Durham evictions: ‘We need to declare a housing crisis’

More than 5,000 evictions were granted against Durham County households last fiscal year. Twice that number of eviction notices were filed.

According to a report, Durham County also had one eviction filing per 28 people in the prior fiscal year (2015-16), the highest rate of the 10 largest North Carolina counties.

Guilford County was second. Wake County was seventh, with one filing per 38 people that year. Not every granted eviction results in people losing their homes, but there are enough evictions that local leaders are looking for ways to help.

A pilot program is trying to prevent so many Durham residents from evictions by helping them even before they have to go to court.

Durham’s Eviction Diversion Program is a partnership between the Civil Justice Clinic at Duke Law and Legal Aid of North Carolina, with Durham County Department of Social Services referring tenants.

Duke law professor Charles Holton, director of the Civil Justice Clinic, says the main goal is to avoid eviction judgments, and longer range, to reduce eviction filings.

Washington, D.C.-based Governing, which covers local and state government, reports that rents are rising but incomes are not, and that the U.S. is on the verge of a new eviction crisis for renters.

“We’re trying to put out the fires,” Holton told members of the Durham City Council and Durham County Board of Commissioners recently.

Peter Gilbert of Legal Aid of North Carolina said a flier about the dversion program is sent with every evictions filing, summons and complaint. DSS refers 40 to 50 people a month to Legal Aid, he said.

Many tenants who get eviction filing notices think they have 30 days to fix it, but they can be in court and out of their homes sooner than that, Gilbert said.

The diversion program attorneys help tenants understand issues beyond not paying rent, like housing discrimination, substandard housing conditions, illegal fees or late fees, and retaliation. Then attorneys negotiatve with landlords by matching tenants with charitable assistance to resolve the eviction or negotiate a move out date. The attorneys will go to court if necessary.

Right now, just three attorneys are taking the eviction-diversion cases, so the program can’t expand. It needs more emergency rent assistance funding, Gilbert said, and a community coordinator to handle existing rent assistance requests.

Gilbert asked the elected leaders to make preventing evictions part of their affordable-housing strategy.

“If we’re concerned about gentrification and affordable housing, it’s cheaper and better policy to keep people in place rather than rehouse them after evictions,” he said. “Rents go up; that’s when gentrification happens.”

According to an Apartment List renter survey, the Durham-Chapel Hill statistical area’s eviction rate is 4.1 percent, compared to a 3 percent eviction rate in Raleigh. Memphis tops the list of 10 metro areas nationwide with the highest eviction rates. Durham is not on that list.

County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said emergency rent assistance will get people over one hump, but families must get stabilized for the future. She suggested a money management class.

“People are not as knowledgable as they need to be about doing a family budget and get ahead as opposed to getting behind. It’s not easy, and it’s something we should be helping with,” she said.

City Council member DeDreana Freeman responded that “it’s not a matter of money management, it’s just a lack of money.” Freeman said racism and discrimination are factors in many evictions.

Gilbert said single mothers and African-Americans are twice as likely to be evicted.

Mayor Steve Schewel wants potential eviction diversion program funding in the city’s budget process.

“This is a critical affordable housing issue and if we can step up to the plate here, we can really help our residents to stay in housing,” Schewel said.

County Commissioner Heidi Carter asked county staff to come back with information about making the issue part of county budget talks, too.

Freeman wants to take it on as soon as possible. “We need to declare a housing crisis,” she said.

The city and county will have three joint community conversations as they start the budget process, the first time they’ve held joint conversations:

▪ Affordable Housing, Transportation and Human Services: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 30, Durham County Human Services Complex, 400 E. Main St.

Evictions filed in 2016-17 fiscal year in Durham: 10,134

Eviction cases denied or involuntarily dismissed: 1,668

Eviction judgments granted: 5,290

Eviction cases voluntarily dismissed or settled: 3,291

Source: Duke Civil Justice Clinic and Legal Aid of North Carolina

Durham city and county staff and elected officials will host three community conversations as they start looking at their 2018-19 budgets:

Affordable Housing, Transportation and Human Services: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 30, Durham County Human Services Complex, 400 E. Main St.

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