Advocates concerned how city may handle impending increase in homelessness

The line of landlords filing eviction notices was “out the door” Monday at the Cabell County Courthouse in Huntington as state courts reopened for in-person operations, a magistrate clerk told local advocates for tenants and people experiencing homelessness.

The clerk said some individual landlords filed more than a dozen eviction notices, and another official said 42 notices were filed Monday alone, raising questions regarding how city officials may respond to an impending increase in residents who have no safe place to stay amid an ongoing global pandemic.

Local advocate for tenants and people experiencing homelessness Aaron Llewellyn said he has spoken on behalf of the Huntington Tenants Union to members of the Huntington City Council about the issue. He said one councilman told him he would speak to the mayor and city communications director about potential ways to help residents facing evictions, “but they never got back to [him] about it.”

“This is going to have very real consequences for our community, and the city has been completely silent about it,” Llewellyn said.

Llewellyn said the Huntington community is particularly vulnerable to a significant increase in homelessness as a result of the pandemic.

“Close to half of the population are renters, and think about how many of those people have very low income or live under unstable circumstances,” he said. “There could be hundreds of people evicted.”

Llewellyn said the On the Streets Committee sent a letter to the city, the county commission and service providers last month proposing various potential solutions for the city’s homeless population throughout the pandemic.

He said that while it may not be possible for the city to directly halt evictions, measures that could be implemented include: declaring a state of emergency, signing contracts with hotels to provide rooms for those experiencing homelessness, utilizing publicly-owned homes and properties owned by the Huntington Urban Renewal Authority to provide relief, implementing a fee for evictions filed within city limits and suspending rent payments and forgiving back rent, which potentially could be funded through the $1.6 million in grants received by the city for its COVID-19 response efforts.

“Measures like these have already been implemented in other states and cities,” Llewellyn said. “Sure, maybe some people can’t pay rent right now and their landlords want them out, and that’s the rule of law, but let’s figure out a humane option to safeguard the people suffering. Some places prioritized providing FEMA funding for hotels as soon as the pandemic broke out.”

Llewellyn said the city also is not conducting residential unit inspections, which are meant to ensure that properties meet proper health and safety standards.

“They’ve cancelled on me twice now to have a tenants union member’s unit inspected so that he can move out without being penalized,” he said. “So, while the county is happily pursuing the interests of landlords, the city is skirting their responsibilities to residents.”

Llewellyn also suggested the possibility of implementing a right-to-counsel program for tenants facing eviction. Similar programs have been implemented in cities across the country even prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Per Housing Matters, New York City’s right-to-counsel programs provide tenants access to “a range of free legal services to help them understand the details of the case, have an advocate in court, address errors in a landlord’s case and assert their rights as tenants.”

Groups such as Our Future West Virginia also have been pushing for Gov. Jim Justice to act to protect vulnerable populations, which Llewellyn said would be more effective than similar efforts at the municipal level.

“Maybe the city can do some things, but it would be better to have more systemic protections across the board,” he said. “A lot of the reaction from emergency services and social services so far has just been to find the cheapest possible solution.”

Llewellyn said that while it is unclear exactly how far the city’s power to prevent evictions extends, it is clear that more needs to be done to protect those facing evictions and already experiencing homelessness, at least throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The mayor should be on the news telling landlords that now is not the time to be coming after people’s money,” he said.

While Mayor Steve Williams has not yet appeared on television to demand a halt to evictions, City Communications Director Bryan Chambers said the mayor made a similar plea in March asking landlords to “look into their hearts” during a video released through the city’s social media platforms.

In the referenced video, titled “Mayor Williams Daily Briefing for March 27” on the city’s YouTube channel, Mayor Williams says: “To those of you who own property and are renting property and are landlords, this can’t be an order [because] I don’t have the authority to do it. Please, don’t start evicting people because they’re late on their rent or even a few months late. I understand you’re running a business, and all our businesses are just being pulled tighter and tighter. My biggest concern is we do have some homeless in town, and we’re trying to make sure we have proper shelter. When we’re asking someone to shelter in place, they need a place to shelter in, and when they haven’t paid for their rent, and then they get kicked out of where they’re living, then we are adding to the problem. Please, I’m not even thinking of telling you you have to, I’m just asking you to give this some thought and some consideration.”

Chambers said the Huntington City Mission, the Huntington Coalition for the Homeless, the City of Huntington and the Cabell-Huntington Health Department have been working together for the past two months to expand available options for congregate housing in the city.

“The space that the City Mission has is somewhat limited in terms of social distancing possibilities,” Chambers said. “When you overlay social distancing guidelines over their existing property, the determination was made that there needed to be additional congregate shelter, so that has been established.”

Chambers said the city also has established additional non-congregate shelter particularly for individuals who have no place to live or to shelter and who have been tested for COVID-19 and are awaiting results.

Chambers said he cannot speak to whether currently available services will be overwhelmed by a potential increase in homelessness resulting from the flood of evictions set to occur as the COVID-19 pandemic takes its financial toll on local residents and families.

“I don’t know how many eviction notices are being filed in Magistrate Court. I don’t know what an average number is. I don’t know how many additional evictions are being filed compared to an average month. I just don’t have that information,” Chambers said. “Certainly this has been a concern throughout this pandemic as to people being evicted because of the economic toll this is taking on many people, and that’s why the mayor made a plea to landlords very early on to consider not evicting people during this period.”

Officials at Harmony House, the city’s primary service provider for people experiencing homelessness, did not respond to requests for comments.

Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected].