Jessica Haney has struggled to pay rent since she went back to school in 2017 to get a nursing degree.
The single mother pieced together odd jobs, such as pet sitting, to help cover her monthly bills, she said. When there wasn’t enough money for all of the bills, she prioritized the $1,200 rent payment for the Santa Fe home where she has lived for four years with her 7-year-old daughter.
In January and February, she began to fall behind.
In March, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, her situation became more dire.
By May 1, Haney said, she still owed rent for March and April. Her landlord, Samuel Page, sent her a text message demanding the three months worth of rent plus late fees — or she would have to leave.
She has been fighting his efforts to evict her and her daughter. In the meantime, overdue payments are mounting and Haney wonders if she and her child will end up homeless.
She is one of thousands of New Mexico residents — and millions of Americans — who face the risk of being ousted from their homes amid an economic disaster brought on by the pandemic. A provision in the federal CARES Act that protected low-income people living in subsidized housing expired July 25, raising concerns about a flood of evictions in a nation that appears far from recovering, with tens of thousands of new cases of COVID-19 confirmed daily and ongoing shutdowns of many types of businesses.
The New Mexico Supreme Court and the city of Santa Fe have ordered a temporary halt to evictions due to a tenant’s failure to pay rent. Those remain in effect but don’t prevent rent costs from accumulating. Experts say a crisis in the state could be looming.
Eventually, the orders will be lifted, and tenants will have to pay up.
Monarch Properties, a company that manages several apartment complexes that house low-income residents with federally subsidized rent, began alerting residents of its San Isidro Apartments last week that the CARES Act protection had expired and it would begin initiating procedures to evict tenants with outstanding balances.
Monarch Properties Vice President Jack MacGillivray didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.
Not all rental property owners and managers are large firms, however. Some, like Haney’s landlord, are local people who rely on tenants’ rent checks to supplement their income — especially during a pandemic that has widespread economic effects.
While Page, a state government retiree, said he, too, has faced pandemic-related struggles, he argued money isn’t the reason he is trying to evict Haney. Rather, he said he needs the three-bedroom home in central Santa Fe to house his adult daughter and her family of four, including two young children. They have been living with him and his wife since March, he said, putting the couple at higher risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.
“We didn’t just decide this as a backdoor method of eviction,” Page said. “This was something we had been looking at since March.”
‘Ground opened up beneath me’
Haney applied for a job at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in January, hoping it would help her achieve financial stability.
Instead, her situation worsened. The hospital’s drawn-out hiring process came to a halt in March, when the pandemic reached the state, she said, and she wasn’t hired.
The statewide shutdown to prevent the spread of the illness also blocked her backup plan to work as a bartender.
She thought she could delay eviction and prevent homelessness for her and daughter, through the state Supreme Court’s order. But Page eventually demanded she pay the rent.
“I depend on the rental income from that property to meet my debt obligations,” he told her in a text message in early May. “If I don’t get that rental income, I will be forced to sell the property. I realize that things are difficult during this pandemic but if past due rent is not paid within three working days, I will need to serve notice to vacate.”
Haney said she told Page she was trying to sell her car to raise money and had been contacting the federal government to find out why she hadn’t yet received her stimulus check.
She also sent him links to news stories about the city and state’s eviction freezes.
Still, Page moved forward with the eviction order.
Haney began searching for another place to live but couldn’t find one, she said. She learned local shelters had waiting lists.
During a court hearing, Haney said, Page told the Santa Fe County magistrate he wasn’t evicting her because she hadn’t paid rent but because wanted to terminate her month-to-month lease so his daughter and her family could live in the home.
Magistrate George Anaya Jr. ruled in favor of Page on July 17 and ordered Haney to vacate the house by July 23.
“The whole ground opened up beneath me,” Haney said.
She spent the next few days making phone calls and visiting the First Judicial District courthouse in Santa Fe, trying to get an appeal filed without an attorney. With the help of New Mexico Legal Aid and court employees, she said, she was able to get the appeal filed before a five-day deadline.
She has no idea how to try and win her appeal.
“I’m taking shots in the dark here,” Haney said. “But no one has told me where the target is, and I also don’t have a gun.”
Undue pressure on landlords?
Haney said Page’s argument in court that he wanted his daughter live in the rental home was a spur-of-the-moment change in his tactic to get Haney and her child out.
Page disputes this.
His daughter works in retail, he said, “so she is exposed a lot.” He is 68 and his wife is 69, he said, so they are in the high-risk category for developing more severe symptoms of COVID-19.
They want their daughter to live in a separate home.
