Wearing the light-blue uniform of Healthy Start Academy, six-year-old Aliyah Shore bursts through the door into the sunlit kitchen of her home in north Durham and takes off her shoes.
“Home sweet home!” she exclaims, arms outstretched, her socked feet sliding on the brand-new tile floor.
It’s Aliyah’s first time seeing this home, a multiunit, two-story house on Delbert Avenue. And it’s the first home she’s had in about four months. There’s a lot to explore—and a lot to unpack.
She zips throughout the house, pausing to investigate closed doors and unpack doll clothes, Frosted Flakes, and cleaning supplies before something else catches her attention.
Yes, says her mother, Leigh Ann, she’s always this organized.
Soon, they get to Aliyah’s room—her own room!—and Leigh Ann asks what she thinks. Aliyah grabs her mother’s hands and they spin together in a circle on the empty floor.
“Ring around the rosie! Ring around the rosie!” Aliyah sings.
Thanks to a year-long effort by the Durham nonprofits Families Moving Forward and Reinvestment Partners, Aliyah and Leigh Ann and three other formerly homeless families now have a place to call their own. It may amount to a small dent in the pervasive problem of housing affordability in Durham, where 45 percent of renters pay more than 30 percent of their income toward housing. But, for these ten people, it’s a deeply personal solution that may see them from homelessness to, one day, homeownership.
The project is a first-of-its-kind endeavor for both groups—Reinvestment Partners bought the house in 2017 and completely gutted it, while Families Moving Forward identified families in its shelter, helped them arrange housing choice vouchers to supplement the rent, and coached them on being good tenants. The families—all headed by single women raising children age fifteen and under—get an affordable place to live, a year of support services from Families Moving Forward, and a built-in community of neighbors they grew close to during one of the most trying times of their lives.
“There’s not any one silver bullet for this affordable housing crisis,” says Catherine Pleil, director of special projects for Families Moving Forward. “We need to be willing to look outside the box and be willing to approach different solutions. For these four families and any that may come after them, it’s everything. It’s big even though it might seem like it’s just four families.”
Just off of Horton Road sit three dozen nearly identical homes. They were all built in the mid-1980s and share the same combination of brick and gray or beige siding broken up by symmetrical doors and windows. The multiunit homes have different owners, some local, some out of state. They’re all valued at about $175,000—about $25,000 below the median home value in Durham, a number that, according to real estate website Zillow, has risen 7 percent in the past year.
But the house at the corner of Delbert and Marne avenues stands out.
“These are amazing, aren’t they?” asks a teenage boy, cutting across the yard with a friend on a sunny Tuesday afternoon.
A fresh coat of yellow paint hints at the updates inside. Bright orange shutters frame windows that were boarded up three years ago.
“It was stripped down to the studs,” says Peter Skillern, executive director of Reinvestment Partners, which bought the house in early 2017. At the time, it had been vandalized and left to deteriorate. (There are several vacant homes in the immediate area, and the organization hopes to buy and rehab more).
The house got new plumbing, windows, and fixtures. Like any renovation project, Skillern says, it came with some headaches—”and then the clients hugged me.”
Reinvestment Partners, which has a broad mission centered on community development, has purchased and rehabbed buildings before, particularly in the Geer Street area where its office is located. But this is the nonprofit’s first rental and its first time taking housing choice vouchers, which pad a tenant’s income-based rent payments with federal dollars.
That’s where Families Moving Forward, the largest provider of homeless services in Durham, comes in.
“They don’t develop housing, and I don’t do case management for homeless families, but both are needed for these families to succeed,” Skillern says. “It’s not just bricks and mortar. It’s not just services. But when they combine, now we have a winner.”
Families Moving Forward’s shelter serves twenty-one families at a time—as many as one hundred each year. The goal is to house families within ninety days of entering the shelter, but that’s not a hard deadline to leave. The time each family in the Delbert Avenue house spent with FMF before getting keys two weeks ago varied from weeks to months.
Timing was crucial in selecting the tenants, Pleil explains. Not only did they have to qualify for a housing choice voucher (also known as a Section 8 voucher), they had to have a voucher that could be applied to a two-bedroom unit and have that assistance secured in time to move.
