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"We want the housing authority and the city to know that people are being put out on the street. We don't want the people who are affected by it to be the only ones who know what the costs are." — organizer Sendolo Diaminah

People's Durham: Giving residents a say in their destiny 

People's Durham advocated for residents of Lincoln Apartments, the buildings shown here in the background.

Photo by D.L. Anderson

People's Durham advocated for residents of Lincoln Apartments, the buildings shown here in the background.

Most of its windows are covered with plywood, its parking lots empty. At Lincoln Apartments, most of the 200 low-income families who lived here have left since October, when the foundation that owned the property told residents the upkeep was too expensive. They had to go.

About a dozen tenants remain, say officials from the Durham Housing Authority, which bought the complex in southeast-central Durham last month. They are still waiting for help in transitioning to affordable housing. And were it not for the organizers at People's Durham, some residents say they would have been forced out weeks ago.

"I didn't have anywhere to go," says Barbara Garrett, who still lives at Lincoln, where, for the last five years, she has rented a two-bedroom unit for $340 a month. "We didn't have any info on what we could do, and it didn't seem like anyone from the government was going to help us. I could have been homeless."

The group's mission, says organizer Sendolo Diaminah, is to "further the agenda of justice in Durham," particularly southeast-central Durham, which has not benefited from the downtown renaissance and the bio-tech distinction of Research Triangle Park.

"We're here to increase the power and influence of the working class in Durham, particularly in black and Latino communities, the people who have the least amount of voice in the city," says Lauren Merin of People's Durham.

The group formed in 2009, when Diaminah, Ray Eurquhart (a previous Citizen Award winner) and several volunteer activists and community organizers met inside the cramped conference room at Southside Neighborhood Association Outreach Center at Enterprise and South streets.

Since then, organizers have worked to coordinate community projects and build membership at McDougald Terrace and other public housing developments. But the group's work goes beyond redevelopment and tenants' rights. In 2010, the group's organizers helped lobby the Durham County Board of Commissioners and the City Council to fully fund the public schools budget. Budget cuts had put 185 teaching positions on the chopping block. The group convinced the commissioners to approve a new property tax to compensate for the financial shortfall.

The local debate over school funding revealed a greater truth about Durham, says Diaminah. "Durham has become increasingly polarized," he says. "It's great that good things are happening. But that's being used as cover as black Durham and other disadvantaged communities are being segregated from that growth."

Merin says the Lincoln situation dovetails with another of the organization's goals: A $300,000 redevelopment grant won by the Durham Housing Authority could mean that McDougald Terrace, one of the city's largest public housing communities, will eventually be torn down. People's Durham wants to ensure that residents in that neighborhood have a "real voice in the revitalization and redevelopment process," says Merin.

For further evidence of the growing divide, look to Durham's affordable housing woes, says Diaminah. In a county with a 17 percent poverty rate, safe and affordable housing for the poorest residents is scarce. The waiting list for one of the city's 1,800 public housing units is 1,200 deep. The Durham Housing Authority's Section 8 program is closed, with 2,300 people in line for a voucher.

Last September, Lincoln residents were thrust into that gridlock. Shortly after the tenants received their eviction letters, they gained an ally in People's Durham. The group organized residents, some of whom had lived at Lincoln more than 15 years, and helped buy them some time to find new homes.

Diaminah and other members of the group brought Lincoln's tenants together with city and county officials. Deals were struck with the City of Durham and to maintain water and sewer service at the complex in the interim. Under pressure, the owners eventually relented, pledging that tenants would be allowed to stay until Jan. 2 as long as each paid monthly rent. The reprieve gave local housing advocates time to raise funds to help many of the tenants find new housing.

For Lincoln's residents, it was a victory. "What People's Durham did was make sure that we knew what our options were and how each process worked," says Barbara Garrett. "I feel like if it wasn't for them, we would have been treated as less than."

The deadline extension also allowed social service organizations such as Housing for New Hope the time to raise funds to help residents relocate. "I think they helped the tenants make their situation known to both the owners there and the wider public," says Terry Allebaugh, executive director of Housing for New Hope. "They created a climate where the tenants did not feel like it was just them against the world."

Allebaugh says the nonprofit has helped 40 tenants and families transition to alternate housing.

Last week, the Durham Housing Authority received judgments against 15 registered Lincoln Apartment tenants for staying on past the Jan. 2 deadline. Only 12 of those are believed to still be living on the property, officials say. The remaining tenants now have until at least Feb. 24 to vacate their apartments. That's the first day the Authority can file for possession of each individual apartment. Anyone still living on the property after the deadline can be evicted by the Durham County Sheriff's Department.

Housing Authority director Dallas Parks says People's Durham's criticism of his organization is misplaced. "We've tried to help as many as we can," Parks says. "But we didn't have to help the tenants at Lincoln. That's not our obligation."

Diaminah says People's Durham will work to keep local officials aware of the Lincoln situation. "We want the housing authority and the city to know that people are being put out on the street," Diaminah says. "We don't want the people who are affected by it to be the only ones who know what the costs are."

Correction: The print version of this article misstated the amount of the redevelopment grant awarded to the Durham Housing Authority; the correct amount is $300,000.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Homeward bound."

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