Featured photo: Sierra Graves is currently staying in a hotel with her three kids. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Sierra Graves did everything she could to stay in her apartment.

The single mother of three recounted the story of the last year of her life as her kids watched reruns of the “Amazing Life of Gumball” on the hotel room’s television. Her two daughters shared a double bed towards the back of the room while her son laid on his stomach with his eyes glued to the screen.

The walls of the room at the Quality Inn off of University Parkway in Winston-Salem were painted orange and a sheer white curtain covering the sole window offered the family a thin layer of privacy. For the last two weeks, this had been the family’s home.

“It has been really bad,” Graves said, as she wiped tears through her mask. “I’ve never gone through an eviction before.”

On Nov. 11, Graves and her kids were evicted from their home at Woodbriar Apartments in Rural Hall.

Housing experts say that the coronavirus outbreak made an already volatile housing market worse.

“Evictions were already a problem in Winston-Salem but now COVID-19 and evictions have compounded each other,” said Rachael Fern, a court observer for Housing Justice Now, a tenant advocacy group.

According to data analyzed by the Eviction Lab project at Princeton University, Winston-Salem ranked number 16 out of the 100 top evicting large cities in the United States based on 2016 data; Greensboro ranked number seven.

During the pandemic, some states put eviction moratoriums in place to offer tenants relief. In North Carolina, an order in March by NC Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley put a halt on evictions through June 21. Federal eviction protections ended in late July under the CARES Act. Then, in September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made the unprecedented move of temporarily halting evictions through Dec. 31 to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The CDC’s order specified that tenants could fill out an affidavit and qualify for eviction protection if they met a list of certain criteria. On Oct. 28, Gov. Roy Cooper issued Executive Order No. 171 which strengthened the CDC’s eviction protections and put the onus on landlords to give their tenants blank copies of the CDC form to fill out. Despite all of these protections however, Graves’ landlord at Woodbriar Apartments evicted her and her children earlier this month. She said she did everything she possibly could to try and prevent that from happening.

One thing after another

Graves, who currently works at the McDonald’s down the street from the hotel, lost her job as a manager at Popeye’s at the end of 2019 after getting into a car accident when she swerved out of the way of a family of deer. At the time, she was still a new resident at the apartment complex and got behind on rent payments for about two months because her car was totaled. Shortly afterwards, she got a job as a laundry attendant at a hotel in Clemmons. She continued to make partial payments on rent when the pandemic hit and she lost her job. In the weeks that followed, she stayed home with her kids, who were now doing remote learning, and was able to stay in her apartment because of the statewide eviction moratorium. She told her landlord about her financial situation and worked out a payment plan. By August, Graves had filed for unemployment and eventually paid her landlord a lump sum but was still behind by about $600. She began working from her apartment, making graphic logos for friends starting new businesses and setting up social media accounts — anything to make a little extra money.

Sierra Graves is currently staying in a hotel with her three kids. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

“My daughter was going to the store and buying candy and reselling it to our neighbors,” Graves said. “My kids were asking the maintenance man if they could help take out the trash.”

In early October, Graves and a handful of her neighbors began getting yellow notices on their doors — eviction letters.

Graves immediately started looking for additional rent relief and turned to outlets like the Salvation Army for help but wasn’t able to secure anything. That’s when she found out about the CDC’s moratorium. According to the CDC’s website, the order protects individuals who face eviction for nonpayment of rent and are unable to pay because of “substantial loss of household income.” Individuals must also have used “best efforts to obtain all government assistance for rent or housing” and used “best efforts to make timely partial payments.” They also cannot make more than $99,000 a year.

Graves immediately printed out the form, filled it out and took it to her landlord but was told that he wasn’t accepting any of those forms. A few days later, Graves was sent a summons to show up for her eviction hearing, but on the day of, she forgot her mask in the car and ended up being five minutes late to her hearing. Because of that, the judge ruled in her landlord’s favor. Graves tried to appeal the ruling, but was told that it would cost her $147 which she didn’t have. She applied for assistance through the NC Hope program but didn’t hear back in time. And on Nov. 11, a sheriff’s deputy showed up at her apartment and told Graves that she had 10 minutes to pack up her stuff.

Her landlord was nowhere to be found, and Graves said she had no choice but to grab whatever clothes she could and pack her kids in the car.

“I knew that if I had my black pants and no-slip shoes that I could find a job somewhere,” Graves said. “I brought them here and I went in the bathroom and just cried. I felt so defeated.”

‘It’s very inconsistent’: How the CDC order is being followed

According to the CDC’s order, “courts should take into account the order’s instruction not to evict a covered person from rental properties where the order applies.” The order also states that “a person who violates the order may be subject to a fine of no more than $100,000 or one year in jail, or both.”

Graves’ landlord, Andraos Shafic, said in a phone call on Monday that he didn’t understand what the CDC order was for and that he had only evicted one or two people in the last month. Shafic declined to give his name during the interview, but LLC filings showed his name listed as the managing member for Kelly Blue, the company that owns Woodbriar Apartments.

Ed Sharp, a supervising attorney for Legal Aid, said that the wording of the CDC’s order is ambiguous and that both the order, and Gov. Cooper’s mandate, are being widely ignored by multiple entities.

“It has made a huge difference, but it’s very inconsistent,” Sharp said. “That’s one of the frustrations. The CDC order has helped thousands of tenants in the state of North Carolina, but it’s applied by some magistrates and not others, and it’s generally not recognized by clerks of superior court who issue the writs of possession.”

