How COVID-19 and a deportation almost unraveled a family

A federal rule designed to keep tenants in their homes during the pandemic expired in late July, meaning landlords finally had a way to legally evict tenants who hadn’t paid rent for months.

But the evictions never really stopped, even when the ban was in place. Some judges simply ignored the order, says Sarah Hassmer, who works on housing policy for the National Women’s Law Center.

“Many tenants do not have legal representation when they go to eviction court. And the deportation court is so quick, ”she said. “Meanwhile, landlords often have that representation, so there’s just a real power imbalance between landlords, judges and tenants. “

One of those tenants is Shuntera Brown, a single mother of three who was evicted from her apartment in Phoenix, Ariz. On July 26 – just days before the ban expired.

For the next 80 days, Brown, who worked in a warehouse, moved his children from Airbnbs to hotel rooms, trying to keep his family off the streets. The experience almost turned his life upside down.

But last week, in mid-October, she finally got a break: a rental agent handed her the keys to a new home.

“It’s been a trip,” Brown said as he received his keys. “The stress and the relief on my chest right now, it’s crazy.”

Shuntera Brown outside her new apartment in Phoenix. (Peter O’Dowd / Here and Now)

Brown leaves the rental office to pick up his children in the parking lot. She grabs a few bags from the trunk of her car and then leads them to the front door of their new apartment.

The apartment has carpeted floors, a walk-in closet and new appliances. It’s modest, but it’s home.

For Brown’s daughter Maliyah, 9, moving to a new place means she can finally go back to school and make new friends. Maliyah says the past few months have been difficult for her and her older twin brothers, 16-year-old Malaun and Mekhi.

The three children have been learning remotely since the start of the pandemic – and they’re fed up. They couldn’t go to a classroom because the family is moving around a lot.

Malaun says it hasn’t been the year of the family, but they’re making it through. He feels good in his new apartment and can’t wait to settle in with all his things.

“At least we’ve got something. At least we don’t need to be in a room, we have our own, ”he says. “So, I mean, I can’t complain. “

But who would blame him if he did? Malaun’s year was turned upside down by a diagnosis.
It all started when Brown and his children tested positive for COVID-19.

“From that point on, it was basically an ongoing struggle for me to keep up with the bills,” says Brown, “because I was actually sick out of work for over 20 days.”

She used her vacation days while she was ill and was not paid for a few days towards the end of her illness. Brown says she struggled to pay her rent from January through March, then her landlord sued her.

On July 20, Brown found out she had to leave by July 26. But the moratorium on evictions did not expire until the end of July.

“In fact, I begged the judge to give me until the end of [the moratorium], but he still signed the writ to get me out of there, “she said,” and threw it on my line of credit almost immediately. “

Rental companies told Brown they couldn’t rent an apartment to him because of his eviction, making the family homeless.

Brown’s debts were piling up before the pandemic, but once COVID-19 hit, it sent her into a “spiral,” she says.

Brown said she could have rented cheaper hotels for the family, but she needed to make sure her children were in a safe place while she worked 60 hours a week. She told her supervisors that she had to keep her phone with her on the floor because she felt nervous about their safety.

And she was also concerned about academics. Prior to distance learning, Maliyah was an A-level student.

“I basically ask them to be adults because when the kids are in school, an adult teaches them,” she says. “So they’re homeschooled in a hotel, with me at work?” Go on.”

Brown was able to get back on his feet with the help of others. After the eviction, she paid for hotel rooms with a GoFundMe campaign.

But to get into this new apartment, he needed more than that. She needed the government to pay her former landlord the $ 4,800 she still owed him in rent. Obtaining that money to clear his file was no easy task.

“Congress passed $ 46.5 billion in emergency rent assistance,” Hassmer of the Women’s National Law Center said, “but unfortunately states and communities lacked the infrastructure to really distribute these funds to tenants and landlords who need them quickly. “

Hassmer helped Brown navigate the system in Phoenix from his home office in Maryland.

Even before Brown’s eviction, the single mother made dozens of calls to the city to try and get help, Hassmer says. Hassmer also tried but couldn’t pass. She and Brown waited almost three months for the rent money.

Many cities across the country were unprepared for demand when Congress left it to local governments to distribute the money. A spokesperson for the city of Phoenix said it has helped nearly 5,500 families and provided about $ 42 million in rental relief. That’s 90% of the federal money the city has received since March.

It might have taken a while, but Brown finally got his check, which means his rent has been paid and the kids are out of the hotel. In this new empty apartment still full of potential, you can almost feel relief.

Brown can’t wait to have a bed instead so she can catch up on her sleep.

“I don’t know how I did it,” she said. “I can just say that there are a lot of inconsiderate people in this world when it comes to struggling people. Everyone thinks it’s this person’s fault that they are fighting.

In reality, single parents like Brown carry a tremendous weight on their shoulders.

“If I can’t do it, they don’t have it,” she said. “Period.”

Brown is proud to have a new home for her family, but says she often apologizes to her children.

“I felt like I should have been more established,” she says. “I know there is nothing I can do about it, but I want them to be established so that they don’t have to go through what I’m going through right now.”

The truth is, Brown still can’t rest. The rent for her new apartment is $ 1,500 per month. She is looking for a new job and the bills keep coming in.


Peter O’Dowd produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris Ballman. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

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