That they had become friends during their time with FMF was serendipitous. These families have been brought together through shared experiences of abuse, eviction, and uncertainty—but also through their children (who became playmates at the FMF shelter), their methods of coping with their newfound living situation, and their resolve to move past it.
“You feel a dignity that you might not if you moved into another kind of place,” Pleil says. “I think that’s so important to people on their way up in life. They’re going to want to stay in a beautiful place like this. They’ll build a network with each other.”
Angel Vick-Lewis and her next-door neighbor in the new house formed a bond during their time in the FMF shelter. Jane—not her real name—had been there longer, since August, but the two shared a past of escaping abusive relationships.
A mother of five, grandmother of thirteen, and former teacher, Vick-Lewis was drawn to Jane and her brand new baby girl.
“Even though they had therapists there, we had our own way of coping with different things,” Jane says. “Me, Ms. Angel, and another lady or two, after the kids went to bed we’d go in my room and listen to music and vent to each other, ask for solutions and ideas. We made a pact to stay in touch with each other.”
Neither had stayed in a shelter before. Vick-Lewis says when she first moved in, she cried every night.
Just three years before, she had been living a middle-class life in a four-bedroom home in Maryland, working as a teacher and taking her young students along to deliver food and clothes to the homeless.
Following her son, who was a student at N.C. Central, Vick-Lewis moved to Durham to continue a career as a motivational speaker and use her own experience to impress upon young people the importance of getting tested for HIV. (She says she learned she was HIV-positive because her church offered testing and she took advantage of it.) She lived in a two-bedroom apartment near Hope Valley and became enmeshed in her community, inheriting from a previous resident the duty of doling out sweets to neighborhood kids.
“I was the candy lady, the grandma of the neighborhood, the babysitter, the hair stylist,” she recalls, surrounded by piles of family photos and clothes waiting to be unpacked.
When one of her grandsons “got in trouble” at the apartment, she was given thirty days to get out. She enlisted the help of friends and service providers in her search for a new home but found nothing she could afford. So she and her fifteen-year-old grandson (whom she has taken care of since he was a toddler) stayed in a hotel for two weeks before space opened up at FMF on December 23. For the first month, she was shocked to find herself in the same position as the people she had once helped.
“Then I sat and realized, what am I crying for?” she says. “I was actually never homeless. I always had someplace to lay my head down, and it was always someplace safe. It was a rough two months, but I thank God for everything I went through.”
Her time with FMF, she says “was a blessing in disguise”—a sentiment her neighbors echo.
FMF’s program, the NEST (Neighbors Experiencing Success Together), also includes self-sufficiency programs and employment help for adults, and fitness, nutrition, and tutoring programs for kids. Through the Nest Egg, as the Delbert Avenue initiative is known, the families will continue to receive case worker and wraparound services for a year to help ensure their long-term stability.
Jane moved to Durham from elsewhere in North Carolina in June 2016, after she hurt her knee and could no longer work as a city bus driver. She and her nine-year-old daughter lived with friends, in their car, and with fellow church members before moving into the FMF shelter in August. She applied for jobs but was turned down when prospective employers learned she was pregnant. Her second daughter was born five weeks ago.
According to Pleil, about 60 percent of the shelter’s guests at any given time are children, about half of whom are under five. Last year, FMF served its highest number of teenagers ever—twenty—although she cautions that it’s too early to determine if that’s indicative of a trend.
“The majority of the time it seems like there were forty kids,” Jane recalls.
Mayor Steve Schewel, in his first State of the City address last month, announced plans to “map out a strategy for ending children’s homelessness” in the next few years. Unlike for homeless veterans, the federal government doesn’t allot Section 8 vouchers specifically for homeless families with children, creating a system in which homeless families may compete with already-housed families for vouchers.
While the city has effectively eliminated homelessness among veterans, there were 220 homeless children in emergency shelters in Durham in the 2016–17 fiscal year, up from 172 the year before. (These figures don’t include those housed in domestic violence shelters.)
Across the country and in North Carolina last year, about one-fifth of people experiencing homelessness were under age eighteen. In Durham, families accounted for about 28 percent of the homeless population in 2017, down from 33 percent the year before.
