Durham County

Durham Housing Authority aims to reduce evictions among ‘most vulnerable families’

The Durham Housing Authority announced major changes to its eviction procedures Monday that could help keep more families who live in public housing in their homes.

Among the changes, tenants who are late in paying rent will get notified of their rights under their lease, as well as information on arranging payments, rental assistance offered by the county, and hardship exemptions that in some cases will waive rental charges.

When residents do not respond to the notice, DHA’s new attorney will review the case before any complaint is filed.

“DHA anticipates that these changes and our focus on intervention earlier in the process will provide for speedier resolution and avoid the need to seek an eviction,” CEO Anthony Scott said in a news release.

Efforts to reach Scott on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Durham has the highest rate of eviction filings per capita among the 10 largest counties in North Carolina, The News & Observer has previously reported. The city’s Human Relations Commission has declared “an evictions crisis” in Durham.

Public housing represents just one portion of rental units in Durham, but accounts for a disproportionate share of eviction filings, according to Legal Aid of North Carolina.

In a letter to DHA last month, Peter Gilbert, staff attorney for Legal Aid’s Durham office, said DHA’s conventional public housing units represent 3% of the rental units in Durham but more than 10% of the evictions filed this year.

Not every filing results in people losing their home, but every filing can add fees and cost courts to their rent and give future landlords a reason not to rent to them, Gilbert said.

In an email Monday night, Gilbert said he was happy to see the “much needed changes” to the housing authority’s policies and hopes they “drastically reduce the number of evictions they file.”

Avoiding evictions

The Durham Housing Authority filed 115 eviction cases last month and 540 eviction cases from January through June of 2019, Gilbert said. By comparison, the Raleigh Housing Authority filed three eviction cases in July and 18 during the first six months of this year, he said.

The changes announced Monday should help change that, Scott said in the release.

DHA also plans an Eviction Prevention Pilot it said will suspend court filings, remove prior legal and late fees, and help “high-risk families” reduce their rent burden.

The pilot program will also give families a chance to talk with a third party about the causes of their financial difficulties and put them on track to “long-term, responsible tenancy with the proper supports” to pay for food, clothing, child care and other needs, the news release said.

DHA will also train staff, expand payment options and work with state leaders to help tenants expunge eviction filings that never go to court, the release said.

“DHA’s goal is not just to divert an eviction, and to prevent an eviction filing, but to eliminate the need for any filing in the first place by helping our residents to reach the resources they need for stable, affordable housing from DHA,” Scott said in the release. “We expect the combined effect of these efforts will be a considerable decrease in the number of evictions in Durham and greater housing security for our residents and our community.”

Legal help available

Legal Aid will continue to help those facing eviction through its own Eviction Diversion Program, Gilbert said.

Legal Aid also will track the number of evictions filed by DHA to evaluate the success of the new policies, he said, “as part of our larger mission to reduce evictions in Durham and help to ensure adequately maintained and affordable housing for all low income Durham residents.”

The Durham County Department of Social Services has partnered with Legal Aid and the Duke Civil Justice Clinic to help people facing eviction for several years, says Janeen Gordon, assistant director of Aging and Adult Services.

The partnership began as a referral service, she said. But beginning in 2018-19, the county began offering money through social services to qualified people who had been represented by Legal Aid or the Duke clinic.

The county initially budgeted $90,000 but the department spent about $128,000 in the first year of the program. The program’s budget has doubled this year after county commissioners included $120,000 for the program in the current budget and the department shifted another $60,000, Gordon said.

“The needs are great,” she said. “There are eligibility requirements to qualify for the program which has caused some consternation with people who have asked for assistance.”

Social services helped 81 clients during the first year, Gordon said. All but one made it at least 10 months without seeking additional assistance, she said. She could not provide the number of clients served so far this year.

DHA is set for a major expansion during the next 10 years. It has 1,706 public housing units, according to its website, but the city of Durham has proposed a $95 million bond referendum that will be on the November ballot. It will underwrite a 10-year plan by DHA that will transform the Liberty Street Apartments, Oldham Towers and several other DHA properties.

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Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.
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.