Durham County

Gentrification in Durham: 'It's all about the dollar bill.' A renter's story

Rosemary Abram came home to a letter on her front door, telling her she needed to move out by the end of the month.

It wasn’t an eviction notice. Not yet. That came later.

Abram, 62, has lived in a quadplex at the corner of Morehead Avenue and Shoppers Street for the past eight years with her husband, John, and mother-in-law, Peggy.

Their building is on the edge of two neighborhoods: West End and Lakewood. Both have recently seen new development, with renovated homes and new restaurants. In the Lakewood shopping center, the former hot dog stand Citi Dogs is shuttered. Nearby is the new food truck destination and bar called County Fare. Cocoa Cinnamon, the downtown coffeeshop, has a location by Lakewood, too.

The Abram family

Rosemary and John Abram, who married in 2011, wanted a place of their own and so were happy to find their rental for $450 a month. They’re both on disability, with a combined monthly income of $1,100.

“It was peace and quiet and inexpensive,” Rosemary Abram said. “When we moved here, we didn’t have a car, and it was right on the bus line.”

John Abram, left, and Rosemary Abram, right, pose for a portrait outside of their apartment building near the Lakewood neighborhood in Durham, NC on May 18, 2018. The Abrams, who are both on disability, have lived in this apartment for 8 years. Until recently, they also lived with John's late mother, Peggy. Their combined household income is $1,100. Last year, their rent went up from $450 to $500, an increase they could handle. But on April 1, 2018, they were told by 3 Points Properties that they could apply for a new lease at price they could not afford, or vacate the property by April 30th. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

When they got a letter in 2017 that their building had been sold, they were told their rent was going up $50 a month. And instead of a yearly lease, it became monthly. They could manage $500 a month, Rosemary Abram said.

But then the letter from 3 Points Property came on April 1, telling them to move out by April 30.

It also said they could apply for a renovated unit on their street, which start at $825 for a two-bedroom like they live in now. That's beyond what the couple can afford.

“It’s wrong what they’re doing,” said John Abram, 65. “They don’t care. We’ve been staying here eight years, never been late with rent, or owed them a brown penny.”

“It’s all about the dollar bill,” said Rosemary Abram.

John Abram called the number on the sign of an already renovated building across the street. The rent in that building is $995 a month.

'It's a dog eat dog world'

Gentrification is the displacement of people in a neighborhood by those with more money.

In the Abrams’ neighborhood, those who move into their old apartment will be paying nearly twice as much rent. One of the Abrams' neighbors in their building, a bus driver, also got the letter. She has since moved out. So have two more neighbors.

In the building on the other side of them, Arlessia Cobb, 47, received a letter two weeks after the Abrams did. She has lived in an apartment in a quadplex just like the Abrams’ since 2011.

“I’m boxing up,” Cobb said. She asked their former property manager if he knows of any other available apartments. She needs until July to save up and move, she said. Thirty days isn’t enough.

“They need to give us time to prepare for this,” she said.

Cobb grew up "in the Cornwallis projects," then lived in East Durham. Her son, Ladarius Rogers, 21, has special needs and lives with her.

Cobb doesn’t think the changes to downtown Durham, less than a mile and a half away, are a good thing.

“They are moving out a lot of people to move in people of a higher income,” she said. “It’s not right. We’ve been here all our lives. I just think it’s wrong.”

“It’s a dog eat dog world, I can tell you. But I don’t think it should be like that. … Durham has changed, and it’s changed drastically. I don’t think it’s fair to low-income people. We’re not middle class,” Cobb said. “We need a place to live.”

“I don’t think a person should stay in the projects, but when you’re trying to improve yourself, give us the chance,” Cobb said.

The Abrams could not find a new place to live and move out within a month. But they started packing anyway. On May 1, a day after their landlord wanted them gone, the living room of their two-bedroom unit was filled with boxes. In one of the bedrooms, Peggy Abram, 84, watched television.

Growing up in Hayti

Both Rosemary and John Abrams grew up in Hayti, Durham's historically African-American area.

Rosemary’s father worked for the WL Robinson Tobacco Company and walked to work.

They had to move from Bacon Street, she said, when urban renewal came in the 1960s and the Durham Freeway, then called the East-West Expressway, was built through Hayti. Her family moved to a new house.

For John Abram, it was a move into public housing.

You either went to Fayetteville Street, McDougald Terrace or Cornwallis Road projects, he said. His family went to McDougald.

As a kid, he remembers his parents talking about the move.

“I knew we were being forced to do something we didn’t want to do,” John Abram said.

“Hayti was all right. It was like our own city. [Urban renewal] bulldozers just tore up everything. They wanted to get these black people out of the community.”

The property

For the past decade, Durham leaders have worked to revitalize downtown, bringing development and residents.

It worked, with 10,000 people now moving here every year. City Manager Tom Bonfield this week said the city is growing so fast that it is bringing in more property and sales tax money than predicted. City taxes won't go up next year.

But the other side of that falls on the people who already live here and can't afford to keep up with the changes.

According to Durham County property records, the land and building where the Abrams live was appraised at $314,000 in 2016.

In February 2017 it sold for $1.3 million to Artesia Real Estate, based in Austin, Texas. The property holder is Artesia Morehead Portfolio LLC.

The building the Abrams live in is on the edge of two neighborhoods: West End and Lakewood. Both have recently seen new development. The land and building where the Abrams live was appraised at $314,000 in 2016, according to Durham County property records. In February 2017 it sold for $1.3 million to Artesia Real Estate, based in Austin, Texas. The property holder is Artesia Morehead Portfolio I LLC. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Another apartment for rent from 3 Points Properties on Morehead Avenue touts the “incredible location” in a “really cute neighborhood,” and calls it “modern and timeless luxury living.”