“It’s hard trying to make sure you’re able to provide for your kids and keep a stable mind at the same time and try to figure it out,” Jane says. “Sometimes you just have to take it one day at a time and see where it goes from there.”
In addition to the challenge of finding a job, Jane struggled to find a home she could afford, even with a $941 voucher. Sometimes, she says, the difference came down to the cost of electricity, which is built in to a voucher’s value but often not into rent.
“Even though there are a lot of apartment complexes in Durham, it’s not easy finding one that will take a voucher,” she says.
Although the Durham Housing Authority’s allotment of vouchers had grown in recent years (though it has flat-lined at 2,791 since 2016) and the number of landlords under contract has gone up, tenants and service providers frequently report difficulty finding a place.
Much of that has to do with the process, says Janet Xiao, codirector of the Community Empowerment Fund, which works to fill gaps in housing services.
Tenants with a voucher can search for a unit through several websites, but it’s up to landlords to post information about those properties. Volunteers at the CEF help voucher holders navigate the process and have found that many properties simply aren’t listed. As of this writing, one of those sites, GoSection8.com, had just one active listing in Durham with a fair market rent in line with the Nest Egg house—$990 per unit—or below.
While the number of landlords renting to voucher holders has increased from 135 in 2010 to 523 last year, that doesn’t necessarily reflect how the number of units is changing. According to Denita Johnson, DHA’s Housing Choice Voucher Program director, it takes voucher holders an average of 130 days to find a unit and execute what’s called a Housing Assistance Payment Contract with the landlord.
About 95 percent of DHA’s vouchers are being utilized, but that doesn’t include recipients whose vouchers expired before they used them. As of January 31, 125 voucher holders were looking for housing.
Research by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suggests that homeless families with vouchers fare better than families that receive other interventions.
A three-year study of twenty-two hundred formerly homeless families who were randomly assigned different housing and services found that “families offered a voucher continue to be significantly more food secure and experience significantly less economic stress than families offered the other interventions.” While heads of households with vouchers saw lower employment numbers, they also experienced less stress and substance use. Children missed less school and daycare and exhibited fewer behavioral problems. Homelessness and shelter stays were reduced, even when the study ended.
Because Durham’s rental market is so strong, there’s not much incentive for many landlords to take vouchers. They can get just as much or more from nonsubsidized renters than the fair market rent values HUD assigns to a voucher, all while avoiding the added bureaucracy of DHA inspections and the cost of bringing their properties up to snuff. Service providers also say there’s a stigma that voucher holders will be more likely to damage their units.
“That’s kind of what we saw as a real opportunity and need,” Skillern says. “We can make sure we’re providing four more units in that pipeline for homeless folks.”
Leigh Ann and Aliyah Shore had been living in a two-bedroom apartment when their car broke down. Relying on public transportation to get to work, pick Aliyah up from school, and get home, Leigh Ann couldn’t work enough hours to keep up with the rent. She started selling her belongings, but it wasn’t enough.
They got evicted.
“Anybody could be where I’m at. A couple paychecks away, anybody could me,” she says.
A spot at FMF opened up the day before they had to be out of the apartment.
“I was scared to death when I got there,” she says. “I had nothing. Basically I had sold everything I had trying to keep up with my rent, so when I got there, for about two, three weeks, I didn’t know what to do.”
Like her neighbors, she’s thrilled about her new apartment and all the stuff that comes with it (she says she nearly fainted when she saw the washer and dryer). But for these families, what this house represents goes beyond its walls. At least for now, giddy from the move, they seem energized. After months of uncertainty, they can picture their futures.
Leigh Ann plans to pick up more hours working at the embroidery company Royal Threads, put away her tax refund, and save up so she can pay rent in advance and buy a car. As soon as she can, Jane plans to start working as a school bus driver, save up for a car, and buy some clothes. Vick-Lewis’s eyes light up at the prospect of decorating her new apartment; her walls are already lined with family photos.
And she wants to get back to helping those in need.
“I understand what it means to be homeless more than when I helped people who were homeless,” she says. “I’m going to always give back to FMF. I’ve seen the needs and the wants firsthand. A lot of people come in with no hope, but if they listen to our stories of how we got out, maybe it will give them more oomph.”