In January, Liz D’Agostino began falling behind in her $750 monthly rent payments for the one-bedroom apartment in Newport where she’s lived for five years.
With help from a social service agency, D’Agostino made partial payments for a while, but she couldn’t keep up.
In July, her out-of-state landlord slapped her with an eviction notice, claiming that she owed $3,990 in back rent. If her luck doesn’t change soon, she could find herself homeless by the end of the year.
The 47-year-old D’Agostino’s story is a sharp reminder of how precarious life can be for folks on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. She lived paycheck to paycheck, eking out a living doing maintenance and groundskeeping work.
Then she got sick.
At New London Hospital, tests revealed that D’Agostino needed major surgery to repair her aorta, the main artery that carries blood away from the heart to the rest of the body. She spent weeks recovering at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, where the surgery was performed in early 2019.
Her strength and energy sapped, she’s been unable to return to work. She’s lost 35 pounds, dropping her current weight to under 110.
“If I only had my life back to the way it was,” she told me. “I didn’t choose this.”
D’Agostino qualified for Social Security disability benefits, but she said a paperwork snafu still being sorted out has her receiving less than $200 a month.
With winter fast approaching and the coronavirus pandemic’s grip showing no sign of loosening, D’Agostino needs a roof over her head more than ever.
But as bleak as her situation appears, D’Agostino has a couple of things going for her.
Early on in the pandemic in March, Gov. Chris Sununu issued an executive order that temporarily prevented landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent. The order expired in June, but housing advocates argue that it still entitles tenants who have fallen behind in their rent during the pandemic additional time before eviction notices can be enforced.
This summer, the Legal Advice and Referral Center, a nonprofit law firm in Concord that provides free legal services to low-income residents, took D’Agostino’s case. Steve McGilvary, the paralegal helping her, told me D’Agostino’s story is all too common.
“Decent people get in a (financial) hole, essentially a victim of circumstances,” McGilvary said. “Before they know it, they’re struggling to avoid homelessness.”
In early July, D’Agostino found an eviction notice in her mailbox — the landlord wanted her out in seven days. Many tenants “assume this is a decision they must accept,” McGilvary said.
But in New Hampshire, a judge must sign off before a tenant can be removed for nonpayment of rent. (In their eviction notices, landlords often gloss over this important detail.)
On Aug. 11, with the governor’s eviction ban no longer in effect, Newport District Court Judge Bruce Cardello issued a “writ of possession” in D’Agostino’s case. A writ allows a landlord to bring in a sheriff to remove a tenant and their possessions.
D’Agostino had eight days to move out — unless she informed the court that she planned to appeal the judge’s ruling, which she did.
Before the appeal could wind its way through the court system, D’Agostino caught a break. On Sept. 4, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention imposed a national moratorium on evictions for nonpayment to “prevent the further spread of COVID-19.”
With McGilvary’s guidance, D’Agostino filed a court motion to halt her eviction under the federal order. But the threat of “eviction doesn’t go away,” McGilvary said. “We’ve only bought her time.”
The order expires on Dec. 31.
I first heard about D’Agostino’s plight from the nonprofit New Hampshire Legal Assistance, which, like the Legal Advice and Resource Center, assists low-income residents.
With the federal moratorium on evictions set to end in less than three months, “many tenants are looking at a very steep cliff to fall off,” said Elliott Berry, an attorney and co-director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance’s Housing Justice Project.
The feds — meaning Congress and the Trump administration — need to provide more relief to renters and landlords who are struggling during the pandemic, Berry said. (House Democrats have proposed spending up to $100 billion to help renters pay landlords.)
Jeffrey Young, who lives in Florida, owns the 10-unit building on Maple Street that D’Agostino has called home for five years, along with several other properties in town. I called Caroline Ackerman, the property manager who is handling D’Agostino’s eviction proceedings for Young.
I asked Ackerman why the landlord wants to evict a middle-aged woman with health problems during a pandemic. It doesn’t sound very humane.
“If you don’t pay your rent for (almost) a year, what do you expect?” Ackerman fired back.
“Landlords still have bills to pay, too,” she added. “They don’t get a free ride.”
I’d have more sympathy for D’Agostino’s landlord if he was providing low-income people with better housing. The town’s online property assessing records for the Maple Street apartment building point out that “all 10 units need work.”
When I stopped by last week, a first-floor window was broken. Two other windows were stuffed with insulation, presumably to block out the cold. In D’Agostino’s apartment, the wooden floors sagged and the well-worn kitchen had seen better days.
D’Agostino, who doesn’t have a car, told me that her social worker is trying to find her a subsidized apartment, but it’s “kind of difficult.”
What will she do if the eviction order is lifted on Dec. 31 and she still doesn’t have a new place?
“I don’t know,” she said. “I try not to think about it.”
Jim Kenyon can be reached at email@example.com.