Report: One in seven North Carolinians behind on their rent with eviction moratorium set to expire

Image: The Pew Charitable Trusts — Source: National Equity Atlas, PolicyLink, USC Equity Research Institute

A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts news outlet Stateline offers more sobering findings on the national rental housing situation. According to data compiled in the National Equity Atlas, a data and policy tool maintained by the University of Southern California and the research firm Policy Link, the number of U.S. renters behind on payments has doubled from 2017 to 2021.

In North Carolina, from May 24 to June 7, the percentage of renters behind on their payments stayed at 14% — a strong indication that rental assistance is not reaching the hands of struggling North Carolinians fast enough with the end of the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) eviction ban set for July 31. The report found a total nationwide rent debt of upwards of $20 billion and more than 5.8 million renters behind on their payments as of June 7.

While the CARES Act and two other emergency rental assistance packages enacted by the federal government have directed billions of dollars to individual states in hopes of getting rental and utility assistance into the hands of Americans in need, the distribution process has not been going smoothly in many places — chiefly because state and local agencies were not adequately prepared to deal with the distribution of such large sums in such short order. As a result, the timing for approval of an application for rental assistance can take anywhere from hours to months, depending on where you are located and what organization is helping you.

Since September 2020, the CDC eviction ban has served as a safety net preventing evictions for these renters. The ban has been extended multiple times, but with final expiration now just days away, many advocates and experts foresee a tidal wave of evictions and other negative consequences throughout the country. These fears would appear to be well-founded. When North Carolina didn’t have an eviction ban in place for the 11 weeks prior to the advent of the CDC’s order, the state saw in excess of 15,000 COVID-19 cases and 300 COVID-19 deaths related to evictions according to a study published by the Social Science Research Network. When the current eviction ban expires on July 31 this influx of cases and deaths could happen again.

Despite the recent sobering data, it’s important to note that the current rental housing affordability crisis predates the pandemic. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in March of 2020, (i.e., pre-COVID) only 36 affordable and available rental homes existed for every 100 extremely low-income renters in need. But, of course, the pandemic made things significantly worse. Almost seven in 10 Americans who are behind on their rental payments lost employment at one point during the pandemic according to the research done by the National Equity Atlas.

While the current bleak situation is forcing families to make tough choices between paying the rent, putting food on the table, and paying the electric bill, there are policy options that would go a long way toward protecting renters from short-term and long-term harm. Here are two:

  1. Evictions in North Carolina should be paused while every effort is made to make sure landlords and tenants access the hundreds of millions of dollars of rental assistance that remain available in the HOPE (Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Evictions) program to resolve non-payment of rent eviction cases.
  2. The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should act to seal the eviction records and rental debt of those hardest hit by this pandemic. Doing this would make that information private and help prevent tenants who have struggled during the pandemic to pay rent  from being rejected for future housing applications based upon pandemic related financial hardships.

Raquel Harati is a Housing and Health Policy Intern at the N.C. Justice Center.

Once planned for North Carolina, Active Energy’s wood pellet experiment in Maine hits a snag

Source: Active Energy investor chat webinar

Active Energy, the company behind a controversial wood pellet plant in Lumberton, has produced only a fraction of the amount it promised to deliver from a quickly assembled operation in Maine.

Because of delays in North Carolina, Active Energy in early June began a trial run of of CoalSwitch pellets in Ashland. The company was on a contractual deadline to deliver 900 to 1,000 tons of pellets to PacifiCorp, which plans to burn them at its Hunter Power plant in Utah, according to company correspondence with investors.

So far that’s not gone well. Eric Kennedy, director of licensing and compliance with Maine’s Bureau of Air Quality, said that during the trial period the company has produced only about eight tons of pellets that it had promised to PacifiCorp.

In response to questions from Policy Watch, an Active Energy spokesman said via email that “Active Energy Group will not be making any comments at this time.”

Nonetheless, in a video message to investors in June, Active Energy CEO Michael Rowan said the company had made the “first deliveries” of CoalSwitch pellets to PacificCorp, but did not specify amounts.

In Maine, the CoalSwitch technology had been added to a recently permitted log extruding plant owned by Player Design. The company, which is also Active Energy’s engineering consultant in North Carolina, manufacturers fireplace logs. The facility is smaller than the one under construction in Lumberton, according to a description of the project provided to Maine environmental regulators.

Environmental regulators in Maine had originally scheduled the temporary air permit to expire on July 31. The company has requested an extension of the trial period through Sept. 29, which the Maine Bureau of Air Quality has granted, Kennedy said.

Active Energy CEO Michael Rowan told investors in a letter on May 20 that the company hopes the Maine facility will be a second CoalSwitch plant, and eventually receive approval to produce up to 35,000 tons of pellets per year.

The company has heralded CoalSwitch wood pellets as a game changer for utilities. The patented technology creates a pellet that can burned alongside coal or as a standalone fuel in traditional power plants with no loss of heat. Utilities that use CoalSwitch pellets wouldn’t have to spend millions of dollars to retrofit their facilities. And because the manufacturing process uses steam to explode the pellets to remove some contaminants, they burn cleaner than coal.

