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.
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 caseslike 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.
As evictions force Durham residents from low-cost apartments, they can also drive up the price of housing.
“When you have higher costs, the expense of owning the property goes up, and that’s what determines the rent of that unit,” says Jacob Rogers, director of government affairs for the Triangle Apartment Association. While a landlord pays to have a tenant evicted, he or she may be receiving no rental income for the unit.
Charles Holton, director of Duke’s Civil Justice Clinic, hopes landlords will see a financial incentive to refer tenants to the eviction diversion program rather than taking action in court.
“Something we appreciate is that some of those smaller landlords are also borderline financially as well,” Holton says.
From start to finish, the eviction process costs a landlord $181 to file court papers and have them served on a tenant. This doesn’t include attorney fees or the potential loss of income until a new tenant moves in.
Under the diversion program, tenants who receive a summons to appear in court for an eviction case would also receive a brochure advising them to call the DSS if they’ve missed a rent payment and need financial assistance. The DSS would then connect the tenant to various emergency financial assistance and refer the case to Legal Aid to be resolved.
Catherine Williamson-Hardy, the department’s interim director, doesn’t anticipate the need for any additional staff to administer the program, although employees are being trained in the intake program. DSS staff see clients “every day” facing housing insecurity, she says.
Legal Aid is hiring a second housing attorney. Gilbert says it’s “impossible to predict at this point” how the program will affect the caseload at the organization, which just received a $1.4 million blow to its budget, courtesy of the General Assembly.
Under the program, students in Duke’s Civil Justice Center will help represent tenants in court.
“This program is designed to at least have somebody who knows something about the tenant’s side of things take a look and see if there is anything else going on here besides simply an inability to pay the rent,” Holton says.
As a smile slowly spreads across his face, revealing perfectly straight, white teeth, you wouldn’t know that Ronald Miller, seventy-one, was in and out of homeless shelters for the past ten years.
“During that time, you lose sight of who you are because you are marching to the tune of someone else’s drum,” he says.
Miller has been evicted three times and stayed in shelters while he looked for a place to live that would accept his housing voucher and rental history. He’s been out for about a year and a half and now works with the Community Empowerment Fund helping others facing a similar search.
“Had I not been a senior citizen, I might still be looking,” he says.
Life after an eviction is particularly hard for the elderly and those with medical needs, Miller says. Shelter staff may not be able to provide as much care as needed, and many people don’t want to impose on friends and family.
“In my experience, it’s very common for people to stay with family for a short period of time,” says Gilbert. “That is more often true for people who are able to work and contribute to the family and is frankly less true for the disabled and the elderly, and for most of my clients who are disabled or elderly, the immediate next step is homelessness.”
About twelve hundred people enter the county’s homeless housing system each year, suggesting many who go through evictions aren’t in shelters.
For Aarona Ramsey, being in a shelter connected her to the resources she needed to recover from her most recent eviction. After ten months of working to build up her credit, apply for housing assistance, and secure a job as a certified nursing assistant, she and her two children have a home again. The twenty-five-year-old was evicted in November 2015 after falling behind on her bills between paychecks and was homeless until September 2016. It was the third time she experienced an eviction.
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.
Through a partnership between Families Moving Forward and Housing for New Hope, Ramsey last month was able to find a home that would accept her housing choice voucher. Ramsey beams when she talks about her new house, which is near her family and her son’s school.
“I want my son to learn an address,” she says.
This article appeared in print with the headline “The House Where Nobody Lives”