Durham County

Durham eviction crisis: What the city's going to spend on it

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.
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. jwall@newsobserver.com

With 900 eviction filings every month in Durham, city leaders have declared a "crisis."

A pilot Durham Eviction Diversion Program was started last year by the Duke Law School Civil Justice Clinic and Legal Aid of North Carolina, but they need money. After a vote on Thursday, they'll be getting some from the city, but not as much as they wanted.

The City Council voted to provide $200,000 for two lawyers and a paralegal. The money will help the program serve twice as many clients.

"We would go from handling about 50 cases a month to about 100," said Peter Gilbert of Legal Aid.

"We are delighted," said Charles Holton, Duke law professor and director of the Civil Justice Clinic. "We will work very hard to provide fair representation through negotiation, if possible, or litigation, if necessary, for tenants who cannot afford to pay for legal services."

The Durham Community Development Department recommended that Durham County fund $90,000 for the Eviction Diversion Program because it is already responsible for emergency rental assistance through the Department of Social Services. Reginald Johnson, director of community development, said they did not recommend city funding, instead proposing the city fund homeless diversion and other housing priorities.

But council members said previously, and again during Thursday's budget work session, that they wanted to pay for legal help for eviction diversion.

Rosemary and John Abram live on a fixed income. Their apartment building on Morehead Ave. in Durham, NC was sold to a company in Texas in 2017. On April 1, 2018 they were given 30 days to vacate or apply for a renovated, more expensive unit.

Mayor Steve Schewel said funding two lawyers isn't the four lawyers the program asked for, but "could really make a big difference in the eviction diversion realm."

Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton agreed.

"I think we need to do something, and we need to do something this year," Middleton said.

"I would be gravely disappointed if the county doesn’t come through with emergency rental relief," Schewel said.

The county commissioners were holding their own budget work session on Thursday afternoon at the same time, and have also said they want to help the program.

Durham's rate of eviction filings is the highest in North Carolina's 10 largest counties, according to the diversion program.

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

Gilbert told city and county leaders that it's clear that keeping people in place is the most cost effective way of fighting gentrification.

Phil Seib of the Durham Human Relations Commission said they are "pleased to see a meaningful move by the Durham City Council to help address the eviction crisis by providing more legal representation, and we hope there will be a commitment by other municipal budgets to increase emergency rental assistance."

The commission's recommendations on the "eviction crisis" are:

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.

Read the book "Evicted" by Matthew Desmond.

The City Council vote did not determine how that $200,000 would be paid — either directly by the city or paid to the county to fund the lawyers and paralegal for the program. Both the county and city will hold public hearings before voting on their final budgets in June.

Johnson said that he would work with the city manager to figure out where the $200,000 would come from, but most likely from the city's dedicated housing fund.

"There's never anything that's extra," he said. "We will have to figure out how to do it."

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