By Ed Williams
Every afternoon, 23-year old Audrey sits on the couch in the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her mom and her sister, waiting for the creak of footsteps in the hall and the sound of an eviction notice being tacked to their door. More than two months ago, she and her family packed most of their belongings into boxes, which still sit in a haphazard, chin-high stack near the entryway.
“We have to be able to get our stuff into storage quick, so we can find a motel to sleep in,” she said, thumbing through a three-ring binder stuffed with late rent notices, eviction warnings and court documents.
“The landlord’s only going to give us three days’ notice to leave. We don’t really have a plan for what comes next.”
Since early last year, the family, who asked to be identified by their middle names, has been living in this small unit in a brick complex near Gallup’s historic Route 66. Frigid air wafts and bugs crawl through meandering cracks in the walls, doors and window sills. A steady percussive drip rings out from a leaking water line under the sink. On cold nights, unhoused people sometimes force open the building’s outside doors and sleep in the stairwells and hallways.
But at $600 a month, it is a rare find in their price range. And it is also a potentially life-saving refuge from COVID-19, which swept through Gallup and the neighboring Navajo Nation with such force last spring that the governor called in the National Guard to barricade the highway in and out of town and assist with the state’s most stringent lockdown.
“Almost everyone who gets served an eviction notice just leaves on their own, because they know if they show up in court without an attorney they’ll probably lose.”
Jean Philips, New Mexico Legal Aid
Over the past year, Gallup’s high poverty rate and chronic shortage of safe, affordable rentals have helped fuel one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. Even with federal and state protections intended to ease housing instability during the pandemic, many landlords in the community have continued to evict tenants who can’t pay rent. Several — including Audrey’s — even stepped up their eviction filings, sometimes drastically so.
Those familiar with Gallup’s housing crisis are quick to point out that COVID-19 is not the cause; it was gas poured onto an already burning fire. Tenants who were hard-pressed to make rent before the pandemic have been disproportionately laid off from work. Overcrowding, a longstanding problem in Gallup’s low-rent housing, has only gotten more severe as extended families take in relatives who have been evicted, accelerating the spread of the coronavirus among the area’s most vulnerable.
“There was already an eviction pandemic before the COVID pandemic started,” said Jean Philips, an attorney with New Mexico Legal Aid who represents low-income renters like Audrey.
Evictions have been commonplace throughout New Mexico. An analysis of data by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty estimates that by the time the federal moratorium on evictions lifts on June 30, up to 105,000 renters could face eviction statewide. But that has a particularly painful context in Gallup and McKinley County, where 80 percent of the population is Native yet a disproportionate share of real estate, including rental units, is owned by white and Hispanic residents. “They call it the Indian capital of the world, but most of us can’t manage to actually live here,” said Christopher Hudson, a coordinator with the McKinley Community Health Alliance.
As the first cases of COVID-19 landed in the U.S. in early 2020, Audrey and her family watched the headlines from their temporary home in the El Capitan, one of a string of motels on Route 66 decked with neon lights and marquees advertising cheap weekly rates aimed at locals with nowhere else to stay. They had just returned to Gallup from a years-long, cross-country search for Audrey’s sister, one of the thousands of Indigenous women and girls reported missing each year.
“I knew how this thing was going to play out,” Audrey’s mother recalled. “I knew it was going to be bad. We had to find somewhere to ride it out.”
With the pandemic closing in around them, they scoured the classifieds and Craigslist for apartment listings. The family was on a tight budget, and Gallup is short more than 2,000 affordable rentals, compared with demand.
Making matters worse, federally subsidized housing, which must meet strict livability requirements, makes up a small fraction of affordable rentals in Gallup. Roughly one-third of renters in town survive on an income of less than $15,000 a year, and wait lists for subsidized rentals can run up to 18 months. Attorneys and housing advocates say this lack of safe, affordable rentals has pushed people into “unprotected affordable housing” — low-cost units where tenants are subject to the whims of landlords.
In February, Audrey learned of an opening at a small complex just a stone’s throw away from the historic district, a string of western-themed hotels, restaurants and tourist shops selling Navajo wares. She knew the place well. The family had rented from the same property management company years ago, in another complex across the street.
“Things were pretty bad there with gangs and drugs before,” Audrey said.
But the place was decent enough now — the graffiti had been scrubbed from the walls, and utilities were included. Most importantly, it was affordable. They signed a lease as quickly as they could.
Shortly after, infection rates in Gallup and the surrounding Navajo Nation exploded, overwhelming hospitals and upending the local economy.
As the coronavirus swept through Audrey’s complex, her family set out to seal off their apartment. With the sound of coughs coming through the walls, they covered every crack with duct tape and plastic sheeting, even building a plastic-boxed portal in the entryway to block air from the hallway when the door was open. Her mother, who is in her mid-fifties and advocates for missing and murdered Indigenous women, stayed locked inside for six full weeks. When Audrey and her sister had to venture out, they would don makeshift plastic face masks fashioned from clear one-gallon water bottles, shuffle quickly through the hall, and dash out the side door.
