing eviction, but activists are asking them to do a lot more.

The Chainbreaker Collective said they hope city and state officials will take their recommendation to expand tenant protections — not just during the pandemic but beyond, making them permanent.

This story is the second in a series. Find yesterday’s story here.

“When we look at who has been behind on rent nationwide, we’re seeing a lot of things that mirror what we’re seeing here in Santa Fe, and its data,” Cathy Garcia, an organizer with Chainbreaker, told the committee. “Disproportionately, we see vulnerable communities being impacted by eviction, by COVID infection, by loss of income, by loss of job status.”

The collective gave policy recommendations last week to the city’s Quality of Life Committee, the final presentation in a series about the organization’s findings from research on the COVID-era eviction crisis. Advocates crafted the proposals with help from other organizations, members of the City Council and city government staff.

With the federal eviction moratorium lifted, people living in states and cities that do not have their own in place are being served eviction notices right now. What’s happening elsewhere in the country will impact Santa Fe’s rental and housing market, Garcia said, which has already seen skyrocketing prices.

New Mexico has a statewide moratorium in place, and Santa Fe implemented one that’s even more protective for tenants than the state’s.

But despite the bans, evictions have continued throughout the pandemic up until today in Santa Fe, in some of the most vulnerable neighborhoods that are historically rent-burdened, meaning households spend more than 30% of their income on rent. These communities also saw higher COVID-infection rates and didn’t have access to the vaccine, Garcia said, and they’ve experienced harsher impacts of unemployment, job loss and wage loss.

When we’re talking about an eviction moratorium or tenant protections, they are not separated from the public health crisis, nor are they separated from the context of what has come before. All of this is very much so related.

– Cathy Garcia, Chainbreaker Collective

Garcia told city officials to review and expand the city’s emergency order that prohibits landlords from threatening tenants with eviction for nonpayment of rent. “How do we make that even stronger? And how do we codify them as long-term protections?” she asked the committee. “Can we strengthen the moratorium, say, by expanding it into certain ZIP codes and saying, ‘In these ZIP codes, the moratorium will last for even longer, because they’re even more vulnerable?’ Can we strengthen it by expanding who qualifies for the eviction moratorium and who is protected by it?”

Enforcing the eviction ban

Chainbreaker is also asking the city government to establish a different way to enforce the emergency order and prevent future problems faced by tenants. That’s where the tenant hotline comes in.

Santa Fe City Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth is the chair of the Quality of Life Committee. In a Sept. 6 interview, she said the city government has about $70,000 in its budget to pay for the hotline that the collective is suggesting. She said city government is still figuring out who will staff the hotline.

“We all know there is a problem,” she said. Councilors are trying to assess how they can help the state distribute the federal emergency relief money to people in danger of losing their homes, “and what our role should be at the local level in terms of helping people with their landlords and these situations.” 

The committee has not yet discussed the eviction moratorium, Romero-Wirth said.

Santa Fe put its own moratorium in place on March 18, 2020. The city’s was issued  by mayoral order, Garcia said. This makes violations of the order a crime that must be reported through the Santa Fe Police Department. A tenant whose eviction is prohibited by the moratorium must get a police report to begin the process.

But that makes it hard to activate.

“As you can imagine, when we also talk about the intersection of vulnerable communities and police engagement, there are very few folks who are actually willing to use this mechanism in order to actually exercise their rights,” Garcia said. “When we’re asking folks to call the cops for something like this, it also feels a little heavy-handed. It feels like we’re escalating something, when really what we’re trying to do is negotiate and find a solution.”

Landlords confused about the bans

Chainbreaker Collective pulled together information from the state’s database of court filings and compared the three year period of 2017 to 2019 with 2020, the year the moratorium went into effect. They found that evictions in New Mexico were cut down by half in 2020, likely because of the federal moratorium.

In the years leading up to 2020, the data show evictions in the state were steady from one month to another. But during the pandemic, the rate of evictions per month went up and down wildly. When Garcia lined the data up with the dates of the various eviction bans, the differences started to make more sense.

There was an immediate dip in evictions at the start of the pandemic, after the first ban went into place. When the initial CARES Act ban expired in August 2020, landlords started evicting people again until the CDC issued its own ban. That ban was set to expire in December 2020, and the same pattern happened: landlords started evicting people again around the holidays.

“There is zero reason for it to be so wildly different, except for the confusion around all of the different moratoria,” she said. “It’s the only thing that could make sense.”

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On average, in the years leading up to the pandemic, 85% of eviction filings in the state were because of non-payment of rent, while breach of contract made up 7% of filings and debt and money due made up 4% of filings.

In 2020, the share of evictions due to nonpayment of rent dropped to 63%, while debt and money owed increased to 10%. Those filings involve situations where a landlord charges a tenant fees other than rent, such as utilities, a homeowners association fee or a landscaping fee. Those kinds of evictions are not protected by moratorium.

The number of tenants who initiated court actions against their landlords for things like not making repairs or for errors in accounting also went down. Tenants are less likely to make a fuss, Garcia said, and feel like they have no right to complain about paint or heating if they owe rent. “We saw that as evidence that tenants were willing to put up with substandard conditions much more often than not.”

The moratorium didn’t stop landlords from simply handing tenants a 30-day notice to get out, saying it has nothing to do with paying rent.

