Rural America Is Facing an Invisible Eviction Crisis

MILLSVILLE, West Virginia — About 70 miles northwest of the nation’s capital, past wineries in the affluent Virginia countryside and across the state line into West Virginia, there’s a house on a hill in a deteriorating neighborhood.

Inside, Melody Shaffer is rubbing her red-rimmed eye at the dining table. Her boyfriend Chris Pascoe walks between the dimly lit kitchen, living room and bedroom. Paint peels from a nearby frame.

“I have no clue,” Shaffer repeatedly says when asked where they would go now that they were about to be evicted.

It was the day prior to Thanksgiving. The bustling Walmart across the street was packed with shoppers who bought pumpkin pie, stuffing, and green beans. They were unaware of the drama unfolding in the county courthouse that morning.

Jefferson County Magistrate Judge Vicki D’Angelo had ruled in favor of three landlords and ordered the tenants living in their homes — including Shaffer and Pascoe — to vacate by Dec. 3.

“To wait and do this in the wintertime, right before it gets cold …” Shaffer trailed off.

Statistically speaking, not much is known about evictions that are occurring outside the nation’s urban areas during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no national system that monitors the status of eviction cases in real-time. The largest set of publicly available data is gathered by Princeton’s Eviction Lab, which is tracking casesIn six states and 31 towns

Data from these urban areas shows mixed trends. According to the Eviction Laboratory, the number of cases in places without tenant protections is increasing.

But tenants’ lawyers in the country’s less populated regions say they’re also handling more cases now that the federal moratorium on evictions has expired.

States like West Virginia, South Dakota, Delaware and Arkansas have been slow to dole out rental assistance from the federal government — money that’s meant to be a levy holding back a flood of evictions.

According to data from the U.S. Department of the Treasury (data from Oct. 31, only 34% of the $45 Billion Congress sent to states or cities for rental assistance assistance was distributed in the United States).

Other pots have also been slow to spend, including $9 billionThe Department of Housing and Urban Development sent a message to states and cities in an effort to combat COVID-19 fallout.

“My frustration is widespread,” said Brent Thompson, executive director for East River Legal Services, which provides representation to low-income residents in eastern South Dakota. “It’s just sad when you see a continuing problem day in and day out, and there’s [only] so much you can do for them.”

Access to Information and Assistance in Eviction Cases

Thompson said the biggest hurdle he’s faced in South Dakota is lack of information for tenants, many of whom were living in poverty before COVID-19 swept through the state.

“We’ve developed a culture where people don’t tend to avail themselves of protections afforded to them,” Thompson said. “This isn’t a new problem. It’s a problem that’s being magnified by the pandemic and reaching a crisis point because of the pandemic.”

Thompson explained that when the federal moratorium on evictions was in place, South Dakota residents tended to move away when their landlords threatened to evict rather than fighting for their right to remain.

And many tenants either don’t know about the state’s $200 million rental assistance allocation from the federal government or haven’t been able to access those funds.

According to the, only 4% of this money had been distributed to landlords and tenants as of Oct. 31. data from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. A November report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition placed South Dakota and Wyoming last among states for the share of rental assistance they’d sent to tenants and landlords.

The South Dakota Housing Development Authority, which is administering the state’s rental assistance programs, has distributed aid to more than 5,200 households with money from the federal government, said Amanda Weisgram, spokesperson for the agency. 75% of all completed applications were approved by the state.

Weisgram noted the need for assistance isn’t as acute in South Dakota because the state’s businesses weren’t forced to close during the pandemic, and residents weren’t required to stay home.

But Thompson’s office saw a 30% jump in eviction cases for four months in a row earlier this year, and he said the need for attorneys is growing. This 33-county area covers 30,000 miles and only eight attorneys are available. His territory is home for a large number of undocumented migrant workers as well as Indigenous people, groups that were historically exploited by landlords.

South Dakota ranks lastAccording to the National Center for Access to Justice.

“We Don’t Know If They’ll Drink”

According to Dan Atkins (executive director of Community Legal Aid Society Inc.), Delaware landlords have been reluctant to sign up for rental aid programs.

Landlords have balked at providing financial records to the state government, and they haven’t wanted to give up their right to evict tenants in exchange for receiving rental payments.

“You can drag a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink,” Atkins said. “We’ll drag them to the water, but we don’t know if they’ll drink.”

Many of the lowest-income tenants in Delaware don’t know about the rental assistance available to them. They don’t have reliable access to the internet and some people aren’t able to read, Atkins said. All of this makes it difficult when the state asks for pages of documentation to prove financial hardship.

Plus, there’s a narrative in the low-income community that no one is going to help, he said.

Atkins stated that Delaware has over 80% landlords represented in eviction cases. However, less than 5% of tenants have attorneys on their side. There’s not enough legal aid to go around.

“We are starting to see the floodgates open a bit, and we are looking over our shoulder and wondering if it’s going to be a big tidal wave soon,” Atkins said.

As of Oct. 31, only 10% of Delaware’s $200 million allocation in rental assistance had been doled out to tenants and landlords, according to data from the Treasury Department.

Arkansas state officials lagging behindThe program was not successful in other states for the first seven month. However, they increased the pace of money distribution in October, according to Treasury Department data. Still, that’s only used up 22% of the state’s $174 million allocation.

“The public badly needs access to rental assistance funds,” said Kendall Lewellen, housing subject area manager for the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, adding that the state amended its policies to make it easier for tenants to access the aid. “I just hope that it isn’t too late for most people.”

As of Oct. 15, Lewellen’s office had handled twice as many landlord-tenant cases in 2021 as it did in the same time period in 2020.

Lewellen stated that Arkansas’s evictions can be considered extremely harsh. It’s the only state in the nation that charges tenants with a crime for failing to pay their rent and vacate their home.

Nearly 450 people were charged with that misdemeanor crime between March 2020 and November 2021 in Arkansas, according to data from the state’s court system. 133 of those were found guilty.

“Most places in Arkansas have stopped enforcing the law, but some places are still issuing arrest warrants for tenants who fall behind on their rent,” Lewellen said. “In more rural areas, the practice still happens.”

Country roads

In West Virginia, Shaffer was living with Pascoe in a neighborhood rife with rotting tires. The vines covered the house next to it.

As of Dec. 15, they hadn’t found a place they could afford to rent, and they were thinking they’d have to spend the night outside. They didn’t apply for rental assistance because the process would take weeks to complete, and Pascoe’s income as a handyman in the flooring business had dried up.

Johnny Herrell’s income, who was involved in tree-trimming in Charles Town, had also declined. Harrell claimed that his employer had died and that he was suddenly unemployed. Harrell said that he had never missed a rent payment before but couldn’t afford to pay $500 per month.

Alex Salgado was Herrell’s landlord. He bought the small house he was living in 18 months ago. Herrell was the one he had to expel.

“It’s a circle, right?” Salgado said. “I need to get money in so I can pay for the building.”

Herrell discovered, just days before Thanksgiving, that he would be expelled by Dec. 3rd, just like Pascoe or Shaffer. He didn’t want to move into his son’s home, which was already crowded. He could only think of a place to live in a camper van on a nearby campsite. It isn’t insulated. It was already below freezing at night.

At the last minute, Herrell’s relatives helped him rent an apartment in Maryland, so he wouldn’t have to sleep in the camper.

“It felt lousy,” Herrell said of his experience in the courtroom. “You work all your life, and you’re fine, and you bust your butt, and you keep going no matter what happens, and you know what? It was heartbreaking.”