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Legal Aid Organization Assists North Carolinians Facing Eviction

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Summer/Fall 2020   


Legal Aid Organization Assists North Carolinians Facing Eviction

Many low-income tenants facing eviction lack legal representation, which can lead to unfavorable outcomes for tenants and limit their knowledge about available programs and resources that could help them pay their rent and avoid eviction.1 Several legal aid organizations across the nation offer free legal aid and advocacy for low-income households and partner with other community organizations to prevent homelessness and increase access to affordable housing. Pisgah Legal Services (PLS), which currently serves 11 counties in Western North Carolina, is one such organization.2 According to Robin Merrill, managing attorney at PLS, the organization’s homelessness prevention program is one of its largest initiatives, with both a rental component and a homeownership component to prevent evictions and foreclosures.3 Staff attorneys at PLS represent people who are facing eviction or foreclosure or who are living in substandard housing conditions as well as those who need help with obtaining or maintaining their eligibility for housing subsidies.4

North Carolina began experiencing the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020; the state received 494,728 initial claims for unemployment benefits that month, with 395,794 of these claims indicating the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for job loss.5 On May 30, 2020, Governor Roy Cooper enacted a moratorium on evictions for nonpayment or late payment of rent that expired on June 20, 2020. During the effective period, the moratorium prohibited landlords from imposing late fees, interest, or other penalties on tenants. The moratorium also granted tenants a six-month grace period beginning on June 20, 2020, to pay overdue rent as well as the opportunity to arrange payment plans with utility companies to pay past due accounts over the course of at least six months.6 Merrill indicated, however, that many landlords are unaware of the grace period, and landlords may find the moratorium’s language confusing, especially when determining past due amounts and whether to prorate past due rent for the effective period.7

North Carolina courts resumed hearing summary ejectment actions on June 22, 2020, and PLS expects a flood of eviction cases because landlords were still able to file for eviction while the moratorium was in effect.8 On June 30, 2020, sheriffs again became responsible for executing writs of possession.9 As of mid-July 2020, North Carolina’s state court system had a backlog of approximately 10,000 eviction cases. Summary ejectment cases typically must be scheduled within 7 days of filing, but because of the backlog, the courts now have 30 days to schedule cases. As of July 2020, most of the cases involve the simple nonpayment of rent, Merrill said. Anticipating a growing need for legal services, PLS has been training more pro bono attorneys. PLS maintains a strong relationship with the clerk’s office in Buncombe County, the largest county that it serves. This relationship has been helpful in gathering copies of complaints with summary judgments and the contact information of defendants so that PLS can inform them of the services that it offers.10

In her role as chair of the board of the North Carolina Housing Coalition, Merrill strongly advocates offering rental assistance at local, state, and federal levels. She is concerned that landlords may not be able to make their own mortgage payments. Although the moratorium delayed rent payments, it also caused the rent debt to grow, which increased uncertainty and instability for landlords and tenants alike. Before the pandemic, PLS maintained an information table in the Buncombe County Courthouse for those needing legal services. Keeping those resources accessible during the pandemic is critical, so PLS has begun using virtual platforms such as Facebook Live and other social media outlets to publicize its services. Several landlords have expressed appreciation to PLS for connecting clients to monetary resources through public rental assistance programs, the United Way, local churches, or other privately funded programs. As the massive backlog in eviction cases increases the need for legal representation, the legal services and public outreach that PLS offers will be critical to helping families maintain housing stability during periods of uncertainty.11

  1. Susan Fleurant and Colleen Healy Boufides. 2020. "Eviction Expungement: A Civil Legal Tool to Improve Housing Stability and Health,"The Network for Public Health Law.
  2. "Homelessness Prevention," Pisgah Legal Services website ( Accessed 5 June 2020; "About Us," Pisgah Legal Services website ( Accessed 16 July 2020.
  3. Interview with Robin Merrill, 8 July 2020.
  4. "Homelessness Prevention," Pisgah Legal Services website.
  5. North Carolina Department of Commerce. 2020. "April 2020 Monthly Unemployment Insurance Claims Now Available."
  6. State of North Carolina. 2020. "Executive Order No. 142 Assisting North Carolinians by Placing Temporary Prohibitions on Evictions and Extending the Prohibition on Utility Shut-Offs."
  7. Interview with Robin Merrill.
  8. Ibid; "North Carolina," Eviction Lab website ( Accessed 28 May 2020; Elizabeth Anne Brown. 2020. "Evictions to resume in Buncombe County as thousands in NC remain unemployed," Asheville Citizen Times, 27 May.
  9. Port City Daily Staff. 2020. "With no extension filed, eviction proceedings to continue in N.C," Port City Daily, 28 June.
  10. Interview with Robin Merrill.
  11. Ibid.


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