One thing that didn’t change as a result of the moratorium was where evictions happen in Santa Fe. The city is largely divided between the North and South, the haves and have-nots. In 2020, the rate of evictions per 100 households in the city remained the same when mapped by census tract.

The people living in multimillion-dollar homes on the north side aren’t being evicted, Garcia said, but the people living around the Midtown area or on the city’s Southside are still being evicted at higher rates, just like they were before 2020.

Empowering tenants

The city should be doing more outreach to get basic information to tenants, like what a lease agreement should look like and how it might impact their ability to make a complaint, according to the collective. Tenants also need more information about how they can report building code violations.

City ordinances already allow the public to find similar information about short-term rentals in Santa Fe, like Airbnb. Garcia said the government should use those as a model for regular residential rentals by creating a landlord registry or licensure system.

Chainbreaker also wants to see how the city’s cases are being recorded in state databases and how that intersects with the court system. Data collection remains a challenge, even about basic information like how many rental units are in the city, how many landlords there are, how much property they own, how many of them are from New Mexico or from out of state.

“These are the kinds of questions which really nobody in the state or in the city can answer, because this data is not being collected,” she said, and all of that information would be useful in policy-making. 

Paying backrent and utility debts

Chainbreaker also wants the Santa Fe government to use emergency funds to forgive debts held by customers of the water utility or to pay down back-rents and fees. The state’s emergency rental assistance program is already doing that with some utilities in New Mexico.

In November and December 2020, the city government partnered with Chainbreaker and Somos Un Pueblo Unido to quickly distribute funds to tenants and residents who were at risk of eviction and losing their jobs. Chainbreaker wants the city government to repeat that model of cash distribution — and even for the state and federal governments to use it as a model.

“We know that if the city can do it, has done it, we’d love to find ways to do it again,” Garcia said.

A week before the committee met, the U.S. Treasury Department issued new guidance on how states can spend emergency rental assistance money. The collective’s members said they hope the state will interpret the guidelines to create a more streamlined application process and a more intentional process around actually getting money into people’s hands and prevent a flood of evictions.

Chainbreaker also wants the state government to improve mediation programs between tenants and landlords to avoid going to court. But that means doing more outreach, Garcia added, because tenants might not know those programs exist.

Donnie Quintana, the state official in charge of the emergency rent relief program, told a panel of lawmakers last week that he is working to establish a landlord-tenant mediation program. 

Chainbreaker also wants the city government to expand legal counsel for tenants, especially residents who are undocumented immigrants.

“As a sanctuary city, this should concern us, because what this means is that our undocumented neighbors are unable to access that same legal protection, which other residents in our city are,” Garcia said.

Quintana told lawmakers he was finalizing a contract with a nonprofit to provide legal representation to tenants. He also said the department is considering opening an office in every court to educate tenants facing eviction, open the door emergency rental assistance and to give information to judges.

‘On the verge of catastrophe’

Evictions can force families into more crowded housing that puts them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, according to the Center on Policy and Budget Priorities. In April 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied shelters in Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Seattle and found that 25 percent of shelter residents and 11 percent of staff had contracted COVID-19.

Chainbreaker found that most census tracts in Santa Fe that experienced eviction risk in between 2017 and 2020 have a household income of $32,000 to $56,000, which is lower than Santa Fe’s median household income level of $58,000. Those census tracts include the Hopewell/Mann and Airport Road Corridor neighborhoods, Chainbreaker Executive Director Tomás Rivera told the committee.

With federal protections dissipating, Garcia said it’s even more urgent for city and state leaders everywhere to act.

“Quite honestly, we need to get rental assistance into tenants’ hands before the state moratorium lifts,” she said. “Otherwise, there was no point in the moratorium, and there was no point in trying to get that money distributed.”

Garcia told the committee she is terrified to think what will happen once the state and city moratoria are lifted. Combined with the low rate of rental assistance being distributed in the state and country, she said, “we’re on the verge of a catastrophe.”

The fight over Midtown

A 60-acre plot of land in the center of Santa Fe housed the Santa Fe University of Art and Design until 2018, when the city took ownership of the land. The campus has been the subject of numerous plans for redevelopment, with some residents worried that it will become a playground for the rich.

Economic inequality in the city is why the battle over the Midtown campus is so important, Cathy Garcia of the Chainbreaker Collective said. 

“The fight for Midtown is about whether or not we’re going to really allow Santa Fe to be redlined and hyper-segregated, the way I’ve seen it in every other city,” she said. “So what are we going to put there? If we’re going to put Netflix Studios, God help us.”

The city already owns the land at the Midtown campus, and if a land trust were created to take it over, she said, the trust could do what private development cannot. Building affordable housing there would stabilize the rental and housing markets in the city, Garcia said, which are affected by fluctuating prices and speculation.

A community land trust on the Midtown campus would allow the creation of mixed-use family housing, Garcia said, and Santa Fe could really start envisioning what is needed there. “The only way that that’s going to be affordable is if the city continues being the owner.” 

Public ownership of the land would insulate it against drastic fluctuations in Santa Fe land value. And with affordable housing on the property, either rental or ownership, families would have an opportunity to establish credit, stabilize their living situation and save up money, Garcia said. Maybe then those families could “live that dream that we’re all saying, of a homeowner.”

In the meantime, people still need housing. Chainbreaker is recommending the city government establish overlay districts in the Midtown area in order to protect historically rent-burdened neighborhoods.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.

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