A program that helps Durham residents struggling to pay rent because of the pandemic will close on Feb. 6 after just 25 days of operation.
The Durham Rent Relief Program’s closure was announced Jan. 31 by Legal Aid of North Carolina.
The program’s overwhelming popularity during its brief lifespan tells the story of a housing crisis in Durham that preceded the pandemic and was exacerbated by it. City officials say there simply isn’t enough federal funding to meet the needs of the many renters struggling to make ends meet.
“We already had a challenge before COVID being able to provide affordable housing,” said Reginald J. Johnson, Community Development Director for the City of Durham. “We already had a high poverty rate for a city of our size, despite the growing economy here. Then you add COVID on top of that, and here we are.”
Residents and landlords have until Feb. 6 to apply for assistance with rent and utilities on Legal Aid NC’s website. Renters who are at “imminent risk of eviction” or are unemployed will be given priority, according to the agency.
The Durham Housing Authority and Legal Aid will host a rental assistance event to aid residents with their program applications from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 4 at the T.A. Grady Recreation Center..
The program, which is funded by the City of Durham through the federal American Rescue Plan Act and administered by Legal Aid of North Carolina, opened on Jan. 12, 2022. Within three weeks, it received 1,700 completed applications, with 1,400 applications still in progress according to Legal Aid.
Many Durham residents have struggled to keep up after losing their jobs or taking pay cuts because of COVID-19. Meanwhile, rental prices have soared. According to a recent report, Durham’s median rental price jumped 39 percent between March 2019 and August 2021, the second-highest increase among all cities surveyed.
Johnson said city officials weren’t surprised by the large number of applications. Federal funding ultimately was dwarfed by the vast needs of renters, he said.
“We don’t pretend to know all the answers to this issue,” Johnson said. “But what we do know is that amount of money that the federal government gave was fairly significant, and it was still not enough to meet the challenge.”
With federal funding running out, organizations such as Stop Evictions Now, Community Empowerment Fund and Legal Aid are working to keep residents housed.
Kevin Atkins, a former housing access coordinator for Community Empowerment Fund, works closely with Durham renters looking for help. Legal Aid North Carolina kept many people from being displaced and evicted during the pandemic, he said. Still, the problem is daunting.
“Last year once funding started to go out, we knew there was going to be an overwhelming number of people going through this situation,” Atkins said. “And nothing’s changed, and it’s been two years now. It’s a lot of people that have very high rents that they haven’t been able to pay.”
Atkins says it’s likely that there are many more Durham renters facing eviction who simply don’t know about rent relief programs.
“These numbers are a reflection of what’s been going on the last few years,” Atkins said. “There’s going to be a lot of people evicted, so I think that’s something that you can’t ignore at this point.”
The shortage in rent relief funding extends beyond Durham. A similar program in Wake County stopped accepting new applications for relief in January, according to reports on WRAL.
Legal Aid of North Carolina is helping other cities with rent relief programs similar to the one in Durham. The agency also operates the statewide Housing Opportunities and Prevention of Eviction Program.
After the Durham program closes on Feb. 6, renters facing eviction can call Legal Aid of North Carolina’s toll-free Housing Helpline at 1-877-201-6426. In addition, Legal Aid’s Housing Helpline webpage offers free legal resources on eviction and renters’ rights.
Above, a rent relief program run by Durham’s Community Development Department and Legal Aid of NC has been flooded with applications. Photo by Kulsoom Rizavi – The 9th Street Journal