Alex Prolman, a volunteer organizer for Bull City Tenants United, a local organization of renters who want to build tenant power and put an end to evictions, has his fair share of landlord horror stories.

For five years, he lived in an apartment with a major roof leak, he told Durham’s city council members at a virtual work session last week. The landlord refused to make repairs, Prolman said, but would spray the roof with a thin sealant every three to four months. 

“The sealant would last about two hours’ worth of rain, then it would start raining throughout the apartment,” Prolman said. 

Prolman, a Durham Tech student who works as a nursing assistant at UNC Hospitals, said that over time, he and his roommates feared being electrocuted, so they would minimize their use of electricity when it rained. Worse, while Prolman and his roommates suffered from asthma attacks, respiratory infections, constant fatigue, and unexplained rashes, they realized the roof had become “a mold factory.” Prolman said laws that allow mold to go unaddressed were “a failure of public health officials,” because controlling for the substance is “not a part of the public health code.”

Durham’s city and county leaders readily acknowledge that addressing the rise in violent crime and keeping communities safe are top priorities. But with soaring rental and home prices, perhaps the greatest existential threat moving forward remains the question, Who gets to live in the Bull City?

Last week, the council members referred a list of recommendations from Bull City Tenants United to the city’s manager and deputy city manager that proposes to shift the balance of power in landlord-tenant relationships.

The city is seeking legal expertise before crafting a tenants’ rights bill, a concept that was first introduced to the city council in early August by council member DeDreana Freeman on behalf of the tenants’ rights group and housing advocates. The need to protect tenants’ rights came to the forefront amid growing concerns about the end of the blanket federal moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

There were 13 recommendations submitted to the council as a means of protecting residents, but a number of the proposed measures are preempted by state law, city attorney Kimberly Rehberg stated in an October 20 letter to the city council. 

For instance, Rehberg points to a 2019 state legislative bill that would have allowed city and county officials to “repair, close, or demolish a dwelling deemed unfit for human habitation due to fungal growth” (mold) that poses a health risk. House Bill 1012 never made it out of committee.

Likewise, Rehberg noted that state law prohibits local governments from regular, mandatory inspection of rental units, unless it is for a “reasonable cause or as part of a targeted area to address blight.”

However, the city attorney wrote, state law does not make clear whether a tenant can withhold paying rent until repairs are made in the unit where they reside. Rehberg said that Charlotte has a provision in its city code that makes it unlawful for the owner of a place of habitation that is “imminently dangerous to health or safety to collect rent” from the occupant of the residence at the time it was “imminently dangerous to health or safety.”

As the INDY previously reported, there is a forced, ongoing exodus of working-class African Americans from Durham’s inner city, driven by skyrocketing property taxes, an influx of new homes that are far beyond their financial reach, and neighbors who no longer look like them. They are selling their homes to developers and individuals for above, but not far above, market value. 

The issue becomes even more complicated by the arrival of comparatively affluent newcomers who are looking for places to live during a citywide housing shortage. It’s a seller’s market and rental prices have soared far beyond what even those making a living wage can afford.

Today, the average rent for a Durham apartment is just over $1,400. According to the Living Wage Calculator for Durham, an adult with one child would have to earn a yearly income of $55,155 to afford it. 

Here in Durham, often touted as a mecca of Black history, arts, culture, and inclusivity, a little over 21 percent of African Americans live in poverty. Trying to make ends meet is even more dire for Latinx residents: more than 31 percent live below the poverty line. By comparison, just under 8 percent of whites in Durham live below the poverty line.  

As a consequence, Durham’s Black and Brown residents struggle to stay afloat and scrape up the financial means to rent substandard dwellings that fail to meet basic quality-of-living standards. Those dwellings include places like the Garden Terrace apartments in Lakewood, where many of the residents are Spanish speaking. Inspectors with the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Services Department visited Garden Terrace late last year and found 120 housing code violations.

Despite the harrowing outlook, Stella Adams, a nationally recognized expert on the Fair Housing Acts and former executive director of the NC Fair Housing Center, reminded the council members of their ability to address the city’s housing crisis, which impacts its most vulnerable residents. Adams’s case in point was the public health crisis that happened at the city’s oldest public housing complex months before the pandemic. It was in early January 2020 that gas leaks, mold conditions, lead paint, pervasive sewage issues, and the unexplained deaths of three infants at McDougald Terrace reached a tipping point. By the end of that month, the Durham Housing Authority reported elevated levels of carbon monoxide in 211 kitchen appliances after inspecting 346 apartments.  

“We had our public housing residents living in unaffordable conditions, unsafe conditions with stoves that are 70 years old. Endangered everyday,” Adams told the council. “And yet that’s public housing. That’s public money. One thing the city doesn’t need the state or federal government to do …. Any time a city dollar is spent on a property, you require an assurance and certification that it’s kept in a safe, habitable condition. If not, you can force those city dollars to be returned. That’s something you can put in the contract.”

Howard Machtinger is a policy team member of Bull City Tenants United.

Machtinger, during the work session, said the purpose of the recommendations is to support the city’s renters “in the short and long run who are facing multiple crises,” including “rampant gentrification and pending evictions.”

“Already, there [are] over 750 evictions since the moratorium ended, with rising rents and homes in disrepair,” Machtinger told the council members. 

Machtinger, who previously served on a housing subcommittee of the city’s Racial Equity Task Force, said contracts between landlords and tenants in North Carolina swing strongly in favor of the landlord.

“We want to shift the balance of power in the landlord-tenant relationship and expand the tenant rights,” he explained. “For instance, when we shop for toys or food there are assurances that [the items] are not toxic. What assurances are there for our close and intimate living spaces? Everyone in town is aware of the diminishing affordable housing. This is a snowballing crisis dramatically exacerbated by the pandemic. So the time is now. Tenants’ rights is one key for action.”

Five of the recommendations by Bull City Tenants United call for an expansion of housing codes to make sure the city’s renters are living in habitable homes, along with expanding the city’s use of emergency repairs when landlords are unresponsive, preventing landlords from charging for rent when their units are in disrepair, expanding access to home inspections particularly when language barriers arise and ensuring the availability of interpreters, and providing city support of tenants’ right to organize.

“We understand that much needs to be done on the state level,” Machtinger said. “But the city can and must do more to help tenants and provide affordable housing.”

Prolman, the Durham Tech student and organizer, also told of a family of six living in a two-bedroom apartment in the Lakewood district. The family, he said, “went weeks” that turned into three months before the landlord decided to replace a stove and refrigerator that had both gone out.

“Can you imagine trying to feed six people under those circumstances? How would that make you feel as a parent?” he asked. “This is the kind of passive violence that must be aggressively penalized by the city. It’s not okay for landlords to get a slap on the wrist for making people live like this.”

Prolman later added that “functional kitchen appliances must be a part of the housing code, and right now they are not.”

Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton echoed a unanimous sentiment among his fellow council members when he said that in addition to this “being a policy issue, it’s a moral issue, decent and safe housing.”

While wondering about the city’s legal authority to adopt the recommendations, Middleton said he wants “as robust and impactful [an] ordinance as we can deliver. Whatever it looks like, in every area we can.” 

At the end of a near-hour-long discussion, City Manager Wanda Page told the council members that she and her staff members had listened, taken notes, and wanted to review “point by point” the tenant group’s recommendations. She promised to return to the council “with more research and a comprehensive response.” 

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