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Tenants in Durham, NC, demand the city, county halt evictions

Stephanie Wilder pays $515 a month to live in Durham’s Lakewood neighborhood, she said. When her landlord filed an eviction notice for non-payment of rent in July, she said it put additional stress on her as she recovers from COVID-19.

“I’m still not up to my full strength and energy,” said Wilder, 56, who said she cannot work right now.

As renters and landlords see their incomes dwindle during the pandemic, renters and their advocates fear an unprecedented wave of evictions in Durham and across the state.

In Durham, the city and county are spending hundreds of thousands a year to divert evictions and help those who need it, but it is not enough, according to a group of Lakewood renters and others that has formed to help keep people in their homes.

There were 9,451 evictions filed in Durham County from April 1, 2019, to March 31, 2020, and 2,534 writs of possession served in the same year, according to DataWorks NC, a data-driven nonprofit focused on equity.

Durham County has the highest rate of eviction filings among the state’s 10 largest counties, said Peter Gilbert, a lawyer at Legal Aid for North Carolina.

A writ of possession lets the sheriff remove a tenant and their belongings from a property. To a tenant, it announces an imminent padlocking of their home.

Although a filing may not end in a writ of possession, the eviction process still displaces families and individuals.

“Many or even most families move, if they have any ability to do so, even if it is moving to the streets or a shelter, before the sheriff executes the padlock,” Gilbert told The News & Observer in an email. “Many even move before the court date, to avoid an eviction judgment on their record.”

In June, Gov. Roy Cooper’s state eviction moratorium ended, and the extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits ended in late July. On Monday, the 30-day eviction notice that was part of the federal eviction moratorium in the CARES Act expired.

Durham County’s eviction data shows the impact that has already had. Filings increased from just under 40 in June to 223 in July, according to DataWorks.

“The truth is that many, many families are many months behind,” Gilbert said of renters’ overdue bills.

The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project has reported that over 700,000 North Carolinians could be at risk of eviction by the end of September.

On Tuesday Cooper announced the state will provide $175 million to help North Carolina residents with rent and utility payments, according to a news release.

A $95 million affordable housing bond passed by Durham voters in November also includes $2.35 million for eviction diversion.

Local activists are calling for more.

Bull City Tenants United launched a campaign in Durham this week, demanding the city close courts, stop evictions, and help more people with rental assistance.

The group consists mostly of tenants in Lakewood, where residents have been organizing against evictions in their community and throughout Durham since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wilder, a member of the tenants group, said she only owed one month’s rent and had no arrears.

“To just throw me out into the street,” Wilder said. “It’s not a good thing. It’s not a good feeling.”

The N&O contacted Edgewood Properties, which owns Wilder’s apartment, for comment but had not received a response as of 4 p.m. Tuesday.

City and county fight evictions

Staff attorneys at Legal Aid of North Carolina answer several calls a day from tenants who face eviction proceedings in Durham.

As part of Durham’s Eviction Diversion program, they answer questions, give legal advice, represent renters in court, and connect families to rental assistance. If they can’t preserve a renter’s tenancy, they try to prevent them from receiving a final court judgment, which could mar their record for years.

Some tenants don’t qualify for Legal Aid’s services, often because they are undocumented or they make just over the financial cut-off, said Duke Law professor Jesse McCoy.

They are referred to Duke’s Civil Justice Clinic, where law professors and advanced-level students assist them instead, said McCoy, a supervising attorney at the clinic.

In the last four years, city and county governments in Durham have spent millions to counteract the swell of local eviction filings.

A year after the eviction diversion program launched as a pilot in 2017, the City Council spent $200,000 to provide it with two more lawyers and a paralegal.

In 2019, the council increased that to $500,000, and it budgeted the same amount again for this year. The extra money allows the program to run with seven to eight staff attorneys a week, Gilbert said.

The county funds tenant relief efforts, too. Durham county’s social services department partners with the eviction diversion program to connect tenants to rental assistance. The county has spent $270,000 so far this year to that end, he said.

On top of that, about $1 million from the city-allocated federal Community Development Block Grant fund will help tenants pay their rent and utility bills this year, he said.

Yet, local government dollars can only do so much.

With current funding, staff members can represent about 870 families a year, about 9% of last year’s eviction filings, Gilbert said.

“We are way under capacity, and we are doing the best we can to help as many people as possible,” he said.

They preserved tenancy in 69% of cases and avoided a final judgment against the tenant in 77% of the cases in 2019.

Now, cases are mounting.

Legal Aid’s attorneys opened 55 case files last week and 65 the week before.

The cases are a mix of households whose landlords already filed eviction notices and others months behind in rent but who haven’t received a notice yet. Much of the past two weeks’ worth of cases are the latter, recommended to the program through churches and nonprofits, Gilbert said.

He expects more families will call his office in the coming weeks.

“Even before COVID, we had an eviction crisis in Durham, and our resources both for attorneys to represent tenants facing eviction and for emergency rental relief are vastly inadequate to meet the need,” he said.

Wilder said she sought help through the eviction diversion program after she was out of work.

She said the program accepted her but that her landlord did not accept payment from the program for July’s rent.

Tenants demand action

Mo Vukelich, an organizer with Bull City Tenants, said the Lakewood community had set up a mutual aid fund at the onset of the pandemic, raising $5,000 and giving tenants $200 a piece to go toward their rent.

That money ran out, Vukelich said, so the community is now demanding action from the city of Durham.

“Tenants organized have a lot more power than tenants disorganized,” Vukelich said.

She said stopping the Sheriff’s Office from filing writs of possession also would help slow the spread of the coronavirus by requiring fewer people to physically go to court.

Cris Batista, another organizer, said evictions during a pandemic are a public health crisis.

“We are here because nobody’s safe until everybody is safe. If it wasn’t safe to be in court for last week and the weeks before, then it’s not safe to be evicted,” Batista said. “No one — students, families, anyone — no one should be out on the streets in this time.”

What can local government do?

McCoy said local government is limited in what it can do to prevent evictions.

“I don’t believe local governments can control evictions exclusively. Most rental agreements are private contracts, and the government is very leery to get involved in private contracts,” he said in an email to The N&O.

But one way local officials can help is to give incentives to developers to build more affordable housing.

“The city has become unaffordable for a lot of Durham residents,” McCoy said. “And without a commitment to the construction of safe, habitable, affordable homes, more and more Durhamites are going to be pushed into a housing market that they are unable to compete in for an already scarce resource.”

He said a right to legal counsel for all eviction cases, expanded funding to community land trust programs, and increasing the minimum wage could help reduce the number of evictions in Durham.

But evictions are an American issue, not a Durham issue, McKoy said.

“The country could help by deeming housing to be a right and not just a commodity,” he said.

Help us cover your community through The News & Observer’s partnership with Report For America. Contribute now to help fund reporting on housing affordability in the Triangle, and to support new reporters.

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Ben Sessoms covers housing and gentrification in the Triangle for the News & Observer through Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered issues. Before joining the News & Observer, Ben covered long-term hurricane recovery in eastern North Carolina for Carnegie-Knight News21 and education in Iredell County for the Statesville Record & Landmark. He is a 2019 alum of Appalachian State University.

Charlie Innis covers Durham government for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun through the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship. He has been a New York-based freelance writer, covering housing and technology for Kings County Politics, with additional reporting for the Brooklyn Eagle, The Billfold, Brooklyn Reporter and Greenpoint Gazette.

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