When Mamie Green moved into her one-story duplex apartment, it signaled a fresh start. Her apartment – one half of the white house with red brick pillars on Harvard Avenue – was a place she could finally call her own.
It had one bedroom and a kitchen in the back. It wasn’t perfect, but it was hers.
A high electricity bill set her back on her rent. She had lost her job in March 2020 and was also grieving: Over the course of 18 months, she’d attended one too many family pandemic funerals.
But unpaid rent is unpaid rent in the eyes of the court – loss and limited income aside. And without the protection of the federal eviction moratorium, Green, like many, found herself in court in defense of her home.
On Nov. 17, she stood on the same porch she used to wave to neighbors from, as the Durham Sheriff’s department padlocked the door. Rick Soles, the property manager, put the key in the lock himself, she says.
Green’s eviction story offers a view into a world often unseen by the public. It’s a world in which landlords can evict tenant after tenant in 90 minutes of court, a world where a complex legal system with costly court fees dictate the rules, and a world where even victories have consequences, as the eviction hearing itself still stains rental records.
Doctors once told Green, 53, she would never be able to live alone again. After five strokes left her right side paralyzed, she learned to talk again and retook her first steps, for the second time.
The roles reversed between a mother and child – she lived with one of her daughters for five years as they cared for her while she recovered. Doctors told her she should move to a nursing home or continue to live with one of her four daughters.
She uses a wheelchair and a cane now, but Green proved the doctors wrong. She moved into her new home on Oct 1, 2018 – by herself – regaining some independence with her new set of keys.
PHOTO: Mamie Green says her place on Harvard Ave. was “my castle…my home.”
“I felt so happy and thriving that Rick Soles rented to me,” she said camly, reflecting back to her first few years in the house. “It ain’t the best apartment in the world, but it’s a roof. I can say, ‘This is my castle, this is my home’.”
The lease was straightforward. She would cover electricity, water, gas and trash, among other basics. The landlord covered landscaping. Rent, $595 per month, was due the first of each month.
Green wore many professional hats. She once was a DJ – playing songs for Durham Public School functions and other events – with her own business. She ran a cleaning business and taught dance. Whatever it took to pay the bills.
Most recently she worked for Angelica’s Corporation – a company that supplies linens for hospitals – folding clean items piece by piece before they were distributed. Like many, in March 2020 she was laid off and applied for unemployment benefits, only to see a delayed check months later.
Her electricity bill then skyrocketed. She thinks she was charged for the entire house, not just her side of the duplex, she says. So she fell behind on rent.
In January 2021, a $29.75 late fee was billed with her rent. Then again the next month, and another one the next.
Green’s story is that of a pandemic nightmare – job loss, family deaths and an impending eviction.
Round-faced with a ready smile, Green is upbeat and mild-mannered. But sometimes when talk turns to her eviction, she starts to cry. It’s not that she wants pity; in fact, she wants people to stop telling her they’re sorry for her. She just wants Soles to be held responsible for his actions.
Her mom had died of the virus in a nursing home early in the pandemic. She was told the home would be closed to visitors because of social distancing restrictions, robbing her of a proper goodbye.
Ten days later, she found her brother dead in his car outside his house.
Next it was her cousin, who died of COVID-19 as well. Four days later, another cousin. On June 15, 2021 she buried her father. It was one year to the day she did the same for her mother.
“We were like peas in a pod. I could lean on them,” she said in between pauses and tears. “My support system is gone. They’re all in heaven.”
When Soles started charging her late fees with her rent, Green began to pawn off her old DJ equipment – disco lights, Bluetooth electronics – whatever she could. Every dollar helped.
“I was doing whatever a mother would do or a person in my position would do to keep a roof over her head,” she said.
But as of September, she owed Soles $3,658.75.
The combination of state and federal eviction moratoriums meant that while her debt grew, Soles could not kick her out of her home. But then on August 26, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling pressed play on an eviction scene that was previously paused for 14 months.
Lost loved ones and unemployment aren’t legal reasons to miss rent under North Carolina General Statutes. Soles knew this to be true. Green, like many, learned this the hard way.
Small Claims Court
In Courtroom 3A of the Durham County Courthouse, small claims hearings are a depressing movie on repeat. In the gray courtroom with mahogany benches, the stage is set: plaintiff to the right, defendant to the left, the magistrate – the highest power in the room, both legally and literally – up above, behind a plexiglass screen, a subtle reminder of the past year.
It’s Friday, Nov. 12 and starting at 9 a.m., Soles takes his place in the plaintiff’s seat. He fills the docket this morning with 63 summary ejectment hearings –legal jargon for eviction – in an hour and a half span.
