Three hours before a court order froze evictions across North Carolina during the COVID-19 pandemic, a Durham couple was forced into homelessness.
On March 19, the couple — Abriel Harris, who said she is three months pregnant, and her fiancé DeAngelo Reddick — were ordered to leave their place at Foxfire Apartments. The eviction occurred just before North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley extended deadlines for legal filings and gave North Carolina sheriffs the ability to stop serving evictions.
“There’s a lot of feelings, having to deal with the stress of being high risk of catching the virus and of having to deal with the stress of being put out of my apartment,” Harris told the 9th Street Journal.
According to the CDC, pregnant people are at an increased risk of COVID-19 complications. Homeless people are also at high risk because they don’t have quick access to healthcare or hygiene and sanitation facilities.
Harris said the couple lived out of a car for several days before moving in with family. “When you’re living in your car and have to go to the gas station to wash, you can’t get a good scrub,” she said. “I’m worried about germs, about trying to keep myself clean… it’s hard to close your eyes and go to sleep when you don’t know if you’re safe.”
Sarah D’Amato, a Legal Aid attorney who is handling Reddick and Harris’s case, told the 9th Street Journal she was surprised Foxfire went forward with the eviction.
“The landlord is the one who gives the last thumbs up or down,” D’Amato said. “They had the ultimate power to say, ‘You know what, we’ll work it out, we’ll deal with it later.’”
Foxfire Apartments, which is run by a company that claims to manage over 30,000 apartments in the Southeast, declined to comment on the eviction. The complex’s website states they are taking precautions regarding the spread of the coronavirus, including closing their office.
“Our highest priority continues to be the health and well-being of everyone who visits or is a part of our community,” reads a message on Foxfire’s homepage.
Struggling to make rent
The couple missed their January rent payment while they were in and out of work, according to Harris. When their landlord brought them to small claims court for an eviction hearing, they lost. After appealing, a new court date was set for late March.
D’Amato said the couple paid their rent bond in February. When the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. canceled new work opportunities, they couldn’t pay their next rent bond due March 5, Harris said. Foxfire filed for a writ of eviction a few days later, and the sheriff sent the couple a notice that they would be evicted on March 17.
Then, Reddick, who D’Amato said is a marine reservist, got a job at Amazon. With new income, the couple thought they’d be able to pay the rent they owed and negotiate with Foxfire to stay. But the company wanted several months worth of rent, including rent they hadn’t paid: a total of $3,000, according to Harris. The couple told Foxfire they could pay by mid-April, Harris said, but couldn’t make it work in only a few days. Foxfire moved forward with the eviction.
“We tried to come to them to make a payment,” Harris said. “I felt like they weren’t being very considerate of what was going on.”
The sheriff’s office postponed for two days while trying to determine if they were still legally required to conduct evictions after a March 13 order from Chief Justice Beasley halted nonessential court proceedings, Durham County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer AnnMarie Breen told 9th Street Journal.
Once the office received clarification that it was still required to evict, they rescheduled for March 19, said Breen. The couple was evicted at 9:30 a.m. By 12:30, Beasley announced an order giving sheriffs across the state power to stop serving evictions.
D’Amato said she understood why the sheriff’s department felt legally obligated to carry out the eviction since Foxfire decided to go through with it.
What she didn’t understand was why the sheriff claimed two business days later that no recent evictions resulted in homelessness when her clients had to live in their car. In a statement about pausing evictions, Durham Sheriff Clarence Birkhead said that he takes “the safety and wellbeing of every resident of Durham County very seriously.”
“No one has been evicted into a homeless situation as a result of recent orders,” the statement said.
Harris said the sheriff’s office never reached out to her or Reddick to see if they were evicted into a homeless situation. D’Amato said she wasn’t contacted, either.
“At no time did Mr. Reddick [whose name was in the lease] indicate that he did not have any place to live,” Breen said, adding that Reddick told the deputy “he said he had just gotten a new job,” and that “he was reported to be pleasant and cooperative.”
An uncertain future
While evictions have temporarily come to a halt in Durham, delayed eviction hearings are being rescheduled and the city is still receiving eviction filings. Attorneys say the backlog may lead to a “tsunami of evictions” when courts reopen. Legal Aid NC is continuing to work with Durhamites facing eviction.
D’Amato is trying to work with Foxfire and the courts to get her clients into their apartment. Harris said the company told them if they paid the past due rent along with some future rent — now a total of $4,000, she claims — by March 31, they could move back in.
“That’s not grace,” Harris said of the company’s offer. “That’s highway robbery,”
For now, the couple is living with Harris’s family. Harris said she’s grateful to have somewhere to stay, but would feel safer and better able to manage her pregnancy if she had her own place. She’s looking for a new spot, but it’s hard to find one.
“We went to different apartment complexes, but most of them are closed,” Harris said.
That exact problem is one of the reasons D’Amato questions why Foxfire evicted Reddick and Harris.
“What’s the urgency in clearing out an apartment which will likely sit empty until the time my clients are able to come up with all their past due money?” she said. “I don’t understand that.”
Top photo: A screenshot from Foxfire apartment complex’s website.