“The biggest thing for me,” Sheba Everett says, “is that my six-year-old will be able to say, ‘This is my childhood home. This is the home I grew up in.’”

On cue, six-year-old Hannah, the youngest of Everett’s five daughters, pokes her head out from behind a staircase banister and grins.

We’re sitting in the living room of a brick five-bedroom on Open Air Camp Road in Durham, situated several hundred feet from the banks of the Eno River, with a front yard so large that a trampoline, a fire pit, and a brawny, rope swing-strung oak tree barely put a dent in its real estate.

It’s a home that Everett has spent much of the past year fighting to keep. In spring of this year, the effort proved successful.

Everett is one of 27 tenants who faced displacement when the Eno River Association (ERA), a land trust and conservation nonprofit, issued eviction notices last year as part of a long-held plan to sell an 18-acre land parcel—and the seven homes that occupy it—to the state parks department. The state intended to use the homes as free housing for park rangers.

As the INDY previously reported, the tenants, some of whom have inhabited the homes for a decade or more, were shocked when notices to vacate were posted on their doors in September.

The ERA had not disclosed that the properties, affordably leased since the 1990s, were being held for a future transfer. In fact, property management company V.S. Rich Property Services had repeatedly assured tenants that they could stay on Open Air Camp Road for as long as they liked and one day initiate rent-to-own agreements. With that in mind, many had endured poor living conditions and invested their own dollars into repairs that property management refused to make. (Jessica Sheffield, executive director of the ERA, previously told the INDY that property management staff had assured her “they made the repairs tenants requested” and that she doesn’t know why tenants were never notified of the planned sale to the state.)

The eviction notices gave some households 10 months to vacate. Others were afforded less than two. Given current rent prices in Durham, displacement for most tenants would mean leaving the area or state or, at worst, encountering homelessness.

So they organized, and after months of incremental progress the tenants forged a legal agreement with the ERA. The organization published an insert for the Festival for the Eno in the INDY last month presenting a rescindment of the eviction notices and a plan to transfer most of the houses to a housing nonprofit that will ensure “they’re forever preserved as affordable homes in Durham.”

The ERA has also waived tenants’ rental payments since October and worked on needed repairs, according to the insert.

In an email to the INDY, Sheffield wrote that the organization cannot currently discuss further details of the agreement, including the identity of the housing nonprofit, due to a confidentiality clause in the land transaction.

In North Carolina, where tenant protections are scarce, winning an eviction case is rare. And winning a case in this way—where tenants can remain in their homes and start on a path to land trust ownership, and where permanently affordable housing is created in a lush neighborhood with shade and slow street traffic—is likely unprecedented. 

So how did they pull this off?

When Everett received an eviction notice—her household was one of three given less than two months to vacate—she immediately asked friends and coworkers to call the ERA. Branches Community School, where Everett works as a preschool teacher, launched a GoFundMe on her behalf. In a letter paired with the fundraiser, Everett bared her soul. 

She was a single mother with three jobs, she wrote. The same day she received the eviction notice, her eldest daughter’s car was totaled during a hit-and-run. She had recently exhausted her savings to pay for her late brother’s funeral expenses and support the children he left behind. She was reluctant to ask for help, she wrote, but she needed it.

 “I had no organizing experience,” says Everett, who has lived on Open Air Camp Road with her daughters since early 2020. “I didn’t know what to do. So I was just like, ‘I’m gonna tell my community.’” 

A few days later, Everett came home to find a letter taped to her front door. It was from her neighbors, Leslie (formerly Leslie Dreyer) and Jadelynn St Dre, a couple with more than a decade of organizing experience who had recently moved to Durham with their child following displacement from the Bay Area. 

The St Dres weren’t ERA tenants, they told Everett, but could help strategize around fighting the evictions. Everett was game. They began knocking on doors.

“We started by talking to people about their connection to the homes,” Leslie says. “We asked, ‘Do you want to stay here?’ which is different from, ‘Do you believe you can stay here?’”

