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New Mexico evictions at 65% of normal rate, Supreme Court Justice says

New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Shannon Bacon speaks from Santa Fe at a virtual White House event Tuesday about eviction prevention during the pandemic. (White House screenshot)
Task force to propose legislation building on court’s eviction prevention program

Eviction filings in New Mexico have stayed at below-average rates despite the lifting of state and federal eviction bans imposed during the pandemic, New Mexico’s Chief Supreme Court Justice said during a virtual White House event Tuesday.

Justice Shannon Bacon, who became chief justice earlier this year, was one of several speakers chosen nationally to tout their state or city’s eviction-prevention programs. The White House organized the event to laud the Emergency Rental Assistance Program and provide an update on the $46 billion allocated to keep tenants housed and landlords paid amid the pandemic.

As of late May, more than $30 billion had been spent or obligated, according to the latest data.

Bacon spearheaded a program in New Mexico aimed to replace the state’s court-issued eviction ban. The program empowers judges to pause eviction proceedings if landlords and tenants agree to mediation and enlists a group of court navigators to help parties with emergency rental funds and court processes.

As of Aug. 1, the state had paid about $150 million to landlords and utility companies in more than 65,000 payments. The state received about $350 million from two congressional bills, though about 10% of that goes toward administering the fund.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the court stayed all evictions for non-payment in New Mexico, an effort to prevent mass evictions into crowded shelters amid a pandemic that destroyed the economy and killed thousands here. The Court intervened because the New Mexico Legislature was not in session at the time and did not convene a special session to tackle housing issues, she said.

“So the court needed to take action within the boundaries of the statutory scheme in New Mexico. This was critical because housing is a key determinant of health and, in my opinion, is a fundamental right,” Bacon said at the event Tuesday.

The stay prohibited judges from approving evictions for tenants being evicted for not paying rent, but it did not address court-ordered evictions for other reasons or evictions that happen illegally or out of court.

New Mexico kept its eviction ban in place longer than any state in the country. The Supreme Court initially planned to lift it in March of this year but, concerned about lack of awareness of the emergency rental fund in rural areas and court staff capacity, decided to lift the ban in phases across the state, beginning April 1.

In place of the eviction ban, Bacon unveiled the state’s Eviction Prevention and Diversion Program, which aimed to stave off evictions through mediation and help parties navigate the process with the help of court navigators.

The navigators have made more than 4,000 contacts with parties involved in eviction cases, Bacon said Tuesday.

The diversion program is voluntary, which Bacon said is a result of state law. Landlords must opt in.

But she said the program is working to keep tenants housed.

Data from the White House compiled for the summit show that evictions in New Mexico are down 35% of normal and that evictions in Bernalillo County are down 41% of normal. Matthew Desmond, creator of the Princeton Eviction Lab, cited similar local data in his presentation.

New Mexico courts in July, for example, typically see about 1,500 eviction filings, according to the Eviction Lab. In New Mexico this July, there were 1,086.

Experts previously offered other possible explanations for why New Mexico didn’t see a surge of evictions the moment the eviction ban was lifted here.

For one, landlords stymied in their efforts to evict for non-payment might have found another way over the last two years, said University of New Mexico law professor Serge Martinez told Source New Mexico in late March. Some landlords harassed or lied to their tenants to get them out of their properties without ever filing for an eviction in court. Data on those evictions are difficult to come by.

A New Mexico Legal Aid attorney previously told Source New Mexico that court-ordered evictions are the “exception rather than the rule.”

But Bacon said the below-average eviction rates are a national example of the courts and state agencies coming together to work out solutions. And she said the work isn’t over.

A task force is now working on legislative proposals for the upcoming 60-day session, she said. Previous attempts at slowing evictions or expanding tenant rights have died in the last two legislative sessions.

“We are really proud of this work, Bacon said. “But it’s just the start.”

Read more about New Mexico news at SourceNM.com.