However, the pellet production process itself can emit tons carbon monoxide, particulate matter and hazardous air pollutants. Kennedy said Maine regulators don’t yet have emissions data from the trial period, but expect to after it concludes. This data could be instructive for the NC Department of Environmental Quality, which has questioned the accuracy of the company’s most recent emissions estimates.

Source: Active Energy Group investor webinar

DEQ granted Active Energy an air permit last year, over strenuous public objections and concerns about public health and the environment. Shortly afterward, the company began tinkering with the technology, ostensibly to reduce potential emissions. Instead, the changes appear to increase them. DEQ issued a Notice of Violation to Active Energy on May 5  for construction new equipment and changing the process design without state approval.

When Active Energy announced in May that it would manufacture wood pellets in Maine, conservative lawmakers were quoted in the Carolina Journal blaming, without evidence, the NC Department of Environmental Quality for the company’s decision. Active Energy still owns the Lumberton plant, but has not produced pellets there.

Division of Air Quality spokeswoman Zaynab Nasif said in May that the company’s amended application, filed in late April, “appears to indicate an increase in potential emissions due to these control and process modifications. The department has also found inconsistencies in the emissions estimates.”

The most significant upticks are for carbon monoxide, the emissions of which are projected to increase 104%, from 7.9 tons per year to just over 16 tons. Particulate matter — essentially fine dust — would increase dramatically from 0.1 tons per year to 26.7 tons, according to the permit applications. Hazardous air pollutants, classified by the EPA as those that can cause cancer and other serious health problems, also increased: 6,263 pounds a year, up from 4,963 pounds.

The Division of Air Quality asked Active Energy for more information. However, Nasif told Policy Watch today that the department has not received any updates since May 21, including any information regarding testing in Maine.

Active Energy was running a sawmill at the Lumberton facility, but that operation is also in doubt. “We’ve ceased saw log exports from Lumberton because it doesn’t fit our ethos with what we’re trying to achieve,” Rowan said in the investor presentation. “We’ve kept the sawmill under review. We have produced the feedstock for future activities.”

The company had been awarded a $500,000 grant from the Department of Commerce to upfit the old Alamac Knits factory in Lumberton. The grant was contingent on meeting job creation benchmarks of 40 to 50 full-time positions. As of March, the Commerce Department had yet to deliver the funds to Robeson County, the pass-through agency, because the paperwork had not yet been completed.

U.S. Senate Democrats push voting rights bills, lambast Georgia election law

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar called Georgia ground zero for restrictive voting laws during a Monday voting law hearing in Atlanta. (Photo: Stanley Dunlap)

If the rules in Georgia’s controversial 2021 voting overhaul were in place before last November’s historic U.S. Senate races were pushed to Jan. 5 runoffs, then 76,000 residents who cast their ballots would’ve been unable to register in time for the second round.

A U.S. Senate committee gathered in downtown Atlanta Monday to hear how shortened runoff timeframes, tighter absentee ballot deadlines, and new state powers over local election officials are cause for Congress to expand voting protections through pending federal legislation.

The chair of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, said it’s not a coincidence that the sweeping Republican legislation requires runoffs to be held 28 days after an election when state law mandates that voters are registered at least 29 days before the Election Day.

On Jan. 5, Georgia voters handed Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock a pair of historic victories over Republican incumbent, giving Democrats control of the federal government.

Georgia is now ground zero in the battle over access to the ballot box for Democrats and civil rights activists who say they’re fighting against voter suppression tactics that will disproportionately affect Black and other minority voters.

“It is no coincidence that this assault on the freedom to vote is happening just after the 2020 election, when nearly 160 million Americans cast a ballot — more than ever before in the middle of a pandemic, in an election the Trump Department of Homeland Security declared the most secure in history,” Klobuchar said during the first field hearing hosted by the committee in 20 years.

Republican-controlled legislatures across the country this year are passing restrictive new voting laws, prompting Democratic U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to double his enforcement staff to protect voting rights.

“This year alone, as I noted, hundreds of hundreds of bills have been introduced,” Klobuchar said. “That is why we are here.”

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), speaks during Monday’s hearing. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

The hearing at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights was held two days after the first anniversary of the death of the civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the namesake for a voting law  stalled in the Senate that would restore a pre-clearance formula set by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Senate panel and witnesses that included Warnock, Ossoff, state legislators and others also called for the Senate to move forward with the “For the People Act.”

The path for passing federal voting rights legislation is steep, as the 50 Senate Republicans are showing solidarity against both bills. Without GOP support, the bills will need to reach the unlikely 60-vote threshold required to end a filibuster and advance to the desk of President Joe Biden for his signature.

Warnock said his top priority this year is for federal intervention after lawmakers in 48 states introduced nearly 400 bills restricting voting laws.

“We have no time to spare; there’s nothing more important for us to do in Congress,” he said.

Republican supporters of Georgia’s election overhaul argue that the legislation improves the security of the absentee voting system. Some Georgians would get more voting options, including a mandated extra weekend voting day and more public notice on polling location changes.

