The court-ordered moratorium on evictions of people who can’t make rent was supposed to dissolve across New Mexico at some point this month, the Supreme Court announced in a February order.
But the last statewide eviction ban in the country will remain in place in New Mexico a little longer than planned, a state Supreme Court justice told Source New Mexico in an interview Thursday. It will be lifted in four phases across the state throughout the summer and starting in April.
Justice Shannon Bacon said court officials think more publicity and time is required to keep as many tenants safely housed as possible as the ban is dissolved after being in effect for two years.
State court officials now also have more information about how lifting the ban will work, now that they’ve seen a pilot program run for a month in magistrate courts in a rural judicial district. The program is intended to ease the impact of ending the moratorium, plugging tenants and landlords into relief funds as a possible alternative to eviction.
The pilot program in the Ninth Judicial District, which contains Curry and Roosevelt counties, has been in place since Feb. 1. In that time, magistrate judges heard 42 cases of landlords bringing tenants to court for being behind in rent.
Bacon said it’s now clear that some changes need to be made to avoid a rash of evictions across the state when the eviction ban is lifted.
The biggest, she said, is that more needs to be done to make sure tenants and landlords know about the huge pot of federal money available to them to get caught up on rent. Many of the people who arrived in Clovis and Portales courtrooms weren’t aware of the hundreds of millions of dollars available to pay for back rent, housing relocation, utilities and even temporary hotel stays, Bacon said.
“We heard a fair amount of feedback: ‘I didn’t know this existed,’ ‘I didn’t even know this money was available,’” Bacon said. “And that’s when we started to see that … there needs to be more robust publicity about this, both from (Department of Finance and Administration), but also from the courts.”
Bacon said there have already been meetings about increasing the number of public service announcements about the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which has about $200 million left to spend on rent and utility assistance, and about the newly created Eviction Prevention and Diversion Program, which is run by the state court system and aims to prevent evictions through mediation once landlords and tenants arrive at court.
Tenants facing eviction in Clovis who spoke to Source New Mexico last month said that they’d never heard of the rent assistance funds available to them. Neither had the assistant city manager or the director of the city’s only homeless shelter.
A study commissioned by the state in July 2021 found that just 16% of New Mexicans felt they had enough information about the emergency rent program to apply.
Henry Valdez, a spokesperson for the rent program, said that awareness has improved since the survey, and that rural areas of the state have received rent help at a rate comparable to urban areas.
Bacon said the state did a series of commercials on TV and radio late last year, but more needs to be done to make sure tenants and landlords know about help that’s available before they arrive in court.
“Human beings’ memories are short,” Bacon said. “And so that needs to be more robust as we’re rolling this out, so that people come in kind of aware of the program.”
It’s important that people know about the programs before they go to court, she said, because it will mean landlords won’t have to digest a lot of new information and then decide on the spot whether they’ll participate in the diversion program.
If landlords and tenants agree to it, the eviction case is put on hold for 60 days, and the landlord and tenant are connected with mediators and the state emergency rent fund.
So far in the Ninth Judicial District, 14 out of 42 landlords declined to participate in the diversion program, according to recent data from the state Administrative Office of the Courts. Three tenants also declined.
A slow summer rollback
Another big change from the initial plan is to lift the eviction ban in phases, beginning in early April.
Rather than all at once, the state will be divided into four quadrants, each containing urban and rural areas, and the ban will lift in each quadrant a month at a time – first in early April, then early May, early June and early July, Bacon said.
The decision to phase out the eviction ban is meant to give legal service organizations like New Mexico Legal Aid more time to prepare to defend clients and to give the state courts officials more time to hire and equip so-called “navigators” who help tenants and landlords get access to rent assistance funds or with mediation, Bacon said.
“It allows us to continue to test our own processes, it makes sure that we have enough mediators on board and facilitators to assist with the mediation program,” Bacon said.
She said the navigators, who can help connect tenants to a variety of resources, are a crucial part of preventing mass homelessness as the ban is lifted.
“So what we’ve learned is this kind of idea of a wraparound service, is really what’s going to assist New Mexicans who have struggled during COVID, particularly financially, and keep them housed long-term so that we don’t have a spike in homelessness as a result of, over time, lifting the Supreme Court moratorium.”
Bacon said the particulars are still being worked out, and an amended court order will be released in the coming weeks. Officials are still determining which region will be the first to see the eviction ban lifted.
The last moratorium
Before the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of New Mexicans were evicted every year. The court imposed the eviction ban March 25, 2020, as the pandemic destroyed the economy, raising fears of mass evictions of tenants into congregate living facilities like shelters.
Since then, eviction filings dropped about 40% from 2019 levels, when landlords filed for eviction about 18,000 times, according to data compiled by NMEvictions.org. In 2020 and 2021, about 10,000 landlords filed, and the ban prevented many of those evictions from ever being executed.
Bacon said it’s difficult to say how well the moratorium worked.
The task of staunching the flow of evictions fell to the court because the New Mexico Legislature had already met for the year, Bacon said. So the court had to do what it could within existing law. In some parts of the state, judges did not enforce the ban, and evictions occurred in subsidized housing, according to an investigation by Searchlight New Mexico.
“I don’t know how many people who found themselves at that housing crossroads simply moved on,” she said. “We also know that in some parts of the state, our order was not followed to the T.”
The court arrived at the decision to lift the ban because of improving job numbers and declining case counts, but she said there was no specific metric the court used or a model they followed.
When New Mexico’s ban is lifted, there will no longer be any statewide eviction moratoria anywhere in the United States. Bacon said New Mexico’s high rate of homelessness, poverty and housing insecurity is one reason the Supreme Court opted to wait so long.
“I don’t think omicron is gone by any means, but that’s more stable. The job market is more stable. People have gone back to work,” she said. “And so all those kinds of indicators tell us it’s time.”
The law is ‘largely pro-landlord’
Recently, some tenant advocates have criticized the order, saying it makes it too easy for landlords to opt out and evict their tenants. They’ve said landlords have no incentive to keep their tenants housed, as they often already have an eviction judgment in place.
Serge Martinez, a University of New Mexico law professor, and Cathy Garcia, an organizer with the Santa Fe-based group Chainbreaker collective, have both asked why the order makes it optional for landlords to participate in the diversion program.
Bacon said she’s sympathetic to the idea that the order is too easy on landlords, but current law doesn’t allow the court to require a landlord to participate.
“The landlord-tenant act is– the timeframes are very, very exacting, and I would say it’s largely pro-landlord,” Bacon said. “And so there are certain rights that inure to the landlord… They have those immediate remedies available to them under the law.”
The New Mexico Legislature this year failed to act on a proposal that would have relaxed some of the deadlines for tenants and prevented some evictions by landlords during a public health emergency. It’s the second year housing reforms have failed to pass.
“We as the Supreme Court still have to follow the law,” Bacon said. “Only the Legislature can change how evictions happen in New Mexico.”