When Jerry Ellis started renting his current residence—a dilapidated cabin on the banks of the Eno River, built in 1905 as a day camp for children with tuberculosis—he was sure that he would live there until he died.
It was 2015, and the cabin, one of seven homes owned by the Eno River Association (ERA) on Open Air Camp Road in Durham, appeared to be at no risk of being sold; Ellis’s neighbors, most of whom had been renting their ERA-owned homes for years prior, had been told by property management company V.S. Rich Property Services that they would never have to worry about displacement, and many intended to eventually initiate rent-to-own agreements.
Ellis quickly learned that the cabin’s stability—and affordability, at $775 a month—came with a catch: almost every time he contacted the property manager, Vicky Rich, with requests for repairs, she threatened to raise his rent, he says. (Rich, who is also the president of the management company, said she was not available to respond to the INDY’s request for comment.) With a fixed income of $800 a month, Ellis couldn’t risk a rent increase, but he also couldn’t live safely in the decaying cabin.
So, operating under the assumption that he would live there for the rest of his life, Ellis, a trained woodworker, spent the subsequent seven years taking matters into his own hands.
When the pillars supporting the cabin’s second-floor deck started to crumble, Ellis went into his backyard, cut down a few trees, and jacked up the deck with segmented tree trunks. When he noticed that his walls were covered in black mold, he bought a gallon of bleach and scrubbed them sterile. When a water test showed that his pipes were leaching lead, he started purchasing bottled water to drink and resigned himself to bathing and washing his clothes in contaminated water. When a tree fell on the roof, he hoisted it off himself.
He patched leaks and sealed foundation gaps. He built and installed doors, kitchen cabinets, and a closet. And he made the place his own: All of the rooms—even the ones he doesn’t go into anymore because their ceilings are falling in—are decorated with posters and photographs. One of his DIY tree trunk pillars has a knotty outgrowth that he’s named Fred.
The cabin, in its current state, is still on the verge of unlivable. The water is nonpotable. There are leaks that Ellis, who is now 65, hasn’t been able to fix, so the black mold persists. The lead-contaminated water and the toxic mold have had a dire impact on his health. When it rains, water runs through his living room.
But he loves living there. The cabin comes with sentimental value—a Durham native, Ellis attended parties at the cabin during his high school years, when it functioned as the headquarters for a local motorcycle club—and stunning scenery: every morning, Ellis greets the squirrels and deer in his front yard, and every night, he sits on the deck to watch the moonlight bounce off the river.
And he’s felt OK about fixing the place up. After all, there’s no way that the ERA would sell it out from under him—not after all the work and money he’s put into it, and not after the assurances his neighbors received from property management.
Or so he thought, until last month, when he received a notice to vacate.
The other tenants got one, too.
Four of the households—which had 13 tenants between them at the time but now boast 14, thanks to a newborn baby—were instructed to vacate by July 2023. The other three, with 12 tenants, including Ellis, would be given less than two months to move out. All of the properties were going to be sold.
“My blood pressure went up,” Ellis says. “My heart dropped to my toes. I couldn’t eat.”
His neighbors were similarly panic-stricken. Like Ellis, nearly all of them had felt silenced by Rich and had spent years making major repairs with their own money—and like Ellis, who says he’s preparing to pack up his clothes and move to the street, none of the tenants have any idea where they’re going to find affordable housing elsewhere in Durham. A number of tenants, under the illusion of housing security, had recently decided to expand their families. For them, the notice of displacement was particularly shocking.
But the biggest surprise was yet to come: the sale, which seemed so sudden, had always been the plan.
Founded in 1966 as North Carolina’s first land trust, the Eno River Association has been acquiring property for decades.
The majority of this property—4,500 acres—has been transferred to the Eno River State Park, and an additional 3,000 acres have been used to create a handful of local parks and nature preserves.
But the ERA is also sitting on some land.
As a nonprofit, the ERA is able to acquire property at a much faster rate than the state parks department. So when a parcel of land—one that falls within the Eno River State Park’s 8,000-acre “master plan”—goes up for sale, the ERA can quickly purchase it and hold it for future transfer, when the state has enough resources to buy and maintain it.
This is why, between 1984 and 2001, the ERA bought 18 acres of land on Open Air Camp Road.
“We don’t usually purchase land with structures on them,” says Jessica Sheffield, executive director of the ERA. “So it was like, OK, we can’t just hold land and have the houses fall into disrepair. That would be an eyesore for the neighborhood, and it’s going to take away from the whole purpose of our conservation efforts. What we could do, though, is provide affordable housing for families in the interim.”
Sheffield seems skeptical when the INDY tells her that a number of the houses have indeed fallen into disrepair.
“I can’t imagine a scenario in which [property management] would have denied anyone a necessary repair to make the home habitable,” she says.
(Sheffield later tells the INDY that property management staff assured her “they made the repairs tenants requested” and that she hasn’t “heard anything about rent increases or threats.”)
Sheffield doesn’t know why tenants were never notified of the long-term plan to sell the properties—she’s only been the executive director for three years, she says—but notes that each tenant’s lease agreement was changed to month-to-month after their first year of renting.
“I guess I thought the month-to-month leases would speak for themselves about the lack of perpetuity,” she says.
