Durham County has the highest eviction filing rate among North Carolina’s ten largest counties. A collaboration between Duke’s Civil Justice Clinic, the Durham County Department of Social Services and Legal Aid of North Carolina aims to change that.

From July 2015 to June 2016, there was one eviction case brought to magistrate court for every twenty-eight Durham residents. On average, 887 eviction cases were filed each month in that one-year-period.

The total for the previous year was even higher, with an average of 916 filings per month.

The statistics are sobering in a county struggling to provide affordable housing for residents amid rising property values and gentrification. While evictions can be initiated because of a breach of a lease agreement or criminal activity, most cases simply come down to an inability to pay one month’s rent.

“Both Raleigh and Durham are really popular areas for growth and with growth people see opportunities to increase prices. … As more development comes to the area, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed,” says Jesse McCoy, who as a supervising attorney with Duke Law School’s Civil Justice Clinic is helping to launch the pilot eviction diversion program with Durham County Department of Social Services.

The goal is to redirect tenants that would have gone through eviction proceedings to legal help and rental assistance that they can use to keep a roof over their heads, while saving landlords on court costs and potential income loss.

The program is slated to launch August 1. Modeled after a similar program in Michigan, it appears to be the only one of its kind in North Carolina.

Charles Holton, director of the Civil Justice Clinic, was partly inspired to launch the program by Matthew Desmond’s Pultizer Prize-winning Evicted, which followed eight families trying to stave off eviction. He knew Durham had a high eviction rate, but when he got the data from the Administrative Office of the Courts, was dismayed to learn county had the highest rates per population two years in a row.

Under the program, when a tenant receives a summons to appear in court for an eviction case, they would also receive a brochure advising them to call DSS if they’ve missed a rent payment and need financial assistance. DSS would then connect the tenant to various emergency financial assistance programs to help pay the rent owed and refer the case to Legal Aid of North Carolina to be resolved.

“Our focus is to keep people in their homes,” McCoy says.

Being evicted can not only leave a person or family homeless, it can have lasting health and material impacts. A study by Desmond and other researchers of mothers and children who have been evicted found higher rates of depression, stress, poor health outcomes and difficulty getting necessities like food, clothing and medicine.

“Evictions have significant consequences in several ways,” Holton said. “First and foremost the family is dislodged from its dwelling place and that has immediate implications with regard to schools, with regard to childcare, with regard to health care. The next step can frequently be homelessness, or at least homelessness for a period of time which can be very disruptive to family life.”

According to a 2015 report by Housing for New Hope, which works to end homelessness, unemployment and evictions are the top reasons people served by the organization became homeless, although an eviction is usually the result of another problem, like losing a job, unexpected medical costs or a sudden increase in rent.

An eviction judgment can hinder a person’s ability to sign a lease, qualify for housing assistance like Section 8 vouchers or really anything else that requires a credit check.

As awareness of the program grows, the hope is that more landlords will voluntarily refer tenants to the diversion program instead of initiating the eviction process.

“Something we appreciate is that some of those smaller landlords are also borderline financially as well,” Holton said. Start to finish, an eviction case costs a landlord $181 in court costs, not to mention attorney fees.

The eviction process can be swift and confusing, especially for a tenant who is facing eviction because of some other crisis.

“It is a real David and Goliath situation in most cases for poor people in the court system,” Holton said. “… The landlords often have their own attorney who is well-familiar with all the procedures knows all the magistrates, knows all the clerks, might have fifteen or twenty cases whereas for the tenant it’s probably the first time and by definition can’t hire any attorney.”

Finding rental assistance can be similarly complicated. In addition to other organizations, Durham County DSS administers four programs that provide emergency financial help for various qualifying groups. The diversion program’s intake process intends to make this simpler.

“One of the things we found looking into this is that there is very little coordination between those groups and sometimes a tenant might be bouncing from one to another to another trying to find a particular bucket of assistance for which the tenant might be eligible,” Holton said.

The program could also provide more oversight of fair housing practices and use of public assistance by exposing tenants to DSS and Legal Aid employees.

“My hope is we will be able to find out who the bad actors and if there is abuse of the system,” McCoy said.

Success of the program will be measured primarily by whether the number of summary ejectment filings in court goes down.

“If we can show any kind of dent we will regard that as meaningful and we hope to take the program on the road to other areas,” Holton said.