On Monday, following revelations last week that the Durham Housing Authority had filed 540 eviction cases in the first six months of 2019—compared to eighteen filed in the same timeframe by its Raleigh counterpart, according to a Legal Aid attorney—the agency promised reforms.

“For the first six months of this year, the DHA filing rate has been triple that of 2016 and thirty times higher than the Raleigh Housing Authority’s filing rate for the same six-month period,” Peter Gilbert, supervising attorney of Durham’s Eviction Diversion Program, wrote in a July 10 letter to Dan Hudgins, who chairs the DHA’s board of commissioners.

Of those 540 proceedings, 20 percent have been for nonpayment of the DHA’s $50 minimum monthly rent, says Sarah D’Amato, an attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Durham office. And most of those facing eviction are single black women, Gilbert says.

That stands to reason. A majority of the families who rely on the DHA for housing are headed by single black women. The average DHA tenant makes about $13,000 a year, Hudgins says, and more than 90 percent are black. Eighty-two percent are families, most led by single women.

Hudgins says board members raised the eviction issue with Anthony Scott, the DHA’s CEO, on July 10. While only a “small number” of public housing residents facing eviction were actually removed from their homes, Hudgins says, Scott agreed that changes need to be made. 

Among the reforms the agency announced this week: having the DHA’s general counsel review the tenant’s case before filing for eviction; partnering with the city’s Eviction Diversion Program to help at-risk families; creating hardship exemptions and alternative means for tenants to pay their rent; and training DHA staffers to guide tenants facing eviction to resources offered by county social services.

Scott, who said in a press release that the “comprehensive changes” were made after “meeting with our tenants and community housing advocates,” could not be reached for comment.

The reforms took effect on August 12. Already, the DHA appears to be slowing the rate at which it seeks eviction. Of the forty-seven eviction cases filed in Durham County this month, only one came from the DHA. In that case, a resident at McDougald Terrace has been ordered to leave because her juvenile son was charged with shooting another child in the eye with a BB pistol. 

Still, Lutrenda Sumpter is not impressed.

For the last seven years, Sumpter, a disabled African American woman, has paid $214 a month to live in DHA apartments. But in February, the DHA filed to evict her, claiming that Sumpter only made partial payments toward her monthly rent of $679 for December and January. 

The problem is that the DHA has not recertified Sumpter’s housing voucher, which covers the gap between her income and a property’s fair market value. Without that certification, Sumpter was on the hook for the whole $679, though she kept paying $214. 

D’Amato, Sumpter’s attorney, says the DHA delayed her voucher recertification because the authority said Sumpter did not present “up-to-date bank statements.” Multiple DHA officials did not respond to requests for comment about her case.

In February, a court threw out the DHA’s case. According to D’Amato, the authority failed to notify Sumpter that her voucher hadn’t been recertified. 

She knows now. But on D’Amato’s advice, she’s still paying $214 a month. She can’t afford to pay more, she says. 

The DHA hasn’t tried to evict her again, but it also hasn’t settled the certification problem. On May 9, it sent her a letter informing her that she had fourteen days to vacate the premises. Two days before the deadline, she received a notice telling her she had an outstanding balance of more than $3,800. Three months later, the balance is now more than $5,000. 

Sumpter says a previous DHA apartment on Glasson Street was infested with black mold; while living there, she was diagnosed with a weakened heart complicated by breathing problems. She also says that DHA maintenance workers didn’t unclog her bathroom sink and tub, and she had to wear mud boots to stand in the shower.

“I didn’t get sick until I moved in that building,” Sumpter says. “You got people drinking mold, eating mold, and you are charging them rent.”

“They’re just sitting on that balance, and it’s looming over her head, not knowing what they’re going to do,” D’Amato says. “If they try to evict her, we will bring up these issues.”

While her client isn’t optimistic that the DHA’s reforms will amount to much, D’Amato calls them a “step in the right direction.” 

Other housing advocates agree. 

Charles Holton, the director of the Civil Justice Clinic at the Duke School of Law, helped establish a pilot eviction diversion program at the university in 2017. 

“We look forward to working with [the DHA] to reduce the number of evictions,” he says, “which are a blight on our entire community.”

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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