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“Latino tenants are very vulnerable to abusive landlords,” North Carolina activists and lawyers warn. They say that when members of this community are faced with an eviction letter, they prefer to leave their homes rather than appear in court. In many cases, the tenants don’t know that they have rights that can protect them.

“When the rent goes up and tenants don’t pay on time, they get a court summons, they get scared, and they leave,” said Jessica Moreno, a community organizer with Action NC.

This is not the first time this has happened, according to Legal Aid of NC attorney Isaac Sturgill, who explains that “self-eviction” is the consequence of renters not knowing their rights. This has been going on for years, and although it was paused during the pandemic, it is now coming back in alarming numbers.

With these observations, both Jessica Moreno and Isaac Sturgill gave their presentation on “Renters Rights and Current Legislation” at the 2023 Local News Impact Summit, organized by the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative (CJC) on May 18.

Alarming number of evictions post-pandemic

Last year, eviction filings in small claims court increased by at least 70%, according to North Carolina civil court data.

Statewide, courts saw nearly 149,000 eviction cases filed in 2022, a rate of about 10.3 per 100 occupied rental units.

“During the pandemic, there were no evictions; but now that everything is back to normal, this is alarming. Prior to the pandemic, the annual number of evictions (in Charlotte) was close to 30,000,” said attorney Sturgill. He estimated that during 2022, there were 17,000 eviction cases in the city.

“In Mecklenburg County, there are three courts that operate five days a week. Since the pandemic ended, thousands of cases have been filed. So going back to normal has not been a good thing. Even before the pandemic, the eviction numbers in the county were twice the national average, a figure that it is disproportionate, especially when the victims are women and families with children,” he added.

The attorney says that the problem is not the eviction, which is only a legal proceeding, but rather the cause of this increase. Nearly 95% of tenants who receive a summons to appear in court to defend against an eviction notice do not appear. When they do (in the case of Latinos), they often do not bring an interpreter to present their arguments or do not bring the necessary evidence, Sturgill adds.

An eviction notice does not mean that you must leave

Sturgill stresses that receiving an eviction notice or a court summons does not mean that the person is required to leave the property. Moreover, it is not legal for landlords to remove tenants or their belongings on their own; this can only be done by a bailiff with a court order.

“The way in which evictions work in North Carolina-- the only way-- is when the tenants have lost a hearing in front of a judge, and the judge issues an order for the eviction process to proceed. This is something that takes time. However, many tenants are unaware of these processes and believe that just because they don’t pay on time, they can be evicted the next day, so they leave,” he said.

Failure to appear in court is grounds for eviction

He explains that most evictions that occur in North Carolina are by ‘default judgment,’ which is when the owners of the property show up to court, but the tenants do not. Then the judge grants the eviction order, “and that is why in most cases, tenants are the ones affected, and it should not end there.”

In his 10 years of experience working on eviction cases for Legal Aid of NC, the lawyer has seen that in most cases with tenants who are Latino, they often do not show up because they do not have legal status and are scared of getting involved in a judicial proceeding. In fear, they opt to leave the property and evict themselves (“self-evict”).

“This is something we see all the time, where people evict themselves. They get a letter, get scared and leave. One of the problems is the imbalance of power. This is something that the tenants know and perceive. So, when they see the summons, they assume that by receiving that document they have to leave immediately, and they don’t even know their rights,” added Jessica Moreno.

In recent years, the community organizer from Action NC has been a spokesperson for numerous minority tenants. She says that in Charlotte, the Latino community is one of the minorities most affected by receiving court summonses.

“Most of the Latino community, if they receive a letter ‘threatening’ them that they must leave a property, they leave. They don’t wait and go to court. They don’t want problems, so they leave. Many of them do not speak the language, and others do not have documents or legal status. These are the minorities that are suffering the most,” she said.

“Judges know that 95% of tenants will not appear in court”

Lawyer Isaac Sturgill clarifies that the legal eviction process begins with the property owner presenting their case in court. If it is determined that the case will proceed, then the tenant is sent a summons requesting they appear in court to present their arguments, which is something that rarely happens.

“When the property owner starts the legal process against the tenant, it continues even if he leaves the property. The process begins with this claim. At that point, a hearing is scheduled within seven days. But most of the time, tenants get this notice three to four days before their hearing, so they really don’t have a lot of time to find a lawyer. Also, in many cases, they do not have time to miss work,” he commented. 

 “In the eviction court records (in Mecklenburg County), there are about 100 cases per day for each of the three courtrooms. Keeping up with this caseload is impossible, but the reason they do it is because the judges already know that 95% of the tenants will not show up in court,” Sturgill added.

If you did not appear in court, filing an appeal is an alternative

The lawyer explains that even if an eviction order is issued, the person being sued (the tenant) can go before the judge and appeal.

“There are laws in North Carolina that protect tenants, but a lot of tenants don’t know about them. We’ve even heard of tenants complaining about housing problems and then landlords retaliating and starting eviction proceedings. This has become common, which is why it is important to seek legal advice,” he said.

Sturgill currently works at Legal Aid of NC, a nonprofit law firm that provides legal services to low-income individuals in order to remove barriers and ensure equal access to justice. For more information about the services they offer, visit the following link:

For her part, community organizer Jessica Moreno highlights the importance of more organizations and legal tools that balance access to justice so that tenants appear in court. Another alternative is for tenants to work together and form a union to find more solutions to current housing problems.

“We need legal regulations that protect tenants, but also other options, because this is going to continue to happen,” lamented Moreno.

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Periodista de profesión, ávida lectora por vocación. Tiene un máster en Ciencias Criminológicas de la Universidad del Zulia, Venezuela. Le apasiona conocer nuevas realidades y contarlas.