Four hundred and five days ago, a judge ordered Laticia Singleton to leave the Liberty Street apartment she shared with her sons. That month, June 2017, 871 eviction cases were filed in Durham County.
In the year since the INDY chronicled Singleton’s final day in her apartment, she’s stayed in her car, in hotel rooms, and with friends. She also sublet a room from a middle-school classmate she says retaliated against her when she told him she was moving out, causing her to once again be evicted despite a judge denying the classmate’s request to have her removed from the property.
“Now we have nowhere to go and there are no consequences for him,” she says.
The details of the caseinvolving dueling protective orders and a dispute the classmate says occurred quite differentlyare unique. But Singleton’s experience, of being forced by eviction and the costs that come with it into a worse living situation and a maze of insufficient resources for help, is common in a place that has had the highest eviction filing rate among North Carolina’s largest counties since at least 2005.
“Her story reflects the story of a lot of other folks in our community. There’s no doubt in my mind about that,” says Brent Ducharme, a Legal Aid attorney who represented Singleton and works with the Eviction Diversion Program that launched a year ago as a partnership between Legal Aid, Duke’s Civil Justice Clinic, and the Durham County Department of Social Services. “Once the eviction crisis becomes a reality in somebody’s life, once they’ve got that judgment against them and it becomes harder to find a place to rent from a more traditional landlord, that’s when you see these sorts of issues pop up. And in that way, it’s a powerful example of why it’s so important to try to help folks address these issues on the front end.”
Durham officials are trying to stem the cycle of instability that an eviction can cause.
The county is giving Social Services $90,000 more to spend on rental assistance in this year’s budget, and the city has budgeted $200,000 for two additional attorneys and a paralegal at Legal Aid, an investment Ducharme says could double the capacity of the program, where he’s currently the only full-time lawyer. In its first six months, the program helped 79 percent of its clients avoid evictions.
“Folks who get referred to mesingle mothers, elderly couples, young college kidsit really runs the gamut. Of course, by and large, they have the common thread of being members of the community who are low-wealth,” Ducharme says. “Experiencing that in the daily work has really driven home the scope of the eviction crisis in this community.”
In the year since the Eviction Diversion Program began, it has often been noted that Durham saw about ten thousand eviction cases initiated in fiscal year 2016, a number that has fallen since the recession but has nonetheless led the state when considered in terms of population. The number of actual evictions that occurred is lowerabout twenty-eight hundred in 2016, according to the Eviction Lab’s online databasebut even a complaint can show up on some tenant screening programs.
What these figures don’t encapsulate, however, is the number of informal evictions that don’t go through court. And research suggests these “self-help evictions”in which a landlord forces someone out by shutting off the power, throwing out belongings, or some other measuremay actually be more common than formal evictions.
A study of Milwaukee renters by Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Evicted and principal investigator for the Eviction Lab, found that 48 percent of evictions were informal, compared with 24 percent that went through the courts and 28 percent caused by condemnation or foreclosure.
Singleton’s situation falls somewhere in the middle.
Singleton and William Ballentine have different accounts of the approximately eight months she sublet a room without a lease in the Green Street duplex he’s rented for years. Ballentine sought to have Singleton evicted legally, but his request was denied. Yet Singleton and her two-year-old son were displaced anyway.
When Singleton was evicted from her Liberty Street apartment last summer, her mother had been renting from Ballentine for about two years. She went to stay with her, and when her mother moved out a few months later, Singleton decided to stay. Rent, at $400 per month, was cheap, and Ballentine only asked for $200 up front, less than a deposit and application at most other places.
Ballentine says Singleton took advantage of his generosity and skimped on rent, causing him to nearly be evicted himself. Singleton says it’s Ballentine who wasn’t paying his share and that he shut off the power in her room when she told him, in early May, that she planned to move out.
Because of their informal arrangement, there are no receipts to show what Singleton paid. Ballentine produced late-rent notices for January and May, months he says she didn’t pay. In the eviction complaint he filed May 8, Ballentine claimed no back rent owed and didn’t give any specific reason for seeking to have her evicted.
“I tried to do the right thing and go downtown and take the correct papers out,” he told the INDY. “I didn’t want anything from her. I just wanted her to move.” (Ballentine’s landlord, Edgewood Properties, declined to comment, saying the issue is between tenants.)
Singleton started locking the door to her bedroom, determined not to move as quickly as Ballentine wanted. She says he tried to break down the door with a hammer while she and her son were inside. Photographs included in court documents show gashes around the dented, loose doorknob. When Ballentine eventually got the door open, the door struck the two of them, prompting them to go to a hospital, Singleton wrote in court documents. (Singleton also suffers from seizures, which she says can be triggered by stress.)
Ballentine, on the other hand, says he was trying to give Singleton the eviction paperwork, and she ignored him. Unable to get her to open the door, he says he called Edgewood and was advised he could remove the doorknob. While trying to get the door open, he says he saw a taser in Singleton’s hand.
The next day, May 10, he filed for a protective order against her. The eviction complaint was dismissed on May 18, and Ballentine’s request for a protective order was denied on June 4. On June 8, Singleton sought her own protective order, citing the incident in which he tried to break down the door. That petition was granted, and he was not allowed to have any contact with her for one year. Ballentine was also “partially evicted” for one week while Singleton packed and moved out, taking as much with her as she could with nowhere to go but her son’s car.
After several days of sleeping in the car, Singleton got a hotel room for her, her toddler, and her twenty-year-old son, who stays with her in case she has a seizure. They stayed there for about two weeks and have bounced around since.
Her room on Green Street was rented out again, but some of her belongings remain there in boxes. Ballentine says the fact that they haven’t been tossed on the curb is a testament to his good will.
“I did everything I was supposed to do and I still lost,” Singleton says.
Ducharme says cases without a written lease don’t come to the Eviction Diversion Program much, but he often hears about them when he gives tenant rights workshops. When an informal lease and an informal eviction combine, tenants can be left with little means to hold landlords accountable for forcing them out.
“They’re already in a particularly vulnerable state, and I think, by virtue of that, [they] are perhaps even less able than the folks who are typically getting referred to us to navigate those channels to get to us in the first place,” he says.
Singleton’s situation is also indicative of limits on resources to help people facing eviction and homelessness in Durham.
She looked for a shelter to stay in but found they were either full or had prohibitive rules, like one place that wouldn’t allow meneven her three grown sons. She says she didn’t qualify for rental assistance programs administered by the Department of Social Services, which can typically only be drawn once in twelve months and require tenants to have an income below certain levels and proof of future income. She feels like she would have had an easier time getting help if she were worse offalone or with no income.
Between her disability check and the wages her son earns detailing cars, she says the family could afford a one-bedroom apartment. What they can’t afford is to save up for an application fee, deposit, moving expenses, and rent and keep a roof over their heads at the same time. At least for now, sitting in a dim hotel room while her toddler naps by her side, Singleton says all she is being offered is apologies.
“I’m sorry is not doing anything for us,” she says.