In a tiny NM courtroom, evictions begin again

The last statewide barrier in the nation is dissolving. Will an alternate program slow a surge of people suddenly losing their homes? 

By: - February 9, 2022 5:00 am

An empty chair sits in front of an apartment in Clovis where an eviction case has been filed. Last week, evictions for non-payment began again for the first time in two years in the state, for now confined to two counties in Eastern New Mexico. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

A Clovis magistrate courtroom became a laboratory for a new eviction diversion program last week, ushering in a major change to state housing policy that aims to bring the rental market closer to normal while also staving off a wave of evictions amid a lingering pandemic.

What happens in Clovis doesn’t stay there. Sometime in March, the Eviction Prevention and Diversion Program will be expanded from the Ninth Judicial District to all of New Mexico, allowing for the first time in about two years, tenants to be evicted for being behind on rent. 

It’s the beginning of the end of an eviction ban imposed March 25, 2020, at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. New Mexico’s ban is the last statewide holdout in the country.

Editor’s note:

This is part one in a series about the first wave of non-payment evictions in New Mexico.

Two Clovis judges heard about 10 eviction cases in recent days in the desert city of about 40,000 near Texas’ west border, one that boasts a rock ‘n’ roll museum, an air force base, a major cheese distributor, a rural charm and minimal adherence to the statewide indoor mask mandate. 

Among the tenants facing eviction in the one-story courthouse were a 26-year-old single mother, a man in jail, a woman in the hospital, a tenant in subsidized housing, an elderly woman with no stove in her apartment, and a couple whose rent increased 20% without explanation. 

Landlords were both huge real estate firms and mom-and-pop owners, all of them frustrated at having to keep a non-paying tenant housed. The property owners alleged some renters had also been disruptive. They were the first in line to kick their tenants out after the ban was lifted.

To replace the eviction ban, the state Supreme Court created the Eviction Prevention and Diversion Program, which gives landlords and tenants a two-month grace period to connect with emergency pandemic rent money. 

It’s not exactly clear why the state Supreme Court chose the Ninth Judicial District, which includes Curry County and Roosevelt County, to give the new program a test drive.

“It’s a good program, because it’s trying to help both sides come to a resolution,” Magistrate Judge Janemarie Vander Dussen told a feuding landlord and tenant at a hearing Monday. “It just started on Feb. 1, and we’re the only ones in the state trying it to see how it’s working.”

Taken together, the handful of hearings so far show that two years into a pandemic that destroyed the economy, tenants are struggling to afford rent and still don’t know about resources available to them. 

The Emergency Rental Assistance Program in New Mexico has about $75 million left to pay for months of rent, and $152 million more is on the way from the federal government. But experts previously told Source New Mexico they were concerned landlords might not be inclined to participate in the diversion program. 

By the time tenants and landlords arrive in court, landlords typically have already received a judgment confirming they are owed rent. Plus, property owners have been waiting these last years to be able to begin evicting people, and the housing market is heating up, even in a smaller town like Clovis, which grew but only slightly in the last decade.

Assuming they were already aware of the rental assistance program, experts said, why would they wait 60 more days? 

“I worry that in some instances, landlords don’t have a lot of incentive to participate,” said Riley Masse, housing director for New Mexico Legal Aid. Still, she added, there is potential the program can prevent some renters from suddenly losing their homes.

Two multi-property landlords bringing eviction cases last week had previously received some cash through the program, according to a list of recipients obtained through an Inspection of Public Records Act request. It’s not clear why they didn’t seek or receive the funds for the tenants they tried to evict recently in Clovis. 

The Clovis Housing and Redevelopment Agency also received about $13,000, according to the list. That agency operates a 132-unit affordable housing complex in the city.

A slide showing the findings of a survey in July 2021 of New Mexicans’ knowledge of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. (Survey conducted by LD Insight, obtained via records request)

A failure to communicate

The emergency rent fund was supposed to prevent tenants and landlords from getting to this point by helping landlords cover their mortgages and expenses while keeping people housed. However, it’s not clear how much outreach the state did in rural New Mexico, and specifically Eastern New Mexico, to raise awareness of the program. 

None of the four tenants who spoke to Source New Mexico knew of the tens of millions of dollars available to help them. The director of the city’s only homeless shelter was vaguely aware of it, she said. 

And a top city official who handles housing policy said she was surprised to learn of its existence during her interview with Source New Mexico.

“I didn’t know that there was this program,” said assistant city manager Claire Burroughes last week in her office. “So if folks are evicted or facing eviction… people that are impacted by COVID, they can go and apply for this.”

She said she planned to begin reaching out to city departments and organizations to make sure they know about the rent assistance fund and to recommend it to residents.

Documents obtained through a public records request show that program administrators knew lack of awareness about emergency rent assistance was a problem about three months after the program launched in March 2021.

