Karrington Gathings has been trying to get her landlord to pay attention to the decay in her building for over a year. Gathings moved into Abbington Gardens on March 6, 2020, and has since found bedbugs in her apartment, though it had passed an earlier inspection. When she demanded her apartment be heat-treated, her landlord charged her for the service instead of paying for it himself.

In addition to bedbugs throughout the building, Gathings says there is a crack in the foundation and the building shakes. The building’s security cameras have not worked for a while, she added, making several residents she spoke to feel unsafe.

Karrington Gathings and her family. (courtesy photo)

“There are women who are older than my grandmother in this building and I worry about them,” said Gathings. “People put in requests for repairs three years ago and they haven’t been done.”

Thus, Gathings took it upon herself to knock on her neighbors’ doors to ask if they would sign a petition demanding better treatment. Because of this, Gathings says her landlord has decided to evict her for collecting signatures and passing out pamphlets. According to the eviction noticed filed earlier this month by Heather Wade, an attorney who represents Abbington Gardens, Gathings is being evicted for failing to “complete her annual re-certification” and for “failing to work with the plaintiff to allow for proper treatment” of bed bugs. The complaint also alleges that Gathings has been “participating in several activites that are disruptive to other tenants…including…the dumping of trash, handling out of pamphlets and sharing petitions.”

She said he has tried to evict her before, for failure to recertify her lease and a trash code violation, both of which she says have already been dismissed without prejudice by a magistrate. On Wednesday, Gathings said she lost her latest eviction case against her landlord and has 10 days to appeal the decision.

Wade told TCB that this is the first time that she has filed an eviction against Gathings but could not confirm how many other times in the past the complex has attempted to evict her. Wade also noted that she couldn’t comment on ongoing litigation, now that Gathings is filing an appeal. Gathings said that Legal Aid is now defending her right to housing. She lives with her fiancé, also her full-time caregiver, in addition to a 1-year-old and a 2-month-old.

The ‘Swiss-cheese’ moratorium

Gathings’ back-and-forth with her landlord has played out against the backdrop of a global pandemic. Originally set to expire at the end of June, an eviction moratorium from the Center for Disease Control to prevent evictions during COVID-19 has been extended until the end of July.

But in Winston-Salem, evictions have continued in spite of the protections. According to data gathered by Eviction Lab, a research team of experts and students at Princeton University, Winston-Salem ranks 16th in the nation for evictions as of 2016 and things have only gotten worse during the pandemic.

Housing activist and Winston-Salem State University sociology Professor Dan Rose, who is authoring an evictions study with co-author and Wake Forest University law professor Emily Benfer, has seen this play out in the courtroom day after day. For example, a Spanish-speaking tenant with a 1-year-old child on oxygen was nearly evicted because of her inability to communicate with the judge, according to Rose.

“She wasn’t able to speak English, which should automatically lead to a continuance,” Rose said. “But the magistrate and the plaintiff decided they would go ahead with the hearing.”

Rose said the tenant could pay back the rent and wished to tell this to the judge. She went on her phone to look up how to say this in English when the bailiff started shouting at her not to use her phone.

“She didn’t understand and began to panic,” Rose said. “He unhooked his Taser and prepared to tase this woman with her child in her arms. At this point, the magistrate said, ‘Okay, hold on — we can get a court appointed translator.’”

There were 56 landlord-tenant cases during the 2019-20 fiscal year according to records of complaints filed with Winston-Salem’s human relations department. For 2020-21, the number of cases jumped to a total of 226, 108 of which were evictions.

Forsyth County has one of the highest rates of concentrated poverty in the United States, according to a recent study by Wake Forest University. Additionally, the same study found the county has one of the lowest rates of economic mobility and that Census tracts with high rates of poverty correlate with housing loss.

Since before the pandemic, Wanda Allen-Abraha, the director of human relations for the city of Winston-Salem, and her department have conducted several meetings between landlords and tenants to share information in the hopes of addressing evictions. The department has also been looking into best practices from other cities. Allen-Abraha said this research is just beginning, and did not cite specific examples.

Who gets evicted?

Despite city officials stating that they are trying to address evictions, local activists don’t think they are doing enough.

“That moratorium from the beginning has been so incredibly puny and has put so much burden on people in crisis to educate themselves,” said Rachael Fern, an activist with Housing Justice Now. “You aren’t just automatically covered under that. It’s on you, the tenant, to provide this declaration. A lot of people we talked to at eviction court hadn’t even heard of the moratorium, or they think it’s automatic.”

Reporting by TCB from November 2020 showcased the story of one tenant, Sierra Graves, who got evicted despite applying for the CDC moratorium. As of January, Graves had secured housing after living out of a hotel since November.

Referred to as the “Swiss cheese” moratorium by Rose, “because it’s so full of holes,” the policy itself is not an outright rent freeze, but rather a delay with tenants still having to pay back rent  when the moratorium ends.

“We’ve spoken with people who’d been hospitalized with COVID, who had an interruption to their income,” said Fern. “They were protected under that CDC declaration, but that recovery can be a long haul. Especially if you were barely making ends meet to begin with, it’s impossible to catch back up. After recovering from COVID and regaining full-time employment, a best-case scenario, you’re still behind and you’re still on track for eviction.”

Fern and KT Coleman, another HJN volunteer, were at a court hearing one recent morning and saw 75 eviction cases on the docket scheduled between 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Most of them were for non-payment, which is supposed to be covered under the national moratorium.

Most of the tenants being evicted were people of color.

Gathings, who is Black, lives in the northern part of the city near the Stanleyville neighborhood. According to Census data, the tract is a majority-minority area with about 34 percent of the population being white, 26 percent being Black and 20 percent being Latinx.

According to an applicant demographics data from the city, Black residents of Winston-Salem make up 78 percent of all evictions citywide, 70 percent of evictions in all of Forsyth County. Black residents make up just 34.9 percent of Winston-Salem’s population.

The disparities in Forsyth County and Winston-Salem follow a national trend. Across the country, evictions are much higher for Black residents than white ones. In 2020, Eviction Lab found that almost 25 percent of Black renters lived in a county that evicted Black residents at twice the rate of white residents.

“A lot of Black women, a lot of Black mothers, and a lot of elderly and disabled Black folks,” said Fern. “That’s who we are evicting en masse. Those demographics are a massive red flag for what’s been going on in Winston-Salem and should be a lot more alarming than they are to the local government.”

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