If the latter question is posed, the conversation typically comes to a screeching halt, Leslie explains. But when people are encouraged to discuss the experiences they’ve had in a home, they internalize their right to remain there. Like most long-term tenants who pay off entire mortgages on homes via rent and get no equity, several ERA tenants realized that they had invested more money into their homes than their landlords. They wanted to push back.

“Once a few houses were willing to fight, it built solidarity,” Leslie says, “and the houses who might have been reticent were down.”

Graham Jones was one of the reticent.

Jones has lived in ERA-owned properties for his entire adult life. He’s occupied his current rental for nearly two decades, and before that, he spent several years in a different house on Open Air Camp Road that was torn down when it fell into disrepair.

Like other ERA tenants, Jones and his wife, who preferred not to be named, sensed that something was awry in June 2022. This was several months before receiving a notice to vacate, when state park rangers and ERA board members did a walk-through of their home, an inspection that seemed to forebode an upcoming sale. 

“I mentioned multiple times that we were expecting a new child, and that I really needed to know if we were safe,” Jones says. “But they acted like we had nothing to worry about. We were moving around the [furniture in the] rooms, and they said, ‘Keep moving everything.’”

But his suspicions were confirmed in September when a neighboring ERA tenant divulged that an eviction notice was en route. The message was terrifying: Jones’s wife was eight months pregnant, and the couple’s other child, a teenage daughter, has a medical condition requiring regular treatment from specialists at Duke Hospital. Displacement from Open Air Camp Road would have meant displacement from the Triangle—and the state, Jones says—and losing proximity to his daughter’s healthcare.

Despite all this, when Jadelynn knocked on Jones’s door a few weeks later, Jones was hesitant.

“We felt like if we stuck our necks out there, they were just gonna kick us out before the [eviction] date,” Jones says. “That was a huge fear.”

He also had concerns around what it would mean to challenge a beloved local organization with a robust supporter base, which seemed more daunting than taking on a single, faceless landlord. But Jadelynn’s enthusiasm, and other tenants’ involvement, ultimately swayed him.

“The fact that we were able to come together as a group—that made me think we maybe had the power to get things changed,” Jones says.

By early October, all seven households were on board and the Eno River Tenants Association (ERTA) held its first official meeting. 

“In the beginning, we all just talked to make sure everybody wanted the same results,” Everett says. “It was important for us to all be on the same page.”

Tenants’ shared goals were recast as a list of demands for the ERA: rescind the notices to vacate, restore damaged houses to healthy habitability standards, and transfer the homes to tenant ownership using a shared equity land trust model, among others.

Since the ERA had refused to rescind the eviction notices when confronted privately, tenants decided to go public with their demands and published an online petition.

The petition garnered more than 700 signatures and worked to aggregate evidence of widespread support while functioning as a direct line of communication between the ERTA and its advocates. 

That line of communication was vital. On one end, tenants received ongoing morale boosts from petition supporters who paired their signatures with encouraging words. On the other end, supporters, all of whom provided contact information via the petition, received emails with status updates and calls to action. 

Toward the end of October, the ERTA sent a message asking supporters to join them in staging a surprise demonstration at the ERA’s annual meeting. 

The ERA likely got wind of the plan; tenants all received last-minute invitations to speak at the meeting taped to their doors. (Per the ERA, the timing of the meeting “aligned well with our interest in getting together with the tenant families to hear directly from them and further our dialogue.”) But tenants’ showing up and delivering personal testimonies ultimately proved disruptive anyway. Many ERA members and several newer board members stated they were hearing about the land transfer’s human impact—and conditions tenants were experiencing—for the first time. 

“We’d been out of sight, out of mind,” Everett says. “So we got in sight.”

ERTA members at the October meeting hosted by the ERA Credit: Courtesy of the Eno River Tenants Association

Five days after the meeting, and two days after the INDY reported on the pending evictions, the ERA announced it would push back eviction dates by several months; waive all rents, effective immediately; and investigate allegations of tenant mistreatment by V.S. Rich Property Services. Several ERA board members also started advocating to the rest of the organization on tenants’ behalf, Leslie says.

