But the COVID-19 pandemic then swept the globe. Lockdowns around the United States hammered local economies, bringing a tidal wave of layoffs, budget cuts and reduced hours.
Smith wasn't immune to the economic fallout. Soon, her employer trimmed her work schedule down to just two days a week. The work reduction made her eligible for unemployment benefits, but the financial relief didn't come quickly. Like tens of thousands of North Texans, she fell behind on her rent.
Unaware of a federal moratorium on evictions, she and her family were booted from their apartment in September. With some luck, they found another rental in Oak Cliff. Meanwhile, she began to experience numbness in her fingers. “I dealt with it for a while, working and everything just to make sure I could still pay all my bills and do what I need to do,” she said.
But when the numbness started spreading elsewhere in her body, she couldn’t ignore it any more. She went to the doctor and learned that a tumor had appeared on her brainstem.
Fearing another eviction, she kept showing up at her job. But in December, the symptoms made it impossible to continue working. Her hands would curl up. Her arms and legs would go numb. Her doctors warned the symptoms put her at risk of crashing her car on her commute from Dallas to Lewisville. She asked her employer to transfer her to a closer location, but they refused.
Throughout the pandemic, the national eviction moratorium was extended four times, but it expired over the weekend. Landlords need their rent money, and in many parts of the country, they can once again threaten to kick out tenants who don't pay. Now, Smith and others like her stand to lose their homes.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden supported an additional extension. A day earlier, the president asked lawmakers to extend the moratorium, but a Supreme Court ruling in June concluded any further extensions would require new legislation.
“The president has not given up the option of legal action,” Psaki said. “He has asked his team … to look at every authority, every option we have to keep more people in their homes.”
Local attorney Mark Melton recently started Dallas Evictions 2020, a group of some 150 lawyers who offer tenants free legal advice. The group has prevented thousands of evictions, Melton said. Without this, he said, people would get evicted because they didn’t show up to court, or they’d show up, provide the wrong defense and still lose their home.
“If you have a lawyer with you, your likelihood of getting evicted is much lower because we know the rules,” Melton said.
Absent a pandemic, landlords can kick someone out for being short on rent, Melton explained. The notices usually warn tenants they have three days to leave the home, which often leads the tenants to leave voluntarily. If they try to challenge the notice, the case goes to court and a judge makes the call. When the ruling favors the landlord, a constable shows up a week later and hauls out the tenant's belongings.
But last September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a temporary halt to evictions until the pandemic subsided. Meanwhile, a city ordinance in Dallas, which Melton drafted, gave tenants more padding: They had 60 days to prove their income had been harmed by the pandemic and come up with more money.
To help people facing eviction, Congress allocated nearly $50 million to help people like Smith pay her rent. However, according to NPR, the funds went to states and counties, creating hundreds of programs to get the cash in people’s bank accounts. The process has moved slowly, and only a fraction of the money has been distributed.
"You send us through all this trouble and we still wind up at the end of the day with nothing.” – Ebony Smith, Dallas renter
For Smith, who said her landlord still wants her out, the setbacks have made the situation more difficult.
“Why can’t we get assistance?” she asked. “And then you give us the assistance, but you put it on hold where we can’t touch it, we can’t use it, so all these people are panicking. To me, it’s just like a little game. You send us through all this trouble and we still wind up at the end of the day with nothing.”
With help from Melton, Smith was able to get her eviction date postponed. She owes court fees, a month’s rent and late fees. Altogether, it comes out to a little more than $1,600. The money is due Aug. 13 and her landlord still wants her gone after it’s paid.
“I need help, man, and I don’t even know what to do. I try not to cry about it, but it’s so sad,” she said. She’s worried she and her family will end up on the street. Weeping, she said, “It’s so hot outside and I think about these little kids that’s got to experience this, you know? These babies, they don’t know.”
A new study by the nonprofit Surgo Ventures found that 16% of Dallas renters are behind on payments. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey, roughly 3.6 million people across the country said they faced eviction in the next two months.
Luckily, Smith had her tumor removed in May and is recovering quickly, but it still feels like a long shot to get back on her feet. Although she's able to work again, she's struggled to find an affordable babysitter for her children and has had trouble securing unemployment at times.
“You’re steadily trying to go to work. You’re steadily trying to do the right thing,” she said. “Then, you do the right thing and then you get pushed 10 steps back.”