One tenant, who began renting month-to-month after her lease expired earlier this year, tells the INDY that property management explained the shift as an act of goodwill; “since COVID happened, a lot of people are moving and we didn’t want anybody to be bogged down,” she remembers the manager saying.
Other tenants didn’t realize that the month-to-month lease carried such an implication.
So in June, when Rich and a crew of state park employees did walk-throughs of the seven ERA houses, the tenants didn’t realize what was going on: that almost 40 years after the ERA started purchasing properties on Open Air Camp Road, the state was finally preparing to cash in, with plans to use their homes as free housing for park employees. (Housing, according to Sheffield, is a key part of the department’s compensation package for staff.)
“We couldn’t understand why park rangers were literally going through our house,” says Jennifer Norton, a tenant who has lived with her partner, Jaime, in a quaint Open Air Camp Road home for almost a decade. “Now I realize they were sizing it up. They were deciding who wants to live where.”
At the time of the walk-throughs, the state was simply “evaluating their renewed interest in putting park staff in the homes,” Sheffield says, but two months later, the ERA learned that the sale “was going to happen, and it was going to happen with some expedience.”
Sheffield, as well as several ERA board members, consistently use passive language when discussing the sale with the INDY, as if the ERA—the legal owner of the properties—has no say in what happens to them.
The ERA has not confirmed or denied whether the transfer—which has not yet happened—is written into a binding contract with the state. Sheffield says the state parks department and the ERA have yet to determine a sale price. (The state parks department did not respond to the INDY’s request for comment.)
“We have, at a minimum, a verbal agreement, which sometimes can be as binding as a written agreement,” says ERA board vice president Peter Raabe. “But I don’t know if we have a written agreement.”
If the board ends up voting on the sale, it will be decided by consensus, Raabe says, and he and his fellow members will strive to “make sure that we are not causing more harm than we’ve already caused.”
Raabe says the ERA recently learned that the state will not be equipped to make the purchase until the spring of 2023, which is good news for the tenants who originally had to vacate before the end of the year. Their new move-out date is May 31, which gives them more time to organize—and they already have a strong head start.
They’ve collected 475 signatures on their “stop the evictions” petition, and they shook things up at an ERA business meeting on Sunday, delivering speeches that were so moving—and so well reasoned—that a board member in the audience audibly said, “This is going to be a big PR problem.”
At the meeting, the tenants also spelled out their demands: Rescind the notices to vacate. Turn the houses over to tenant ownership using a shared equity land trust model, where the homes remain affordable in perpetuity and the land is preserved in trust. Bring the homes up to healthy habitability standards using the rent profits. Consider transferring the excess vacant land on the parcels to Indigenous stewardship. And finally, provide documentation that proves the ERA is legally bound to the sale. (And if the ERA cannot provide documentation, it must immediately carry out the four aforementioned demands.)
The board members in attendance expressed a desire to continue the dialogue in coming weeks and requested that tenants provide them with a list of questions.
In the month since the tenants started organizing, the ERA has thrown them a bone or two: the association has waived all upcoming rent payments and sent tenants a list of housing resources (albeit ones with years-long waiting lists, according to tenants).
By and large, though, the looming displacement—and the years of property negligence—call the ERA’s mission into question.
If the ERA is dedicated to “protecting water quality,” why is it lording over tenants who’ve been forced to bathe in lead-contaminated water for years?
If the ERA states that protecting land is “necessary due to colonial practices” that have “dispossessed many peoples of color,” why is it displacing 26 tenants, 18 of whom are people of color, during a housing crisis?
“These tenants aren’t all families of color,” Sheffield says. “That’s not what this is about.”
So what is it about? Money? Environmentalism? A four-decade-old verbal agreement?
The tenants have yet to receive a straight answer about why the sale has to happen now. And they’re dealing with enough stress as is.
One tenant, Brenda, who lives in the same black-mold-infested cabin as Ellis, has COPD. Another has stage IV cancer. Two married tenants had a baby two weeks ago, and the baby has since been hospitalized due to complications. That same couple has a teenage daughter with a rare condition that requires her to get a surgical operation every six months, and the doctors at Duke Hospital are some of the few in the world with the expertise to perform the procedure. If the couple is displaced from their Open Air Camp Road home—which they’ve inhabited for the past 18 years—they’ll almost certainly have to leave Durham and will lose their proximity to the hospital.
And then there’s Sheba Everett, a tenant who is raising five daughters on her own. When Everett moved her family to Open Air Camp Road two and a half years ago, shortly after fleeing an abusive marriage, she found “a peace that her life needed.”
She’d been displaced many times in the past, she says, and was relieved when Rich told her she could rent the house for as long as she wanted.
In February, Everett’s brother was murdered. Her father-in-law had been murdered several months prior. Housing stability gave her the strength to support her children in the wake of these losses, she says.
Since receiving the notice to vacate, Everett has been looking for a house to buy. She’s determined to stay in Durham; generations of her family have lived there, and she has spiritual ties to the land.
But she can’t even afford the homes in the East Durham neighborhood where she grew up. She doesn’t understand how the ERA can justify putting her family out on the street.
“It seems like they care more about the land than the people,” Everett says. “Who are you conserving this land for? Who is it for, if not for me and my children? Who is it for?”
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