Over the course of the outbreak, they watched as tenant after tenant moved in only to leave a short time later. “Pretty much the whole building has turned over” since they moved in last February, Audrey’s sister Stephanie said, counting the families no longer there on her fingers. “Four in the last three months.”
They managed to avoid catching the virus, but not the collateral damage the pandemic wrought. In March 2020, Audrey was laid off from her job as a victim advocate at the local domestic-violence shelter — a job she relied on to support her family. When rent came due the next month, she was $200 short.
A few days later, she woke to find an eviction warning taped to the door. That same day, her landlord, a local attorney named David Jordan, filed eviction cases against two of Audrey’s neighbors.
Jordan did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Court records show that since January 2020, Jordan’s property-management company has been one of Gallup’s most prolific filers of eviction cases, submitting 13 claims against his tenants, nearly all of them for nonpayment of rent. Another property-management company, Century 21 Action Realty of Gallup, filed 17 cases since 2020, the majority of them in early 2021, in the midst of the city’s devastating second wave of COVID-19.
Audrey and her family describe a pattern of dangerous negligence in Jordan’s building. In November 2020, as COVID-19 cases surged in Gallup, a defective burner on their stove erupted in flames, nearly setting fire to their apartment, which was missing legally required smoke alarms. Jordan did not replace the appliance for more than two months, according to court filings. Several months later, he cut off the apartment’s electricity for two days, leaving them without heat in freezing temperatures.
After they pushed back, he filed a second eviction notice.
“This is why we need to have a strong set of policies to protect renters, and also to educate people about their housing rights,” said Christopher Hudson of the McKinley Community Health Alliance. His organization has spent the pandemic trying to get resources to the people most at risk of eviction. But, he said, “By the time we hear about it, they’re usually already gone.”
During the 2020 legislative session, House Democrats introduced a bill to dramatically strengthen renters’ rights. The bill included provisions to protect renters from landlord retaliation and force landlords to renew leases during public-health emergencies — a major loophole in the moratorium that housing advocates say has led to thousands of de facto evictions.
The bill was opposed by a majority of Republicans, as well as real estate industry groups. It never made it to the floor.
In the absence of legislation, the New Mexico Supreme Court in March of 2020 provided temporary relief for renters who faced eviction because of the loss of income from COVID-19. While that order has saved many residents from eviction, it requires renters to prove their hardship in virtual court hearings. That’s been particularly difficult for residents of Gallup, where many lack internet access.
The local housing authority has opposed expanding subsidized housing as a long-term solution.
Gallup Housing Authority President Richard Kontz frequently publishes adverts and columns in the local paper imploring low-income renters to make better decisions. He told public health researchers that adding more affordable housing could hurt the city’s image by making it a hub for “poor people” seeking low-cost rentals.
“Unfortunately, many residents of Public Housing have no real desire to ‘move up the ladder.’ In fact, many want to stay poor so they can get minimum rent of $50.00 a month,” Kontz wrote in one of many published announcements. “Just because you were born into poverty doesn’t mean you have to live there the rest of your life. … The choice is yours.”
Kontz did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.
Today, Audrey and her family remain in their one-bedroom apartment in Gallup, boxes still packed and waiting, despite the two eviction cases filed against them. They stay only because they were able to file a counterclaim asserting their rights under the moratorium. Since then, they’ve been able to make rent thanks in part to their federal stimulus checks.
Last month Audrey brought home her sister’s newborn baby, who had spent weeks in the NICU after a complicated birth. Days later, a maintenance worker took their stove away yet again — leaving the family unable to boil water for the baby’s formula or cook for themselves.
“We have absolutely nothing,” she said after losing the stove a second time. “I’m a little bit in shock because things just keep getting worse.”
“We’re not going anywhere,” her mother said. “We know our rights.”
Their situation is unusual. Most people facing eviction do not fight so tenaciously to stay housed — a daunting, often drawn-out court process with no guarantee of success.
“Almost everyone who gets served an eviction notice just leaves on their own, because they know if they show up in court without an attorney they’ll probably lose,” said Jean Philips, the New Mexico Legal Aid lawyer.
Philips says she often sees renters “self-evict” only to move into uninsulated Tuff Sheds, a type of storage shed that sells for under $3,000 at the local Home Depot. The sheds, which are scattered across tribal and private land on the outskirts of Gallup, have no plumbing or electricity. Still, those who live in them don’t have to pay rent or worry about being evicted.
But the next time Audrey and her family come up short on rent money, they might not have the same luck. The federal moratorium that kept a roof over their head during the pandemic expires on June 30.
Ed Williams is a Staff Writer with Searchlight New Mexico, is a non-partisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.
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