Instead of carollers, a different kind of holiday spirit and cheer erupted on a quiet downtown Durham street Friday morning when a group of young activists stood in front of the offices of the Durham Housing Authority urging the agency to implement a moratorium on evictions during the holiday season.

Members of The Emergency Committee to End the Durham Eviction Crisis describe themselves as “a broad, coalitional effort of concerned individuals and organizations fighting to end evictions and the affordable housing crisis in Durham.”

On Friday, the group announced they had more than 500 signatures on a petition urging the DHA, city council members, the mayor, county commissioners and sheriff to halt evictions through March 31. 

“Historical trends indicate that the number of evictions increase over the holidays, which puts families and vulnerable individuals in even more precarity,” Old North Durham resident Loan Tran said, reading from the petition. 

DHA has already attempted to evict about 40 percent of its households, filling seven times more evictions this year than Greensboro Housing Authority, twenty times more that Charlotte and thirty-five times more than Raleigh, according to AJ Williams, who co-chairs the Durham chapter of Beyond Policing 100. 

A moratorium is not without precedent,  Tran said, as “Oakland, CA and Richmond, VA have implemented similar measures.”

“We believe there are better alternatives to allowing the flood of eviction filings to go unchecked,” Tran said. 

Among the twenty-five or so people gathered in a parking lot just across from the DHA was Anthony Scott, the agency’s executive director. Scott told the activists and their supporters that, following eviction reforms earlier this year, the agency already has a “de facto moratorium” that has reduced evictions by fifty-percent over the last four months.

“There’s no need for a moratorium,” Scott explained to the activists and residents, “because if a resident talks with us [about making pay arrangements], no eviction is filed.”

Union organizer Dante Strobino replied that the number of DHA evictions had increased in October and November.

“You don’t have a de facto moratorium if people are being evicted,” Strobino said. “How can you have a de facto moratorium if people are being evicted?’

“My grandmother helped to build this city. Today, she can’t buy a toy for Christmas, she can’t afford a place to stay,” Dennis Garrett, who manages several transitional houses for recovering addicts in East Durham, said to Scott, before turning his ire on the moratorium committee and noted that there have been more than 800 DHA evictions this year.

“You said ‘yes’ to the bond,” Garrett said. “Y’all voted for this. Y’all make sure you take care of the 800 people out here.”

Garrett’s commented was pointed.

The authority over the next five years will receive nearly $59 million dollars to renovate five of its public housing projects after Durham voters in November overwhelmingly approved a $95 million bond to fund affordable housing efforts. Prior to the bond vote, the authority was cast into the public glare for its high eviction rate.

Scott, in August, promised reforms following revelations that the DHA had filed 540 eviction cases in the first six months of the year. 

Although unrelated, in early October, the city’s Department of Public Works fined the DHA $47,250 for ten violations in connection with the agency’s failure to repair a raw sewage leak erupting from a manhole at the McDougald Terrace housing complex, and public works officials announced an ongoing investigation of raw sewage running from a stormwater pipe at the housing complex into the nearby Rocky Creek.

“We demand that not a dime of the housing bond be released to DHA until it stops its out of control eviction filings,” Williams said Friday.

Scott listened intently, while supporters of the moratorium offered up an unsettling succession of heartbreaking stories of what has happened to some residents who were evicted in the midst of the city’s ongoing housing construction, where condos are selling for six and sometimes seven figures, and rent sometimes reaches $2,000 a month.

“It hurts to see a 19-year-old white girl at Blackwell Street and Jackie Robinson Boulevard, almost eight months pregnant, having her baby under a bridge,” Garrett told Scott.

Military veteran Gary R. Green, called for an audit of the DHA, and he leveled accusations of preferential treatment and nepotism at the agency’s hiring practices and housing choices, while the elderly, older people, the poor and people on fixed incomes, ”run around here, trying to find housing.

“They house their friends and family,” Green added. “DHA will house their friends and family before housing anybody from the homeless shelter. I have been here sixty-two years. “I’ve seen it with every decade.”

Rafiq Zaidi said DHA’s “focus on evictions and money,” is helping to exacerbate the potential for violence in public housing communities and in other parts of the city.

Last month, McDougald Terrace and the Liberty Street Apartments in recent months, were the scenes of deadly shootings over a forty-eight period that killed two people and wounded eight others. One of the victims was fatally shot near McDougald Terrace. The other was killed near the intersection of Liberty and Dillard streets. The shooting happened about a block from the Liberty Street housing complex, closer still to the new police headquarters and in the shadow of upscale apartment building construction, where evicted residents can’t even begin to contemplate living.

Zaidi, who is seventy-five, said soon after nine-year-old Z’yon Person was shot in August, he went before the city council and named those responsible for the child’s death.

Zaidi told Scott there are families in McDougald Terrace and the Liberty Street apartments sheltering armed criminals.

“Get the hoodlums out so we can live there safely,” Zaidi said.

Part of the perception that Scott is fighting to supplant is the view that his agency deals with  tenants in a cavalier fashion—brushing aside or disrespecting them, because of their economic status; as if their poverty is a sin that they are solely responsible for.

Scott said part of the reason why the DHA will continue to rely on a de facto moratorium is due to guidelines mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The agency’s reform policies adequately addresses the eviction issue, he said. 

“Get the word out,” he said. “Get in touch with us. There’s a healthy and responsible way to do this.”