Opinion

Durham’s eviction-diversion program deserves funding -- James Scott Farrin

For Durham to be not just another mid-sized city on the upswing but a truly remarkable place, we must make sure there’s a place for everyone who wants to be here.

And yet, Durham-ites are being evicted from their homes at a staggering rate. Among North Carolina’s 10 largest counties, Durham’s eviction filing rate is the highest.

During the fiscal year 2015-16, there were an average 887 eviction cases filed each month. This could mean a single mother and her children put out of their home because, say, critical car repairs made it temporarily difficult to make the rent.

Once a person or family experiences something as catastrophic as losing their place to live, they may never recover. And the cruel cycle of poverty claims yet more victims.

But Durham is not just another mid-sized city; it is a remarkable place. And so, an appropriately innovative tool has emerged to help stem what the Durham Human Relations Commission has called an “eviction crisis.”

The Durham Eviction Diversion Program, founded by the Duke Law School Civil Justice Clinic and Legal Aid of North Carolina last year, provides no-cost assistance to people threatened with eviction. As a practicing attorney, it is not a surprise to me that legal representation has made a significant difference — at last count the clinic has handled 58 cases, and in almost 80 percent of them it has helped people in need avoid eviction.

Of course, that leaves much work still to do; many more people are still in need.

That’s why it’s so critically important that our city- and county- elected leaders and key staff approve additional funding for the clinic.

Right now, the clinic is doing yeoman’s work with just one lawyer and a special Fellow supervising a team of Duke law students. Additional funding of $400,000 would support four lawyers and one paralegal, making it possible to help many more Durham-ites avoid unnecessary evictions.

I don’t take calling for public funding lightly. Taxpayers’ money is serious business. That’s why The Law Offices of James Scott Farrin contributed the seed funding to hire the special Fellow who coordinates the clinic’s impressive activities. We made this commitment for reasons that we hope will resonate with elected leaders, companies and individuals in a position to support this life-changing endeavor.

We believe, for example, that a keen concern for social justice is part of what makes Durham a remarkable place. We have grown to be the largest law firm headquartered in the Bull City by championing the rights and well being of individuals against otherwise more powerful forces. And no one who reads the news can ignore gentrification as a potent force shaping and in some ways distorting our city.

In addition to our faith in making the justice system work for everyone, we believe that diversity and inclusivity have had much to do with making Durham such a desirable place. An epidemic of avoidable evictions undercuts the very diversity that is the lifeblood of our city.

Finally, we believe that the presence in Durham of a world-class university like Duke can and should be a source of endless innovation and opportunity for everyone. As an alum of the Duke University School of Law, I am proud of the increasing efforts the school has made to connect with and contribute to the greater community. Providing legal assistance to neighbors in need through a public-private partnership benefits everyone, and is an excellent way to train budding lawyers.

The Durham Eviction Diversion Program isn’t just a good idea, it’s a sign post for the kind of smart, caring and equitable community we want to be, as well as a lifeline for people who need and deserve an advocate by their side.

James Scott Farrin is the founder and president of the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin. He graduated from the Duke University School of Law in 1990.

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