Durham County

Eviction 'crisis' in Durham: What will it take to fix it?

A "writ of possession" notice on a house in the Walltown area of Durham in 2017.
A "writ of possession" notice on a house in the Walltown area of Durham in 2017. Photo courtesy Diane Standaert

With about 900 eviction filings every month in Durham, city and county leaders are looking for ways to keep more people in their homes.

A pilot program, the Durham Eviction Diversion Program, has started to make a dent. The program was started by Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Duke Law School Civil Justice Clinic this past fall. But it needs city and county support.

Duke law professor Charles Holton, director of the Civil Justice Clinic, said they have handled 58 cases since they started the program. Of those cases, 79 percent of evictions were avoided.

Holton said they received many more referrals to the program but with limited time windows and resources, "we were unable to make contact with many potential clients or their cases were already so far along that there was nothing that we could do."

He said that the 79 percent success rate would likely be lower if it was for all 900 new eviction cases filed each month, but "it is still clear that legal representation will significantly lower the rates of eviction in Durham County."

Gentrification and evictions

The Durham Human Relations Commission recently released a report on the "eviction crisis" in Durham.

"Gentrification and eviction disproportionately affect lower-income neighborhoods; it seems convincing that the rise in evictions and the simultaneous gentrification of low income regions are related," the report said. "Actions to help prevent this displacement will help abate gentrification."

Diane Standaert, chair of the commission, spoke to the City Council Thursday about its recommendations.

Durham Human Relations Commission "Recommendations to Address the Durham Eviction Crisis"

Financially support the Eviction Diversion Program.

Refer residents to the Eviction Diversion Program.

Establish an emergency rental assistance campaign.

Financially support a landlord maintenance fund.

Create an eviction crisis task force.

Durham City Council should read the book "Evicted" by Matthew Desmond.

How the county helps

The Durham County Department of Social Services (DSS) refers tenants to the Durham Eviction Diversion Program.

In 2017, DSS provided $886,144 of rental assistance to 1,768 Durham County families to either avoid eviction, pay late rent or to restore families to permanent housing, said Janeen Gordon, DSS assistant director of Aging and Adult Services .

Of that, $400,561, was from federal dollars to support needy families with at least one child to remain stable during a crisis, Gordon said.

The rest came from the county for emergency assistance. DSS has asked the county for a bigger budget than the $86,000 allotted for Opening Doors Homeless Prevention and Services, an anti-homelessness program that began in 2006. She said there are no funds specific only to rental assistance or eviction diversion outside of the Opening Doors money.

City Manager Tom Bonfield described DSS as the front door to the eviction diversion program. The city would be a partner to support it, with DSS serving as that front door, he said.

Evictions from downtown to RTP

Durham has the highest rate of eviction filings per capita among the 10 largest counties in the state, the Durham Eviction Diversion Program told city and county leaders in January. After what they learned, City Council member DeDreana Freeman said they need to declare a housing crisis.

More than 5,000 evictions were granted in Durham County last fiscal year, with twice that number of eviction notices filed. Not every granted eviction results in people losing their homes, but there are enough evictions that local leaders want to do something about it.

In a sample of Durham eviction judgments between Nov. 30 and Dec. 4, 2017, the amount of backdue rent ranged from $425 owed for a rental on East Club Boulevard owned by Lee Ray Bergman Real Estate rentals to $1,629 owed to the downtown Durham West Village apartments on West Morgan Street.

Several other judgments were rendered to renters in The Lex at Brier Creek near the Wake County line, The Mews on Williamsburg Road, Springfield Apartments on University Drive and Haven at Research Triangle Park.

What's next

Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said he hopes the city helps fund the diversion program. Freeman has already read the book "Evicted" and council member Charlie Reece is reading it now, he said.

Standaert said $400,000 would fund four lawyers and one paralegal.

Mayor Steve Schewel told Standaert the Human Relations Commission should be asking the county, not the city, about emergency rental assistance. However, he said he's supportive of the city providing funding on the legal side of the recommendation. Schewel said DSS is taking the lead on analyzing what's needed.

The City Council took no action Thursday but plans to talk with the county commissioners next month.

Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs said Thursday that she will request the Eviction Diversion Program be on the agenda for the next Joint City-County meeting, which is May 8.

Jacobs said evictions and supportive housing to end and prevent homelessness are related issues and will require the city and county to work together.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563: @dawnbvaughan
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