In an article by WFDD, Forsyth County Clerk of Superior Court Renita Thompkins Linville said that the court’s position is that “the clerk does not have judicial authority to determine whether a tenant is covered under the CDC order.” She said she is simply carrying out her duty.

Sharp also said that because of the order’s ambiguous wording, he’s not exactly sure who is breaking the law.

“I do think that going forward with an eviction when there’s a valid, truthful CDC declaration in place, is illegal,” Sharp said. “But is it the clerk who should be on the hook for this?”

On Nov. 9, Legal Aid of North Carolina filed a suit in Wake County Superior Court suing state and county court officials to stop the issuance of eviction orders that violate CDC order and Gov. Cooper’s mandate. Specifically, the suit asked Archie Smith, the clerk of superior court for Durham County, from ordering county sheriffs to evict tenants. The suit also asked the court to order McKinley Wooten, the director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, and Nicole Brinkley, the assistant counsel for the AOC, to direct all clerks of county courts to stop issuing writs of possession until a judge orders that a writ be issued.

Sharp said that it’s also possible that the landlords are the ones at fault.

“Should the clerk be engaging in conduct that allows someone else to commit a crime?” Sharp asked. “Or should the sheriff’s deputy be standing there when landlords are executing their writ?… I would say that the elected officials shouldn’t be doing such things, but they have their own lawyers who have looked at these things and have come to different conclusions.”

Christina Howell, the public affairs officer for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office said in an email to TCB that “The sheriff’s office is responsible for serving all writs of possession that are issued by the clerk of court.” Howell’s email included a guideline provided to local sheriff’s offices by the NC Sheriff’s Association and stated that “any violations of [the order] are against the landlord and not the sheriff’s office.”

Sharp said sheriff’s offices across the state have come to different conclusions about the governor’s order. In Guilford County, James Secor, the sheriff’s attorney, told TCB in an email that if a tenant has completed and signed the CDC declaration and the basis for the eviction is because of failure to pay rent or fees, they are not executing evictions.

Still, Sharp said that most other counties are following Forsyth’s lead in continuing to evict tenants. He also said that in his experience, he’s found that magistrates are following the terms of the CDC order but that the sheriff’s office and clerk of courts seem to be passing the buck of responsibility when it comes to evictions. Tenant advocates with Housing Justice Now disagree with Sharp’s impression that magistrates are following the order.

“We’ve had tenants report that magistrates refuse to even look at their CDC declaration,” said Dan Rose, an assistant professor at Winston-Salem State University and a member of Housing Justice Now.

Rachael Fern, a court observer for Housing Justice Now, said that in one case, a magistrate asked a tenant what efforts he made to get governmental assistance and when the tenant mentioned two programs, the magistrate decided that the tenant hadn’t tried hard enough.

“The subjective nature from what I’ve seen is working against tenants,” Fern said.

And that’s if the tenants know about the order to begin with. Fern said that as she’s been canvassing outside of the courthouse in Winston-Salem, she finds that most tenants going into their eviction hearings had no knowledge of the CDC order.

“Overwhelmingly I found that people have never heard of it,” Fern said. “They certainly had never seen the affidavit. There’s just so many things floating around out there that people get confused.”

Gov. Cooper’s clarifying mandate that put the onus on landlords to provide their tenants with blank CDC forms was meant to fix that problem, but according to Sharp, that’s not what’s actually happening.

“A lot of landlords are not bothering to give blank CDC forms to tenants they are evicting,” he said.

Graves decided to take it upon herself to help her neighbors from facing eviction too after she found out about the CDC protection. She said her landlord never gave her the form.

“I bought a printer and was printing out papers for people who were getting evicted,” Graves said. “I gave them every resource I could.”

Court dockets for Tuesday and Wednesday of this week show multiple hearings involving Woodbriar Apartments and their tenants. Tenant advocates say that in the next couple of months, there will be a deluge of evictions, especially in January when court hearings that have been backed up, start taking place again.

“I think we are embarking on a very dark winter,” Fern said. “We are already seeing an avalanche of evictions…. There’s no safety net for people.”

Fern said she feels most for tenants like Graves who have children.

“I think about Sierra’s children,” she said. “Those children had sheriff’s deputies with guns tell them they had to get their stuff in 10 minutes and get out or they would be arrested…. This is going to be an experience they carry with them forever.”

Both Fern and Rose said they want to see a blanket eviction moratorium and also mentioned that there should be a mortgage freeze too, to help landlords.

“We need real rent relief if we’re going to turn around the housing crisis and public health crisis that we’re facing,” Rose said.

Graves pointed to a box of nonperishable food items in the corner of the hotel room that her family is eating like mac-and-cheese. She said her kids need underclothes and she’s low on toiletries but that she’s trying to keep her head up and stay positive. She’s working as much as possible and paying to stay in the hotel one day at a time while still trying to save up for an apartment.

“I don’t want anybody to have pity for me,” Graves said. “I just tell my kids, ‘We’re going to get through this.’”

To support Graves and her family, donate to her Cashapp at $Qu33nsi89 or Venmo at @SierraG2020.

For those facing eviction, Sharp had this advice for tenants:

  • Call 211 for eviction assistance
  • Then fill out the CDC declaration form and deliver it to your landlord
  • At your eviction hearing, make sure the magistrate knows that your landlord has been served the CDC declaration form
  • If need be, serve your landlord the declaration form at the eviction hearing again if they refused to take it before

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