Evictions in Durham: Legal Aid says it may have to start turning people away

There were 9,373 eviction filings in Durham County in 2018.

The Durham Eviction Diversion Program has been trying to stem the tide, but it could help more families and individuals avoid eviction if it had more money.

The city gave the program $200,000 this fiscal year, which, along with other funding, supports three and a half attorney positions that help about 420 families per year, said Peter Gilbert of Legal Aid of North Carolina.

But it’s not enough, Gilbert says.

That leaves 95 percent of families facing a possible eviction without legal representation, he told Durham leaders at their Joint City-County Committee meeting Tuesday.

Not every eviction filing leads to someone losing their home. Still, evictions are part of what some city leaders have called a housing crisis.

This summer, the city will launch a $10 million affordable housing loan fund, which will fund projects that provide affordable housing. The city also expects to put a $95 million affordable housing bond on November ballots.

Gilbert said long-term residents of Durham are facing gentrification and leaving.

“Many people are being pushed out of Durham entirely,” he said. “These aren’t hypothetical families that might one day occupy a new apartment.”

The sooner the program is expanded, the sooner they can help them, he said.

Gilbert said if they don’t increase their capacity, they’ll have to turn away families. Legal Aid of North Carolina started files for 151 household in the first three months of the year. Right now, no one is denied service, as those not eligible for Legal Aid are represented by the Duke Law Civil Justice Clinic.

Legal Aid has closed 77 cases. Of those clients, 87 percent were African American and 76 percent were women.

Families in 73 percent of the cases did not have to move because of a settlement or court order. And 23 percent of cases were resolved before a court filing.

The county gave the Eviction Diversion Program $90,000 through the Department of Social Services, which refers clients to the program.

But no additional money, aside from a repeat of last year’s funding, appears to be designated in either the city or county budget for the coming year.

Evictions in Durham

Gilbert also spoke briefly at a community event in April that focused on evictions and health.

Karla Jimenez-Magdaleno, a student in Public Health and City and Regional Planning at UNC-Chapel Hill, presented photos she took for her master’s project “Disrupted: An Exploration of No Fault Evictions in Durham, N.C.”

No-fault evictions are those cases that have nothing to do with late or non-payment of rent, Jimenez-Magdaleno said. Besides not paying rent, she said people get evicted for overstaying their lease; violating the lease terms; and criminal activity, in some cases even when the tenant is the victim of the crime.

“The rules are pretty loose in terms of who gets evicted in North Carolina,” she said.

The threat of losing one’s home can cause or exacerbate health problems including anxiety, chronic stress, heart disease, alcohol and drug use and suicidal thoughts, she said.

Karen Turrentine, 66, who has lupus, was facing eviction after arguing with her neighbor over her neighbor’s dog. In an interview, she said she has lived in her first-floor apartment for four years and has never been late on her rent.

Legal Aid helped her, and the neighbor eventually moved out. But fighting the eviction took three trips to court, she said, each time past a bridge where homeless people live.

“I’d just look over there and see the homeless people with their blankets living under the bridge, and I would just hope something like that would not happen to me,” she said.

A landlord’s opinion

Rick Soles, who manages roughly 900 mostly single-family and duplex rental units in the city, said most landlords don’t evict someone without cause.

“What is the advantage of treating people bad?” he said in an interview last month. “I haven’t seen that.”

Soles estimates he files 70 to 90 evictions papers a month, or about 10 percent of his tenants, mostly for non-payment of rent.

Rather than take landlords to court, a process that with appeals can take months, Soles thinks more emphasis should be put on helping people avoid eviction.

In many cases people need to learn how to better budget their money or have everyone in the household who can work get jobs and contribute to the rent, he said.

“We don’t rent to people to evict them,” Soles said. “If they can come up with a payment plan I’ll work with them. It’s a lot of money to go to court to kick somebody out.”

Housing experts say a family is cost-burdened when it spends more than 30 percent of its monthly income on housing and utilities.

In Durham County, nearly half of all renters, (49 percent) are paying more than that, compared to 16 percent of homeowners, according to the N.C. Housing Coalition.

Soles acknowledged there are developers who buy properties and evict people so they can rebuild them for a higher return. Some have even asked him to manage those properties.

“They just wanted me to be a hit man,” Soles said.

He said he’s turned them down.

Eviction crisis

Gilbert said Durham is in an eviction crisis and spending money now will save a lot more down the road.

“Dealing with someone in chronic homelessness costs the government on average, $30,000 a year,” he said. “It is so much cheaper to invest in someone in their home, than to deal with consequences of homelessness on the back end.”

Subsidized housing is even more expensive than eviction diversion, he said. “We’re talking about $4,000 a year to keep a family in subsidized housing, more than twice as much as keeping them in their home through the eviction diversion program,” Gilbert said.

He said just having to go to court for an eviction filing, even without a judgment, has consequences on families’ jobs, credit and child care.

County Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs said rents are likely to go up after evictions. She said that while additional funding for eviction diversion isn’t in the proposed county budget, she’d like to discuss it through the budget process. The county is set to approve the budget in June, but will have budget meetings before then.

Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said the city should also discuss eviction diversion funding before it passes its own budget, also in June.

Gilbert suggested Durham become the first city in the South to have right-to-counsel for eviction cases, too. He said either the city, county or both could fund that, as other cities are starting to do.


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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.
Mark Schultz is the deputy metro editor for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He has been an editor, reporter and photographer in North Carolina for 30 years.