Durham County

City to Durham landlords: Help us help the vulnerable

Cora Tucker has helped five people hunt for housing in Durham in the past year.

Four had a housing choice voucher – also known as Section 8 – from the Durham Housing Authority but still couldn’t find a place that would accept them. The fifth had a voucher from another program. The vouchers help very low-income families, the elderly and disabled pay for housing in the private market.

“It’s heartbreaking when I take them place to place to find a home,” said Tucker, a peer support specialist at Carolina Community Support Services Inc., which helps families struggling with mental health and other issues. “Working with them and seeing the hurt on their face.”

The challenges, she said, include finding a landlord who will accept the voucher. Some charge too much. Some fear their property will be torn up.

If they do find a property owner who will take the vouchers, people can get turned down if they have a blemish on their credit.

“It’s hurtful,” Tucker said.

On Tuesday, city and Durham Housing Authority officials, nonprofits and others came together at the second annual Mayor’s Landlord Roundtable. The meeting was organized by the Unlocking Doors Initiative, a partnership that seeks to reduce barriers and increase housing options for people with vouchers.

The 90-minute meeting built on a conversation from last year in which landlords expressed frustration with how long it takes to get someone housed once a landlord decides to accept the voucher, along with spotty communication with Housing Authority officials.

Anthony Scott, who stepped in as the chief executive officer of the Housing Authority a year ago, said the organization has addressed those concerns by shortening the process it takes to get people in their homes by two weeks and streamlining the communication process.

More vouchers

In September 2016, the City Council gave the Housing Authority a $220,260 grant to help provide nearly 400 additional Section 8 vouchers for housing.

The authority used the funding to hire new and temporary staff, along with an outside inspection company. It also opened an online application process.

The Housing Authority ultimately screened 900 families and issued vouchers to 386.

At the end of the December, there were 234 families who didn’t have housing.

Some couldn’t find housing before the vouchers expired after 120 days, Scott said. In other cases, they weren’t looking or they gave up.

“We don’t know because once they leave the program, we can’t really follow up with them,” Scott said.

On Tuesday, Scott said the authority plans to issue another 30 vouchers, as he and others asked landlords to share their concerns and consider dedicating more units to the program.

The authority recently started holding quarterly landlord sessions, Scott said. Later this year, the Unlocking Doors Initiatives will launch a fund that will cover up to $2,000 in property damage beyond the security deposit.

The Housing Authority also created new landlord orientation and materials, and the initiative is offering support for tenants before and after the get housing.

‘Heart to heart’

Ellie Bergman, with Edgewood Properties, suggested that Housing Authority officials have “a heart to heart” with voucher holders and explain “what an opportunity they have before them. And what their obligation is to fulfill that opportunity”

“And some kind of understanding this is not something I am entitled to,” she said. “I have got to earn this. And if I blow it away, I am not the only one that is going to be hurt,” because it could ruin the opportunity for those that follow.

Bergman, who manages about 500 properties including three that accept vouchers, also suggested that photos of the property be included in the pre-rental inspection process.

Bergman’s daughter, Leah Bergman, asked nonprofits to compile some information about organizations that might be willing to enter into an agreement with property owners and managers to help address tenant challenges that may arise, which Unlocking Doors Initiative officials said they were working on.

Michelle Laws, who owns two rental properties with her family, pointed to a growing racial disparity among property owners, and said some African American owners are struggling to keep up with maintenance.

“We are seeing people who are purchasing a lot of black folks’ property,” she said. “We can’t compete with historical barriers in place.”

Other landlords asked for a system in which they could borrow funds to pay for repairs that could be paid back over time by taking some money out of the rent.

Gina L. Reyman, managing attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina, said her organization and others are working on launching an eviction diversion program this summer.

There are between 900 and 1,000 evictions each month, and the high rate is costing landlords and destroying tenants’ credits.

“I hope that the landlords will see that this will help you ultimately save money because it will get people in who are going to be strong tenants in the long run,” she said.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

CASA to preserve 79 affordable apartments

CASA, a nonprofit affordable housing developer and property manager, has purchased a 44-unit apartment complex at 811 Underwood Ave. (Underwood Apartments) and a 35-unit apartment complex and one office at 1407 W. Chapel Hill Road (Maplewood Apartments).

The one-bedroom apartments located in Durham’s West End are identical in design and were originally built by the same developer. CASA will add these apartments to its portfolio of affordable apartment homes, now including 490 units across Durham, Wake, and Orange counties.

CASA plans exterior improvements at both properties, including landscaping, fencing, parking lot repairs, and rebuilding of the aging staircases and balconies.

“This acquisition allows us to preserve the Underwood and Maplewood apartments as affordable rental housing in Durham and gives the current tenants assurance that their rent will remain affordable. These homes will continue to serve Durham renters with limited incomes for many more years to come,” said CASA chief executive officer Debra King.