“It’s frustrating," Rosemary Abram said. "You’ve been put out of your apartment, and where are you going to put your furniture? On the curb?”

As she reread the letter from the landlord, she read aloud: “‘We value you as a resident.’”

"That’s the biggest lie I ever heard,” she said.

“This gentrification in the city of Durham, this is ruining people’s lives. It’s taking people’s homes away from them,” she said. “Nobody’s fighting it because they don’t think they have any ammunition.”

A few days later, Abram got the eviction notice. As visitors knocked on her door, a maintenance truck with ladders on top circled the block twice, stopping in front of her building.

The eviction notice didn’t call for rent. It called for possession of the apartment.

John’s mother, Peggy, died May 5 in her sleep.

Why this is happening

Satana Deberry, executive director of the N.C. Housing Coalition and who just won the Democratic primary for Durham County district attorney, said “gentrification” is a loaded term.

“Once you say it, your conversation is over. Like art, you think you know it when you see it,” Deberry said.

But housing is a complicated issue of finance, equity and policy, she continued. “Nobody has solved it," she said. "But it is happening everywhere.”

“When investment comes to a neighborhood, the people who reap the benefit are those who own,” said Samuel Gunter, director of policy for the coalition.

“[Renters] don’t have control over where they’re living,” Deberry said.

Rosemary Abram explains to an employee at the Durham County Human Services Department that she is being evicted from her home due to gentrification on Friday May 18, 2018. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Karen Lado, assistant director of the city's Department of Community Development, said society is biased in favor of homeowners. She spoke at a recent UNC School of Government student presentation on housing issues, noting that half of Durham residents are renters.

“Can we change how we value renters in our neighborhood?” she said.

A WomenNC project by UNC-Chapel Hill fellows studied gendered impacts of gentrification in Durham. It found women of color, like Abram, are the most vulnerable to rent increases from gentrification in Durham.

The building where the Abrams live was built in 1961. The letter telling them they need to move was because of planned renovations.

Renovations — replacing a roof or HVAC unit, for example — come with rental property, said Jacob Rogers, chief operating officer of the Triangle Community Coalition, which advocates for property owners.

"If we look at when the majority of multifamily [units were] built, there have been these spurts," he said. "We’re in a multifamily growth spurt because just the demand is high for multi-family and rental units in general."

"In the life cycle of these properties, it’s time to do these upfittings, and so that’s what we’re seeing now," he continued. "And also with market rent, the supply and demand issue."

Rogers said it's unfortunate when residents are displaced but it's a property rights issue as well.

"The owners own the property," he said. "I don't think you can fault people for selling these properties because they're lifetime investments. ... If somebody buys it and wants to do something different with it, I don’t think its a valid argument [to say] that they can’t do it."

Rogers said that renters on leases only have the right to the space for the length of their lease. Renters can walk away, he said.

Going to court

The Abrams' eviction case was heard in small claims court on May 21 at the Durham County Courthouse. The 3 Points Properties property manager, Debora Sandoval, gave the magistrate the paperwork showing a monthly lease.

Rosemary Abram said that 30 days wasn't enough time to save up to move and find a new place. They are senior citizens on a fixed income, she told the magistrate. Plus, her mother-in-law had just died. They tried to pay rent in May but were refused because the property owners want their apartment, not their money.

Abram told Magistrate Aminah Thompson that what's happening to them is gentrification.

Thompson listened.

"First of all, I'm sorry to hear about your mother," Thompson told John Abram, seated next to his wife. "Unfortunately, what I have in front of me is a month-to-month lease, which requires 30 days notice to move out."

Rosemary Abram said they needed more time.

"Unfortunately I cannot give you that much time," Thompson said. "I can give you 10 days. Unfortunately when you have a month-to-month lease, they can give you a reason or no reason at all [not to renew]."

Thompson told the Abrams they could appeal her decision to district court. They have until May 31 to leave their home or file the appeal.

After the case, Sandoval declined to comment, citing corporate policy.

Thompson said in an interview that there are a variety of situations that bring people to court because of an eviction filing.

"We see these situations daily. But this is the situation in Durham and across the country," Thompson said.

Rosemary Abram, left, and John Abram, right, stand outside of a magistrate's office at the Durham County Courthouse after a hearing about their eviction on Monday May 21, 2018. The magistrate ruled in favor of Artesia Morehead Portfolio I LLC, but gave the Abrams ten more days to vacate the property. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

There are 900 eviction filings in Durham every month. The Durham Eviction Diversion Program started last fall as a pilot program by the Duke Law School Civil Justice Clinic and Legal Aid of North Carolina. Program leaders have asked for city and county funding for the coming fiscal year. Both the City Council and county commissioners are ironing out the details in the next few weeks as they finalize their budgets.

Duke law professor Charles Holton said they are seeing 40 to 50 eviction diversion referrals a month. "Compared with 900 new cases, there’s a big gap there," he said. The program tries to work with both landlords and tenants to avoid going to court in the first place.

Peter Gilbert of Legal Aid told council members and commissioners this month that evictions and the number of new people moving to Durham every day are not unrelated.

"It’s clear that keeping people in place is the most cost effective way of fighting gentrification," Gilbert said. Durham's rate of eviction filings is the highest in North Carolina's 10 largest counties, according to the diversion program.

Thompson, the magistrate, said a lot of people don't show up for court, and those who do don't articulate their situation like the Abrams did.

The couple left the courthouse without filing the appeal. But Rosemary Abram wants to file.

"I'm not filing for myself. I'm doing it for the people gentrified before me," she said. "I'm doing it for my neighbors."

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