The next month, after the News & Observer published a story and accompanying video detailing Everett’s fight against displacement as a single Black mother, the ERA almost immediately announced that it had “tabled the sale of the homes” to the state parks department. In the same announcement, the ERA apologized to tenants and stated that it had “made mistakes throughout this process.”

Getting into sight was making an impact. 

Everett, who prefaced her September fundraiser memo with the line “feeling too proud to ask and too embarrassed to let people in, I almost opted out of writing this letter today”—but who ultimately emerged as chief spokesperson of the ERTA—says speaking openly was a crucial skill that she honed over the months-long organizing effort. 

“If you’re ever faced with something like this, it’ll be hard to be vulnerable with your community,” she says. “But for me, being vulnerable with my community has been one of the biggest and most beautiful experiences that I’ve ever had.”

Even with publicity and community support, though, fatigue set in by January.

The ERA still hadn’t rescinded the eviction notices, leaving tenants in a precarious position. If they spent their free time organizing, they risked running out of time to find housing if the effort failed. If even a few of them exited the ERTA to devote time to house hunting, the group could lose its collective power, and if, like Everett, they tried to both organize and look for new homes while working a full-time job and raising a family, their health would deteriorate.

“I was getting sick,” says Everett. “Physically sick, mentally sick—I couldn’t handle it. The limbo was making me feel like I’m teeter-tottering on the edge of a bridge, not knowing if I’m gonna be down there with the sharks.”

Jones was also on the brink—“the uncertainty of everything made it feel like it would almost be better just to give up and figure out another situation,” he says—but found solace in the growing list of petition signatures, which made him “feel like we weren’t wrong for pushing for what we felt was right.” 

Everett ultimately turned to God for guidance, she says, and received a message: This house is yours; stop looking. She complied.

In February, things started to align. 

The ERA expressed interest in learning more about the shared equity land trust housing models that the ERTA had outlined in its petition, reaching out for a meeting with an organization that tenants had recommended. After that, the first ERA-ERTA meeting was scheduled for late February, with the two groups agreeing that a mediator and a legal scholar should attend to assist with the process. 

For the mediator role, the ERTA recommended Manju Rajendran, a conflict transformation facilitator. Rajendran’s “liberatory lens” was crucial, Leslie says, noting that a legal-oriented mediator likely would not have acknowledged all the harms done to tenants.

“This whole fight was about ethics, not legality, so we had to have facilitators who understood that major part of the struggle,” Leslie says.

Professor Andrew Foster and a team of students with Duke Law Community Enterprise Clinic would provide collaborative legal support to help both parties iron out the terms of a mutual agreement. 

Tenants were still in limbo after the first meeting. But at the next, Leslie says the ERA came prepared to make decisions. Soon after, in early May, the ERTA emailed petition supporters with major news: its second meeting with the ERA was “indeed transformative” and had “led to a breakthrough agreement setting them on a path to meet our core demands.”

Everett—whose previous dwelling was an apartment where she and her daughters all slept in a single room, doubled up on mattresses on the floor—can now stay in her “place of peace,” she says.

Jones, a longtime trailrunner, is excited that his family will continue to have access to Eno River State Park. His eight-month-old will grow up hiking and fishing, just like his older daughter did. His wife plans to build a garden.

“We feel very linked to this land,” he says.

In some ways, this was an anomalous eviction battle. 

Unlike most landlords, the ERA primarily relies on contributions from hundreds of local community members to stay afloat, so public pressure carried weight. The ERA is also a preservation-focused organization with a mission statement that says its work “is mostly necessary due to colonial practices and an economic system of land use and ownership” that have “dispossessed many peoples of color.” The tenants could cite the mission as proof that rescinding the notices would align with the organization’s core values.

But there are also key elements of the victory—like the sturdy scaffolding of community support that gave tenants the strength they needed to persist—that can be replicated elsewhere. 

“We need homeowner allies to understand that they, too, benefit from stable communities. Everyone wins from decommodifying housing and making sure it’s prioritized for human needs,” Leslie says, “and not for profit.”

Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to lgeller@indyweek.com.Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com

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