The new Democratic majority on the Guilford County Commission was poised Thursday evening to approve $5 million in assistance for rent, utilities, childcare and food, while their counterparts on the Republican-controlled Forsyth County Commission brushed aside demands for rental assistance and local action to halt evictions.
With an eviction moratorium imposed by the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention expiring on Dec. 31, local officials are staring down a looming eviction crisis. James Upchurch, a Democrat who flipped the District 6 seat on the Guilford County Commission in the recent election, said he was surprised that none of the CARES Act funding received by Guilford County government earlier this year went to address housing, childcare or food assistance needs. The housing funds will be available for both rent and mortgage assistance, he said.
“I’m worried that in the beginning of the year there’s going to be hundreds, maybe thousands of people facing eviction,” Upchurch said. “It’s really shocking. We’ve spent tens of millions of dollars over the past several months. None of that has gone towards these important needs. Right now, everybody’s struggling, and we have to do what’s right by our citizens.”
Democrats now hold a 6-3 majority on the Guilford County Commission, compared to the 5-4 majority held by Republicans before the election. (Democrats could pick up a seventh seat in District 4, where challenger Mary Beth Murphy was certified as the winner, but Republican Alan Branson is holding on to the seat pending an unresolved protest that he filed.)
Upchurch said he expected “100 percent” that the proposed relief package would be approved with majority support on the commission.
In the next county to the west, about 30 people gathered outside the Forsyth County Government Center at 2 p.m. as the county commission met. They demanded that the county reallocate funds from expensive bond projects, including a new courthouse and children’s museum, to provide financial relief to renters and to impose a local moratorium on evictions as “public health hazard.” In spite of the CDC moratorium, magistrates in Forsyth County have continued to sign eviction orders and deputies have continued to enforce them.
Led by Sara Hines, protesters outside the Forsyth County Government Center chanted, “Housing is a human right, not a privilege.”
“If you’ve never been homeless, find someone who has and ask them what it feels like to be evicted,” Hines said. “To have the one thing you have left stabilizing you — your shelter — taken away from you at 7, 8 o’clock in the morning, given 15 minutes to grab your things and go.
“Your children ask you: ‘Mommy, why are we still at the bus station? Why can’t we go home?’” Hines continued. “And you don’t know what it feels like when your children ask you: ‘Mommy, can’t we go in the house, so you can cook dinner?’ If you don’t know what it’s like to put your children to bed in a tent in a park, find someone who has and ask them.”
Hines’ experience with eviction took place several years ago, but she said it kept her displaced for five years.
In Forsyth County, three Republican incumbents — Chairman Dave Plyler, Gloria Whisenhunt and Richard Linville — handily won reelection to the county commission.
“We are the only antidote to the pandemic that is our government not giving a damn about us are the very people in that building ignoring an eviction crisis,” Hines said. “The very people that we have entrusted with the care of our city and our county are ignoring our plight as we beg for assistance.”
Dan Rose with Housing Justice Now said members of the group have met with Commissioners Ted Kaplan and Tonya McDaniel, both Democrats, and with County Manager Dudley Watts.
Reached before the meeting, Plyler declined to address either the demand for a local eviction moratorium or financial relief, saying that he first wanted an opportunity to speak directly with the activists. He also declined to comment on the eviction crisis as a phenomenon affecting communities across the nation with the CDC moratorium set to expire.
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” Plyler said. “They’ve never told me what they want. How can I make a decision unless I’ve read the book? If they want to sit down and talk, I’ll do that.
“I want to deal with these people eyeball to eyeball,” he added. “You don’t have to protest things.”
Housing Justice Now and allied group Forsyth Court Support say they have documented 2,000 eviction hearings in Forsyth County since courts reopened on June 22. Housing Justice Now is calling on the Forsyth County Commission to issue a local moratorium declaring evictions “a public health hazard.”
Nikitta Long successfully fought an eviction when her landlord attempted to break the lease so they could sell the house where she and her children live in Winston-Salem. A magistrate dismissed the case with prejudice.