This is not Soles’ first time in Courtroom 3A. In fact, some say he’s a regular.
Sarah D’Amato, an attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina, who works in the Eviction Diversion Program, knows him well. She says he has “found his niche in the subprime housing market.”
Although Legal Aid only represents 10% of eviction cases in the county, according to D’Amato, she has challenged Soles in court numerous times, helping tenants he hopes to evict.
There’s a pattern to Soles’ properties, she says. They are often in poor shape and offered at a lower cost. Plus, he tends to turn a blind eye to previous eviction filings or poor credit from prospective tenants’ applications.
In fact, he is more well known for adding numerous eviction filings to his tenants’ rental histories, once they sign a lease from him.
In North Carolina, the first step in the eviction process is when a landlord files a “Complaint in Summary Ejectment” or an eviction complaint. A court summons informs tenants they are being evicted and orders them to make an appearance in court, where a magistrate will hear their case. Failure to appear means an automatic eviction.
Sixty-three cases back-to-back is a purposeful move by Soles: As the property manager and plaintiff, he sets the time and date of these hearings.
In a gray and white striped polo, he takes his seat with a stack of papers before him. He knows the drill – sitting stone-faced and serious – and frankly just wants his tenants’ rent.
“Tired of being beat up about evictions which could have been avoided by making payment plans instead of attacking landlords,” he wrote in an email in response to questions.
One by one Magistrate Terry Fisher calls each tenant to the stage. They take the seat to the left, for the defendant.
Fisher asks Soles to read the address of the property, state the monthly rent and outstanding balance.
Four reasons constitute a legal eviction – failure to pay rent, remaining after the date of the lease, a broken lease agreement or criminal activity, such as drug trafficking. In most cases, Soles argues for the first reason.
Next, Fisher asks the tenant to explain. Cases take only a few minutes each.
According to Jesse McCoy, a supervising attorney for the Civil Justice Clinic at Duke Law, the three most common defenses for missed rent are unemployment, illness and transportation issues. McCoy hears these reasons in 60% of cases, he says, but none of them are legal defenses.
One woman tells Fisher she had COVID-19 and was out of work for 25 days.
Another man is in the same boat, 40 days out of work after a positive COVID-19 test. A household income sustained by two jobs quickly fell to zero when his wife had to quarantine at home.
“When you’re behind on the rent, I have to do what the law says,” Fisher replies, as he signs off on complaint after complaint.
He reminds tenants they have 10 days to appeal the ruling to District Court, in another effort to keep their home. Or they can strike a deal with Soles to pay off the remaining balance.
If there is no action taken in 10 days, the landlord can padlock the door.
Appealing the case may allow tenants to remain in their home, but doing so also subjects them to the tangled mess of the court system. For those without legal counsel or the ability to pay a rent bond – a court fee that allows you to remain in your home while your case continues – their case ends at small claims court.
But for tenants whom Legal Aid advises, an appeal to District Court allows for more legal work and defense on their behalf, according to D’Amato.
One flaw in the legal system haunts tenants regardless – an eviction filing will appear on a tenant’s rental history no matter the case outcome. Green learned the consequences of this.
Throughout a pandemic where stay-at-home orders became rule of law, legally removing someone from their home through an eviction was nothing but contradictory.
Both state and federal governments agreed – the CDC Eviction Moratorium meant landlords could not evict tenants. Doing so would only contribute to the spread of the virus.
But McCoy knew this day would end soon. And the prognosis was bad. An extended pause on evictions could only signal a mass influx of summary ejectment filings to come.
“Talk was a tsunami of evictions once the moratorium goes away,” said McCoy. “That evictions are going to be going left and right.”
Yet he felt Durham County was better situated to handle this wave than most areas. Since 2017, an Eviction Diversion Program has helped mediate landlord and tenant disputes in court and provided legal counsel for those facing eviction.
The problem existed long before the pandemic erupted. Durham once had the highest eviction rate among North Carolina’s ten largest counties, according to Duke Law.
From 2010 to 2018 the average cost of rent steadily increased from $792 to $1,014 across the county. Although evictions have decreased over the last decade, the county’s rising housing prices and continued development downtown present a predicament.
The looming threat of post-moratorium evictions signaled to McCoy that something else still needed to be done.
So he, along with Charles Holton, director of the Civil Justice Clinic, created a pop-up Eviction Advice Clinic in the Durham County Courthouse on Friday mornings.
Housing law is confusing to the average person. McCoy knows that. So the clinic offers a wealth of information about aid and assistance, and breaks down legal jargon.
“We could be a one-stop shop, where people who are in need of emergency rental assistance will be able to come and apply for the emergency rental assistance, as well as get information about or just legal advice about an eviction case or generally about their housing situation,” he said.
