A New Program Is Shedding Light on Why Durham County Has Such a Huge Eviction Problem | Durham County | Indy Week
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A New Program Is Shedding Light on Why Durham County Has Such a Huge Eviction Problem 

Eviction notice on a door in Durham

Photo by Caitlin Penna

Eviction notice on a door in Durham

On a Thursday morning three days after Christmas, the eviction court on the third floor of the Durham County courthouse was quiet. Of the more than forty tenants on the day's docket, just five had come to make their case in front of magistrate Aminah Thompson.

click to enlarge Aminah Thompson
  • Aminah Thompson

"Anyone here from 501 Towns? Copper Mill? Hardee Terrace? Century Trinity Estates? Bell West End? Arium Pinnacle Ridge? Phillips Research Park? Falls Pointe at The Park? Campus Crossing?" Thompson asked. A young woman walked to the front of the small courtroom. She recently got a new job, but her paycheck came too late to make rent, she explains.

Like all the other tenants who appeared that morning, she did not have a lawyer. The same two lawyers, however, represented all of the apartment complexes called throughout the morning.

That has been common in Thompson's nine years as a magistrate. The crowd, however, varies day to day. Durham County, after all, has the highest eviction filing rate of the state's ten largest counties.

The stories also vary, says Thompson, who moved to Durham in 1999. Some are heartbreaking, like a woman in court Thursday who has been getting help from her father since being out of work. But his generosity is finite, she explained through tears. "My dad is willing to help me pay it because he doesn't want me and my daughters out on the street," she said. Other stories boil down to poor budgeting.

The number of summary ejectment filings has been falling in Durham County—despite the addition of more than 30,000 residents—from just over 14,000 in fiscal year 2010 to 10,134 in fiscal year 2016. But the county has maintained the highest eviction filing rate. Last fiscal year, one eviction case was filed per twenty-nine residents—and while this figure may include multiple filings against the same tenant, it also likely leaves out illegal evictions that don't involve the court system. This all raises the question: What's different about Durham?

It's an answer the Eviction Diversion Program—launched in August by Duke University's Civil Justice Clinic, Legal Aid of North Carolina, and the Durham County Department of Social Services—is trying to uncover. Although it's too early to say whether the program is achieving its goal of reducing the number of eviction cases filed, it is beginning to fill out the picture of who is being evicted, where evictions are occurring, and why.

"When people are paying more than fifty percent of their income [in rent], it doesn't take much to disrupt their monthly budget to the point where they can't pay their rent on time," says Peter Gilbert, one of two Legal Aid attorneys who handle the bulk of the eviction cases that come through the program.

The Eviction Diversion Program connects tenants to legal and financial help to avoid evictions and the costs associated with them. Whenever a summons for an eviction case goes out, a flyer about the program is included. Tenants call county Social Services, which can determine whether they qualify for rental assistance, and get referred to Legal Aid if necessary. In most cases, Gilbert says, an attorney is able to reach a settlement with the landlord, buying tenants more time in their homes or avoiding displacement.

A map by DataWorks NC of filings from 2012–16 shows clusters of eviction cases along major corridors with a lot of apartment complexes, like 15-501 and N.C. 55, but also in neighborhoods ringing downtown that have some of the city's highest poverty rates.

click to enlarge 1.3_news_eviction_map.jpg

"What we have is a wealth distribution issue," says city council member Jillian Johnson. "We have a growing affordability crisis that is leading to an eviction crisis, and that inevitably leads, without intervention, to a homelessness crisis."

The issue has caught the attention of the Durham Human Relations Commission, whose members have been sitting in on eviction court proceedings to learn more about the process and the people affected by it, and the city council. While the city already funds rapid rehousing programs, Johnson says she'd like to see the city help pay for attorneys to represent tenants in court.

Online records from the Administrative Office of the Courts only detail summary ejectment filings going back to fiscal year 2010, so it's difficult to say just how long evictions have been a problem in Durham. But across the country, evictions rose amid the recession that ended in 2009.

Thompson says when she started hearing eviction cases, tenants were paying $300 to $500 a month. Now, they're paying upward of $1,000. Tenants with relatively low rents are showing up in court more often, she says.

"They recognize that if they get evicted, they're not going to be able to find something else," she says.

Last fiscal year, Durham County saw an average of 859 summary ejectment filings each month. After a landlord issues a notice—for example, for late rent—he or she can file a summary ejectment complaint and ask a judge to grant the eviction. Evictions were granted in about half of the cases filed last fiscal year. At that point, an eviction can appear on a tenant's rental or credit history, even if a settlement with the landlord is reached.

Fewer cases result in writs of possession, which allow the Durham County Sheriff's Office to remove a person being evicted. According to the Sheriff's Office, deputies padlocked 1,875 units in 2016.

"I was surprised at the number of cases that are resulting in judgments and not in being displaced from their homes that month," Gilbert says. "In some ways it's better, but really it's just speaking to a different problem."

Currently, Social Services only refers people to the diversion program who already have a notice to appear in court—about fifty cases per month. That doesn't leave a lot of time to prepare. Ultimately, the goal is to get involved in cases earlier so attorneys can learn more about each individual's housing and financial situation and try to avoid a judgement.

"I think people assume that if they come to small claims court and present the sad story, that's going to help them," says Jesse McCoy, with Duke's Civil Justice Clinic. "It doesn't work like that."

There are four attorneys working in various capacities for the program, plus about ten Duke law students. While there are bilingual people at Legal Aid and the Civil Justice Clinic, the Eviction Diversion Program does not have a bilingual attorney.

Gilbert estimates that the program needs another attorney and paralegal to help everyone currently seeking help from the program, not to mention those going to Social Services for assistance before an eviction is filed. Ten to fifteen tenants each month can't be helped because of the program's capacity, and approximately five more can't be contacted by attorneys.

To reach more people sooner, the program is hosting clinics each Wednesday on the second floor of the county courthouse. The program is also setting up a phone line so tenants can contact it directly.

Any increase in reach requires an increase in resources. Charles Holton, director of the Civil Justice Clinic, says the program is looking for partners to help people who need financial assistance but can't get it from Social Services. Duke students will also study what role gentrification has played.

"These are bigger issues that I think one program alone may not necessarily be able to fulfill," McCoy says. "We've historically neglected the impact of affordable housing in Durham. I think it's telling that we can't really put a definition on what we consider to be affordable housing locally."

Update: The Durham Human Relations Commission will hear a presentation on the Eviction Diversion Program during a public meeting January 9 at seven p.m. at the Golden Belt Office Center, Building 2, Third Floor.


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