Witnesses testified Monday that allowing fewer days to receive and return absentee ballots, limiting the number of drop boxes and requiring ID to receive an absentee  ballot will result in longer lines in places where most voters are Black. Read more

Report: Black patients get more bed sores and infections than white patients at the same hospital

Image: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Black patients are more likely to suffer hospital injuries such as bed sores and post-surgery health problems than are white patients treated at the same hospital.

An Urban Institute report released Tuesday on disproportionate rates of injury among Black patients is based on discharge records from hospitals in 26 states including North Carolina. The Urban Institute is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC.

The study looked at differences in seven surgery-related complications and four general safety measures. Black patients fared worse for four of the seven surgery-related complications and two of the four general indicators.

“Even when admitted to the same hospital, Black patients experience higher rates of hospital acquired injuries or illnesses occurring during or shortly after surgical procedures relative to white patients,” the report says.

Compared to white patients, Black patients had statistically significant higher rates of respiratory failure after surgery, sepsis, dangerous blood clots in leg veins or lung arteries, and bleeding. Black patients were 18% more likely to go into respiratory failure after surgery and 27% more likely to develop sepsis than white patients treated at the same hospitals.

Black patients were more likely to get bed sores and blood-stream infections related to catheters that reach close to or go inside the heart.

The analysis is based on 2017 data and does not include information from some big states, including Texas, New York, or California.

Racism is at the root of these disparities, said Anuj Gangopadhyaya, the report’s author.

“There’s no way that it’s not,” he said. “The question is, who is the actor? This is a symptom not of one or a handful of actors. It’s a system of racism executed across institutions, across providers, and across payers.”

Other researchers have found that Black children are more likely than white children to die after major surgery. Black patients are more likely to have surgery at hospitals that have higher mortality rates and are located in segregated areas.

The latest Urban Institute report found disparities in how Black and white patients fared when they used the same type of insurance. And hospitals’ overall patient demographics didn’t matter. Black patients had higher rates of surgery-related health problems in hospitals that treated larger shares of Black patients, hospitals that treated smaller shares of Black patients, and in hospitals that had higher proportions of patients with private insurance.

Insurers could play a part in reducing racial disparities, Gangopadhyaya said in an interview.

The federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has a pay-for-performance program that links Medicare payments to hospital quality. It reduces payments to hospitals with low performance based in part on how often their patients get infections.

Gangopadhyaya said insurers could develop policies that more directly address racial inequities.

Some data on patient outcomes at specific hospitals is publicly available, but information comparing outcomes for patients of different races isn’t easy to find, Gangopadhyaya said.

“If I’m a Black patient, what are the measures for Black patients?” he said. “It’s hard to determine where quality of care is good for patients that look like you or are insured like you.”

‘Our democracy is in peril’: Women risk arrest at D.C. Moral Monday protest

Photo: Ariana Figueroa

WASHINGTON—Diane Howard of Cleveland traveled to the nation’s capital with hundreds of other women to urge Congress to pass an elections overhaul and undo new state laws that restrict voting access.

A community activist for half a century, Howard said that this is not the first time she’s seen voting rights under attack. “What we did in the ‘60s is we kept protesting,” the Ohio woman said. “A lot of voter rights were restricted in the ‘60s.”

At 71, she was the oldest woman participating in the Poor People’s Campaign protest, titled “A Season of Nonviolent Moral Direct Action,” in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.

U.S. Capitol Police officers arrested about 100 of the women—although not Howard—for civil disobedience at the march, including Poor People’s Campaign state leaders from North Carolina, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and Maine.

The protest followed the recent arrest of Rep. Joyce Beatty, (D-Ohio), the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, who was taken into custody by Capitol Police Thursday. Beatty led a march to the Senate Hart Office Building atrium to speak out against the assault on voting rights. “Be assured that this is just the beginning,” she said in a statement.

For the Poor People’s Campaign, this was the first event in a weeks-long push calling on Congress to end the Senate filibuster, pass voting rights legislation, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and pass an elections and voting rights expansion package called the “For The People Act.”

On the steps of the court, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, called on Congress to move on voting rights, warning that “our democracy is in peril.” Protestors taking part in the Women’s Moral March included women leaders representing 42 states.

“In this time, when our voting rights are under attack, and economic justice is being denied, we must, and so we are, calling out the immoral obstructionism of Congress,” said Theoharis, who was also arrested Monday.

The march was part of a nationwide attempt by  Democratic lawmakers, social justice organizations and activists to protect voting rights as Republicans in state legislatures move to introduce and pass restrictive voting laws in response to the 2020 presidential election won by President Joe Biden.

Maureen Taylor, state chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, said she has seen Republican state representatives in her state introduce dozens of restrictive voting laws.

“The right to vote is sacred,” she said.

Michigan lawmakers introduced a sweeping package of 39 bills in March that would restrict the use of early voting drop boxes and require voters to cast ballots with a provisional ballot if they do not have a photo ID with them at their polling place.

“There’s a level of fear that every American needs to possess at this moment,” Taylor said. Read more