Now, North Carolina Central University is operating a similar clinic on Wednesday mornings.
In May 2021 the Durham Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) opened, approving applicants on a first come, first served basis. Applications, found on the Durham County Department of Social Services website, were then prioritized by looming eviction filings and income.
These funds provided $13.9 million dollars in assistance to 2,389 households. But after processing over 4,000 applications, DSS closed the application due to insufficient funds in October.
This leaves over 3,000 applications pending.
Green was one of many who was approved for ERAP funding. But Soles didn’t accept rental assistance. And with one eviction now on her rental history, the prospect of finding a home in a limited rental market is a new challenge in itself.
When Green first moved into the white house on Harvard Avenue, the previous tenant lingered to give her a necessary warning:
The apartment had black mold – so much mold that it made the tenant’s young daughter sick, Green was told. There were also rats. Lots of rats.
Green wrote these things down for Soles. But he did nothing, she says, her voice racing with anger. So Green bought a bottle of Clorox for $5 a bottle. She now laughs at the thought that she could clean it herself.
Her brother bought her a new bed for the apartment. Soon, rats chewed through its base. So he bought her another one. The same thing happened again.
Next, Green went to Aaron’s Furniture to buy another replacement. It would ultimately take her two years to pay off the cost of the bed. But that bed too, succumbed to gnawing and little bite marks.
Green filed a complaint with the City of Durham Neighborhood Improvement Services. An inspection of the house found cracked ceilings, foundational issues that allow pests to get in, and no functioning windows in the bedroom, among other violations.
“LANDLORD REFUSES TO FIX HOME FOR DISABLED RESIDENT’S HOME,” reads the inspection review. “CANNOT USE RAMP AND LANDLORD REFUSES TO FIX ISSUE.”
Rats were not her only house guests: bees and other bugs also found a way in through cracks in the ceilings and holes in the wall.
“I bought all these supplies to keep this thing fixed up, like I’m running school or hospital,” she said. “I don’t have that type of money.”
When she told Soles about her unwanted guests, she says he told her it was his “job to keep someone in the house, not keep stuff out.”
With an impending eviction, Green knew her best bet was to move.
PHOTO: Green lived in a duplex apartment in this house on Harvard Avenue.
When she was approved for ERAP funding, she was given the same advice. She was told Soles was refusing rental assistance funds and instead taking his tenants to court.
Green had previously applied for an apartment in the new Willard Street complex through Durham Housing Authority. Over a year later, her application was approved.
“It’s gonna be a blessing to be out of this nerve-wracking house that’s driving me crazy,” she told herself. “I felt like this was going to be a new start for me.”
She offered Soles a settlement agreement, in hopes of erasing his eviction filing from her record.
He rejected it. Instead, he wanted to see her in court.
Green first faced Soles in small claims court on Oct. 13. She appealed the judgment, sending the case to District Court, and paid a prorated rent bond to stay in her house through October.
But at the start of each month, another payment to the court is due. For November, she owed $595, one month’s rent, to fend off eviction while her case was in court.
That money, she did not have.
Instead of packing her bags for her move to Willard Street, Green found herself packing boxes with nowhere to go.
Soles told her she had four days to vacate the apartment. With an eviction filing on her rental history, Willard Street would no longer rent to her. She also lost her Section 8 housing voucher, which would have covered half of her new rent.
“You just cost me my house. You just cost me my apartment. And you just cost me my Section 8,” she said, defeated. “He yanked the rug up from under me. He shattered my life.”
With the little money she had saved, Green paid $89 a night to stay at La Quinta Inn. But she could only afford three nights.
Now, she is staying with a friend in Graham, 30 minutes from Durham. She has not lived outside of Durham in almost 50 years. Her stuff is dispersed among family and friends – keeping her belongings in their cars, homes and storage units.
As a disabled woman, the instability and stress do no favors for Green’s health. She found herself in the hospital the other week, with doctors telling her that her blood sugar, blood pressure and potassium were all off.
“We are going to say him evicting you is the reason you’re in this predicament,” doctors told her.
With the case appealed to District Court, Green and D’Amato will have another chance to bring up the habitability issues with the Harvard Avenue home in January.
If she wins, the eviction can be dismissed. The file will remain on her history, but in future rental applications she can clarify that she has not been evicted.
If Soles wins, the ruling will stand. Regardless, Green is still in the hunt for a new home – the same fresh start Harvard Avenue once gave her.
“’I’m not giving up. I’m a fighter,” she said. “He just opened up a can of worms.”
PHOTO ABOVE: A orange notice shows that Durham deputies padlocked Mamie Green’s house after Rick Soles ordered her evicted for failure to pay rent.