Correction: This story, including the headline, has been updated to reflect that the Tenants’ Bill of Rights document is not yet complete and that Council member Freeman intends to introduce the document at an upcoming Durham City Council work session. 

Durham City Council member DeDreana Freeman said at a work session August 5 that she intends to introduce a resolution to protect tenants during a council work session. 

Freeman, who represents the city’s Ward 1, mentioned the “Tenants’ Bill Of Rights,” a document that is still being drafted by the Bull City Tenants United, to the council. The council voted to place the resolution on a future work session agenda once it is complete before it can be formally voted on. 

“We have to get it on the agenda before we can start talking about it,” Freeman, a staunch equity advocate first elected to the council in 2017 and up for re-election this year, told the INDY.

The tenant’s rights resolution has garnered the support of a handful of activist groups throughout the city and comes amidst growing concerns nationwide over the federal moratorium on evictions and foreclosures that ended over the weekend. 

It’s also a grassroots response to the Biden administration’s call for local governments to take action on behalf of their residents to avert a housing crisis following the end of a moratorium imposed by the Centers for Disease Control that ended on July 31.

The federal agency on Tuesday issued a new narrow order that temporarily halts evictions in counties “with heightened levels of community transmission in order to respond to recent, unexpected developments in the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the rise of the Delta variant.”

A CDC press release indicated that the new order targets “specific areas of the country where cases are rapidly increasing, which likely would be exacerbated by mass evictions.”

Freeman told the INDY that housing subcommittees with the city’s Racial Equity Task Force have been working in tandem with Bull City Tenants United (BCTU) to develop the bill of rights “to undergird those in our renter community with clear rental oversight.”

The councilwoman pointed to struggling families across the city who in addition to the pressures of a general housing market are finding it even more challenging to keep a roof over their heads in the face of gentrification, the pandemic, “and just plain old poverty,” she said, adding that those most in need of support with the eviction moratorium are low-income residents and people of color.

“[Durham District Court] Judge Pat Evans and [Durham County] District Attorney Satana Deberry and the courts have also been critical to this conversation, and we’re almost there,” Freeman added.

BCTU, a Durham advocate for low-income renters, said in a press release that North Carolina “is one of the least tenant-friendly states in the country,” and “COVID-19 has only exacerbated Durham’s affordable housing crisis,” which was taking place even before the pandemic. 

In November 2019, months before the pandemic shut down the city, Durham residents voted overwhelmingly to approve a $95 million housing bond, the largest in the state’s history.

Funding from the bond, along with an additional $65 million from local and federal sources, was earmarked to build 1,600 new affordable housing units and preserve 800 affordable rental units; move 1,700 homeless individuals and households into permanent housing; create affordable homeownership opportunities for 400 first-time homebuyers; and assist 3,000 low-income renters and homeowners remain in or improve their homes. 

Following the economic fallout from the pandemic city and county leaders set aside $1.1 million in federal emergency funding to create emergency rental assistance for low-income renters impacted by COVID-related job losses. Another $2.6 million in federal emergency funding was deployed to address COVID-related impacts on homeless individuals and families. Meanwhile, over $300,000 in emergency operating assistance was made available to nonprofit affordable housing developers to help them weather the economic fallout of the COVID pandemic, according to the City of Durham website.

Freeman says even with millions of dollars in emergency funding to help keep residents in their homes during and after the pandemic, there’s a need for clear-cut guidelines to define the relationship between renters and landlords.

“There’s no place for renters to go and have their say,” she said. “There are no real clear guidelines of what their rights are.”

The Bull City Tenants United release points to an analysis in The New York Times, which found that 15 percent of renting households in Durham owe an average of $3,399 in back rent.

“That comes out to over $22.5 million that is needed to mitigate the immediate effects of the pandemic on Durham renters’ housing needs,” according to the release.

BCTU says that as a response to the current crisis and moving forward, the Tenants’ Bill of Rights would “guarantee a baseline of dignified tenant housing in Durham, including requiring all rental units to meet basic health and safety standards, undergo regular inspections, and receive timely repairs. It would also give tenants the right to stay and not be displaced, the right to collectively bargain, and many more protections for renters.”

Junie Harris, a member of the Garden Terrace Tenants Union who’s been living at Garden Terrace for 21 years, says her apartment was falling apart for years with mold and holes in the ceiling. 

“It was scary,” Harris said in the release. “Other tenants could be in even worse situations. If the City Council wants to stand up for tenants’ rights, the Homes Guarantee is a good place to start. With more rights we have more power and protection to stand up for ourselves and each other.” 

Housing advocates say the council’s adoption of the resolution would be the first step in a larger process of reforming the political and legal landscape in Durham to start equalizing the deep power imbalance between landlords and tenants.

The BCTU press release ended with a refrain seen on signs throughout Durham well before the pandemic: “Housing is a human right!”


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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.