Long said a lot of a families will not be as fortunate as hers, adding that they might be deciding to forego Christmas presents because they don’t know if they’ll have a place to put them after Dec. 31.
Appealing for solidarity, Long said, “We are all neighbors, all of us. You may never be my color. But you may be disabled. You may be unemployed. You may find yourself homeless. And so, we have to look at each other, and think, ‘That could be me.’”
Long said she never expected to experience an eviction.
“I was doing everything I was supposed to do,” she said. “I had a master’s degree…. I’m not making great money, but I’m not making a little money. But I found myself in court begging to keep the home that I’ve been living in for five years with my kids.”
The activists singled out Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt as a landlord who has carried out evictions during the pandemic, questioning how she can be expected to make fair decisions on matters affecting tenants. In the past, Housing Justice Now has highlighted evictions carried out at properties owned by the Rev. James Linville, the husband of former Forsyth County Clerk of Court Renita Thompkins-Linville.
Rose said Forest Winds Apartments in Kernersville, which is owned by Gloria Whisenhunt, and her husband Curtis, has “evicted dozens of people during the pandemic.”
“We do own some property,” Whisenhunt told Triad City Beat. “We have a management company that does that. They don’t notify me when they’re going to evict someone. Right now, it’s in a stalemate until January. If any business is not receiving payment, then they have to take action.”
Contradicting Whisenhunt’s assertion that evictions are currently on hold, a Forsyth County court document shows that a magistrate signed an eviction order against a Forest Winds Apartments tenant on Nov. 19. Another complaint for summary ejectment filed against a tenant in August lists Curtis Whisenhunt as the “plaintiff’s attorney or agent.”
Rose expressed skepticism towards Gloria Whisenhunt’s claim that she isn’t directly involved in the evictions.
“These aren’t the Trumps,” he said in a text to TCB. “They are mid-level landlords with good knowledge of what’s going on at their properties.”
The record on file for Forest Winds Apartments on the Forsyth County Tax Department website indicates that Whisenhunts have owned the property since 1985. The 46-unit complex is valued at $1.1 million, and after deductions and expenses, the record lists the potential net income as $108,300. The tax bill due on the property is $10,218.
Whisenhunt said she would not support either demand — for a local moratorium on evictions or financial relief for renters.
“These folks who have rental property, that’s their livelihood,” she said. “How people choose to make their living is their choice, and nobody’s offering any of us relief because of people not paying rent.”
When asked whether she and her husband still have to make mortgage payments on the property, Whisenhunt replied, “That is none of your business.” (Once the mortgage is paid off, owners may retain a greater share of rental income as profit.)
When it comes to the hardship on tenants facing homelessness because they’re unable to afford rent, Whisenhunt said people are only considering one side of the story, adding that property owners are still on the hook for insurance. Whisenhunt said the National Association of Counties, on whose board of directors she serves, has requested assistance from Congress.
“We have reached out to Congress to give relief for the owners of rental properties — that’s on the table for Congress,” she said. “Whether they will listen, I have no idea.”
While Forsyth County magistrates have continued to sign eviction orders, deputies under Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough have likewise continued to enforce them.
“As much as I would like to halt evictions, I have no legal standing to do so,” Kimbrough said in a statement on Thursday. He added that if NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley were to issue an order to stop serving writs of possession, he would comply immediately.
“I truly have compassion for and sympathize with those experiencing this hardship,” Kimbrough said. “But we are a law-abiding law enforcement agency and we are obligated by general statute to serve any writs of possession issued by clerk of courts.”
In contrast, the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office is not currently executing evictions if tenants have completed and signed a CDC declaration and the basis for the eviction is failure to pay rent and fees. Asked about the agency’s policy, Sheriff’s Attorney James Secor cited an Oct. 28 executive order issued by Gov. Roy Cooper entitled “Assisting North Carolinian at Risk of Eviction.”
The executive order states: “The protections of the CDC order shall apply to all residential tenants in North Carolina who qualify for protection under the terms of that order.”