“Every day that they live with us is another day of potential exposure for me and my wife,” he said.
Page said the couple are state government retirees and live on a fixed income — Social Security checks and their government pensions.
He acknowledged Santa Fe’s housing market is difficult for local residents to afford.
Recently, he said, he spent $75,000 in savings to help his son obtain a mobile home in Albuquerque. The son and his family had been living in a shelter after being evicted from their residence in Santa Fe.
He and his wife wanted to build another housing unit on their property for their daughter‚ Page said, though it would have meant taking out a second mortgage on their own home, which would put them well into their 80s before they could pay it off.
But their lot is too small to accommodate a second dwelling, he said.
He had purchased the rental home when he was in his 20s, Page said. He and his wife haven’t raised the rent for about a decade, even as rental prices in the city soared, because the $1,200 per month was sufficient to cover their bills.
After several months of not receiving payments from Haney, Page and his wife had to tap into their savings and sell some of their stock to pay the property taxes, he said.
“The eviction wasn’t based on money,” he reiterated. “I need to take care of my family, too.”
Page said he is frustrated the responsibility for housing people affected by the pandemic is falling on homeowners.
“I don’t see why the people renting out their homes are being put in the position to provide housing for the homeless — because that’s basically what is happening,” he said. “… How did it get shoved on them instead of the government? Why is this the responsibility of landlords?”
A sea of confusion
Susan Turetsky, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Landlord Tenant Hotline, said the operation normally gets about 50 calls per day. That hasn’t changed during the pandemic, she said, but the questions from landlords and tenants have.
Prior to the pandemic, the hotline got calls seeking information on issues ranging from how to get a landlord to fix a leaky roof to how to handle noise complaints.
Now she said, almost all the calls from landlords are about how to get nonpaying tenants out of rentals, and jobless renters are inquiring about how to avoid being put out on the street.
“The landlords want to know when this is going to end because they have bills to pay, too,” she said. “The tenants can’t pay and want to know what they can do. … It’s very difficult on both sides of the fence.”
Making matters worse, Turetsky said, is confusion about the various emergency orders handed down by federal, state and local governments.
Even Turetsky was confused.
She thought when the federal CARES Act protections expired July 25, landlords would be able to move forward with evictions.
“It would seem to me that federal law would trump state law,” she said. But it doesn’t.
Thomas Prettyman, an attorney with New Mexico Legal Aid, said the federal provision only restrained owners and managers of federally subsidized properties — such as those built with low-income tax credits — from enforcing evictions or levying late fees.
New Mexico residents are still protected from evictions by the state Supreme Court order, he said.
But it doesn’t apply in every case, and not all judges are complying with it.
“We had a judge in Clovis telling landlords to file for forcible entry and unlawful detainers,” Prettyman said, “which is usually used for businesses and squatters. She thought she was being cute, helping landlords get around the stays.
“It’s a matter of education,” he added.
‘Rush of filings’ could be coming
Prettyman and Santa Fe County Magistrate David Segura said they are starting to see more cooperation between landlords and tenants, who are reaching informal deals. For instance, they agree the tenant will begin paying some money toward their arrears and the landlord will hold off on taking legal action.
Segura said he has seen a decline in landlords filing eviction petitions, but he noted the temporary halt only keeps landlords from putting tenants on the street immediately.
“The people who are living in these apartments and homes need to understand the money is still owed and at some point it’s going to be due,” the judge said.
Once the city and state orders are lifted, there could be a flood of eviction notices filed against people who can’t pay.
“The multiunit apartment complexes will most likely be where to see an influx of cases once the order is lifted,” Segura said. “There is a profit motive there, and it would be my guess that’s where we might see the first initial rush of filings.”
Haney said she knows countless others are facing struggles similar to her own and even more critical situations.
“There are so many people who are so vulnerable right now,” she said. “They have little to no resources or have other barriers to fighting — like not knowing about legal aid, immigration issues, transportation issues, communication issues.
“Not everyone has a cellphone and computer,” she added. “… I had a lot more resources than others, even though I had very few resources.”
Ed Romero, executive director of the Santa Fe Civic Housing Authority, which owns public housing properties and provides federal housing vouchers in four Northern New Mexico counties, said the percentage of housing authority residents with overdue rent payments is low.
However, he’s concerned about what will happen if the federal government doesn’t renew the $600-per-week CARES Act unemployment benefit enhancements or greatly reduces them.
Many of the authority’s residents have been relying on this income, he said.
“Truth be told, an eviction is kind of a death sentence for some people,” Romero said. “Because there is nowhere for them to go but the streets.”