The survey also found the following:

40% of respondents lost their jobs or had their hours cut due to the pandemic

20% were having trouble making rent or mortgage payments

55% making less than $39,000 a year had trouble paying for housing

27% with kids in their household skipped a monthly mortgage or rent payment

The state Department of Finance Authority commissioned a survey about rental assistance and other financial needs among New Mexicans. Researchers also asked how far word of the program had spread.

The survey found that 50% of those polled had never heard of the rental assistance program, and 34% more had heard about it but didn’t know enough to apply. 

Only 16% of respondents said they heard about it and felt they had enough information to apply. 

“New Mexicans need to learn more about the assistance programs and about how much assistance they can receive at the individual level,” the survey authors wrote as one of three key takeaways in a presentation to state officials.

The company hired to do the survey is run by a University of New Mexico political science professor Gabriel Sanchez and the Biden campaign’s Latino pollster. They reported that they surveyed 1,200 adults in New Mexico between June 30 and July 18 of last year, including a disproportionate number of renters and those who’d previously received government assistance. 

The documents did not break down where respondents lived or whether they were in rural or urban areas. 

A spokesperson from the Department of Finance and Administration did not respond to requests for comment Monday and Tuesday on whether the department marketed the program in rural New Mexico and specifically Eastern New Mexico. Neither did officials in charge of the rent assistance program itself. The state is typically allowed to spend 10% of federal funds for programs like these on administrative costs and marketing. 

A landlord told a Clovis magistrate judge last week he intended to sell this home, making it unnecessary for him to enroll in a new eviction diversion program. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

Hot housing market

When Judge Shaun Burns informed two landlords about the new court diversion program, they didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity. One landlord, through a Spanish translator, agreed to wait 60 days to kick his tenant out, but he told the judge he planned to sell the home.

The housing market in Clovis is heating up. Burroughes, the assistant city manager, said about 200 houses were on the market in the Clovis area two or three years ago, she said. On Sunday, about 70 were for sale, she said. It makes evicting a tenant to sell a home an enticing prospect. 

A representative for another landlord told the judge she liked the program, but she didn’t think her boss at the real estate company would. 

In that case, the tenant was in jail and owed $1,415 for about two months of missed rent and other fees. He called in from jail to say he hadn’t been able to pay rent since he was locked up on an assault charge. He almost missed the hearing entirely because of difficulties with the call-in system, he told the judge.

When he finally got through, he had only two minutes left on the call, so he had to hang up before giving a full explanation. He never successfully called back in. 

Instead of waiting longer or giving the landlord time to consult her boss, Burns instead ordered the eviction, potentially due to statutory deadlines on eviction hearings, experts said. Burns declined to comment. 

Sheriff’s deputies were authorized to show up and evict the tenant as of Monday, according to court records.

Downtown Clovis at sunset, pictured Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

The conveyor belt starts up again

Legislation just cleared the state House of Representatives that would give tenants more time to come up with rent after they’ve been served an eviction notice and once they’ve gone to court. It is on its way to the state Senate. 

Thirteen more eviction cases are scheduled in Clovis for the next couple weeks, several of them holdovers from last week, according to court calendars. (Just one case was filed in Roosevelt County, the other county in the Ninth Judicial District.) 

Clovis officials and advocates are anxious to see what might happen, now that the evictions for non-payment begin again. 

Rent and housing prices in Clovis — like the rest of the state and country — are rising, and with them, the risk of homelessness, according to city officials and local experts. 

Attorney Maria Griego, who listened in on a hearing Monday, said she was disappointed to hear of landlords not participating in the program, calling it a “win-win” for all involved. Now that they’ve restarted, she said she’s reminded of how easy it is to get evicted in New Mexico. 

“The way our laws are currently written really sort of facilitate this kind of conveyor belt of eviction,” she said. “Like these cases are processed really quickly, a judgment is spit out, and the tenant is evicted. And there’s just no flexibility.”

A low threshold for showing COVID hardship

Burns and the other Clovis judge, in hearings reviewed by Source New Mexico, did not mention to landlords and tenants one requirement of what it typically takes to access the rent assistance money: Proof that the tenant was directly or indirectly affected by the pandemic. 

Maria Griego and other legal experts who spoke to Source New Mexico said they don’t see the so-called “COVID hardship” requirement as much of a burden these days, so they encouraged all tenants to apply and see what happens when the Department of Finance and Administration intervenes. 

“Any reason that is even remotely attributable to COVID could potentially pass the bar,” Griego said. “It’s not a it’s not a high threshold to meet.”

Burns declined to comment on the new program. The Department of Finance and Administration did not respond to requests for comment. 

Tenants in Roosevelt and Curry counties also only qualify if they make less than the program’s income limits. In both counties, that means a household of four must make less than $43,900 to qualify.

Useful links for folks struggling to pay rent:

RentHelpNM.com — A link to apply for rental assistance. 

Clovis Housing Authority — Where to inquire about Section 8 vouchers

New Mexico Legal Aid — Free legal help for eviction and landlord/tenant disputes

New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty — Additional legal help 

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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