A citywide campaign to raise money for emergency rental assistance, a property maintenance fund and a reading assignment are among the recommendations the Durham Human Relations Commission is making to address evictions in Durham.

The commission unanimously approved its 2018 Report on the Evictions Crisis in Durham County during its meeting Tuesday, although its possible the report could see some additional tweaks. It’s a response to the thousands of eviction filings that take place in Durham County each year.

“When a person in Durham County loses their home to an eviction, they may lose their possessions, sense of community, and their children may need to change schools as their family is forced to move,” the report begins. “The uprooting of so many residents on an annual bases has the tendency to fracture our community and weakens the cohesiveness of our neighborhoods, religious institutions and businesses. This report is a call to action, not just to our city and county leaders, but to all of Durham.”

The report makes six recommendations:

  • City, county and/or community funding for the Eviction Diversion Program, an initiative launched by Duke’s Civil Justice Clinic, Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Durham County Department of Social Services last year.
  • A means for the city refer residents to the Eviction Diversion Program.
  • A citywide campaign “to raise funds for additional and less restricted emergency rental assistance.” (Social Services has several pots of money for providing rental assistance, but those typically require tenants to be elderly, disabled, or be able to prove they will have income in the future, which may eliminate tenants who are facing eviction because they lost a job. Tenants can generally use those funds once in a year.)
  • A landlord maintenance fund to help landlords pay for repairs to substandard, affordable housing.
  • An eviction task force that would coordinate between tenants, landlords, lawyers and service providers and advise city and county officials.
  • That City Council members read Evicted, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Matthew Desmond.

As the INDY reported last year, Durham County has consistently seen the highest rate of eviction filings per resident among North Carolina’s largest counties since at least 2010.

From July 2016 to June 2017, there were 10,134 summary ejectment filings, a legal action seeking to evict a tenant. That’s down from just over 14,000 in fiscal year 2010 — a time when many jurisdictions were still seeing high numbers of evictions fomented by the recession.

Data from the Administrative Office of the Courts show that about half of the eviction cases filed in Durham are granted by a judge. That judgment leaves a mark on a tenant’s rental and credit history and can make it difficult to be approved for another place to live, sometimes forcing people who have been evicted into substandard housing.

Maps by DataWorks NC show high instances of eviction filings along major corridors with a lot of apartment complexes, but also in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and census tracts with higher nonwhite populations.

“Gentrification and eviction disproportionately affect lower-income neighborhoods; it seems convincing that the rise in evictions and the simultaneous gentrification of low income regions are related,” the HRC report reads.

A draft of the report had included a recommendation to create a tenant certification program, in which evicted tenants would learn about money management and tenant rights and responsibilities and be certified by the program. Patterned after other programs already in use in Durham, the intent is to vouch for tenants whose records contain an eviction so they can avoid being denied by other landlords.

That recommendation was nixed (at least for now) after Commission Risa Foster raised concerns about its feasibility and the phrasing of the recommendation, although commissioners agreed there is a need to help evicted tenants move forward.

“It feels like we’re blaming the victim, the tenant,” she said.

HRC Commissioner Phil Seib, who chairs the Affordable Housing committee that drafted the document, said the commission will continue to work on that proposal. Seib said the report will go to the Durham City Council for consideration.

Commissioner Felicia Arriaga raised the need for more specifics addressing evictions among undocumented residents, who may not come to eviction court when summoned or who may be forced out illegally by landlords who know their status.

While the number of eviction filings in court has fallen, it’s difficult to get a picture of how many evictions are happening outside of the court system. While Social Services and Legal Aid can’t assist undocumented tenants, the Civic Justice Clinic can.

Information compiled by DataWorks NC suggests there’s a seasonality to evictions. A chart comparing summary ejectment filings in Durham and Wake counties since July 2010 follow practically identical dips and jumps, falling in February and March each year and spiking around December, January, May and June.
(Wake had about five thousand more eviction filings than Durham last fiscal year, but has triple the population).

Eviction Diversion Program attorneys say many of their clients are facing eviction after losing seasonal jobs. Commissioner Ricardo Correa said he has been hearing from people in his church who are facing eviction because recent rains have caused them to lose hours at work.

“Even in circumstances they can’t control, they’re forced to deal with the hand they have,” he said.

Several of the commissioners sat in on eviction court in December to get a better understanding of the process. There, they observed that most tenants were black
specifically black women and did not have a lawyer.

The Human Relations Commission previously issued a report on the Durham County Detention Facility, which, although it was never formally discussed by the Durham City Council, has figured into conversations in the past year around cash bail, visitation policies, and mental health care at the jail. Before that, the commission, at the request of former Mayor Bill Bell, reviewed allegations of racial bias within the Durham Police Department.