Durham County Has an Eviction Crisis. Can a New Diversion Program Help? | Durham County | Indy Week

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Durham County Has an Eviction Crisis. Can a New Diversion Program Help?



Laticia Singleton is standing in her living room, directing her nephew and two oldest sons as they pack and move the contents of the apartment: sneakers, a laundry basket brimming with clothes, a leaky air-conditioner.

In less than an hour, they're supposed to be out.

Singleton isn't exactly attached to this apartment, which sits at the rear of three units on Liberty Street. Some of its windows have been broken since her mother lived here about six years ago. Bullet holes, left by some calamity before she moved in, pock the front door and her bedroom wall. But at least it's a place she and her four sons can call home.

"I really don't have feelings about it because I don't have time," she says, dabbing her eyes with a white washcloth.

On June 8, a magistrate ordered Singleton removed from the apartment. On July 6, she came home to find it padlocked. From outside the door, she could see a bright orange notice leaning against the window above her kitchen sink, saying she had seven days to vacate the property. She had two outfits and her pocketbook with her.

Leticia Singleton found this eviction notice on the kitchen window of the apartment she was renting in Durham, NC. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Leticia Singleton found this eviction notice on the kitchen window of the apartment she was renting in Durham, NC.

The Singletons' story is not uncommon. According to the Administrative Office of the Courts, one eviction case was filed for every twenty-eight Durham County residents in the 2015–16 fiscal year, an average of 887 filings per month and the highest rate among North Carolina's ten largest counties.

While a landlord has the right to evict a tenant for breaking the terms of a lease, criminal activity, or overstaying a lease, most cases—like the Singletons'—come down to money.

"Both Raleigh and Durham are really popular areas for growth, and with growth, people see opportunities to increase prices," says Jesse McCoy, a supervising attorney with Duke Law School's Civil Justice Clinic. "As more development comes to the area, it's an issue that needs to be addressed."

The Civil Justice Clinic is helping to launch an eviction diversion program with Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Durham County Department of Social Services. Modeled after a program in Michigan, this is a first-of-its-kind effort in North Carolina that aims to provide those facing eviction with the resources they need to stay in their homes and keep an eviction judgment off their rental histories.

The issue cuts right to the heart of two of Durham's goals: providing affordable housing and eliminating homelessness. For those most vulnerable to rising rents and gentrification, eviction creates a cycle of debt, poor credit, and instability.

Other counties saw more eviction filings, but they were spread out among larger populations. Wake County had about five thousand more eviction filings than Durham's 10,646 in fiscal year 2015, but it has more than triple the population. Mecklenburg County saw the most filings that year, 28,471 cases among one million residents.

How many of those cases actually end with someone leaving his or her home is hard to measure. The numbers include cases that may later be dismissed, and, as in the case of the Singletons, multiple filings can be made against one tenant. But the total doesn't include tenants who move out as soon as they get a late rent notice, in order to avoid an eviction judgment, or illegal evictions, in which a landlord forces a tenant out without going through the court process. Matthew Desmond, a sociologist who undertook one of the most comprehensive studies on eviction in the U.S., found that formal evictions made up just 24 percent of the cases his team reviewed during two years in Milwaukee.

The national picture isn't much clearer. Evictions aren't tracked at the national level, although the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development planned to begin doing so this year. Using eviction records from nineteen states to project national figures, realty group Redfin estimated that 2.7 million Americans faced eviction in 2015.

In Durham, about half of the eviction complaints filed in 2015–16 were granted by a judge, though that ruling is not the final step in carrying out an eviction. But at that point, damage has likely already been done to a tenant's credit and rental history, which can make it difficult to get another lease or qualify for public assistance.

"Even if someone doesn't become homeless, each court filing is a problem because it's preventing someone from access to quality, affordable homes in the future," says Peter Gilbert, a Legal Aid attorney.

For Singleton, the trouble started about two months after she moved in to her Liberty Street apartment.

According to Singleton, the family had an arrangement with Rick Soles Property Management to pay rent on the twenty-sixth of each month instead of the first. But this isn't stipulated in their lease, and, when she didn't pay at the start of March, April, and May, the property management company filed eviction complaints in court.

The first two times, they made payments toward what they owed and the cases were dismissed, but that didn't work a third time. The property management company now says the family owes $1,428.44 in past-due rent, late fees, and court fees, although the June 8 judgment against them is for one month's rent—$525.

While Singleton looks for a new place, she is staying with her cousin and one of her sons. The other three are split up among friends and family.

"Hopefully it won't be long until we have another place," she says.

Between her disability income and her son's wages from working at Burt's Bees, Singleton puts about 30 percent of her household income toward rent each month. According to the N.C. Housing Coalition, this is the case for a third of Durham County households. Usually, an eviction is the result of the loss of income, unexpected expenses, or an increase in rent.

Katie Guion faced all three.

Guion receives rental assistance via a housing choice voucher from the Durham Housing Authority. After Guion moved into her apartment near Research Triangle Park in August 2015, her elderly uncle moved in with her, and the added income from his Social Security payments made her rent go up. She fell behind. She cut back her hours working customer service at a car dealership in order to take care of him. Her rent wasn't immediately adjusted, and she fell behind again.

"I just keep playing catch-up," she says.

In April, her landlord filed a third summary ejectment complaint against her, and she was ordered removed from the apartment on May 3. Three weeks later, the oldest of Guion's four children was shot and killed in New Bern. On July 3, she got in a car accident. The prospect of catching up again seemed more and more distant. Like Singleton, she has spent money that could have gone toward an application fee or deposit at her next home, paying off past-due rent, late fees, and court costs.

She has until August 14 to leave her apartment, but so far she hasn't been able to find a place she can afford or that will accept her.

"We all struggle at some point, especially people living paycheck to paycheck," she says.

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