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Posts tagged as “Evictions”

‘That was my last resort’: Durham’s second chance for tenants

Vickie Castillo has lived in Durham for nearly three decades. After failing to make one month’s rent in November, she faced the possibility of being evicted for the first time in her life.

“I felt scared. I was nervous. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know if I was going to have all the money in time,” she said.

Eviction court is notoriously difficult for tenants to navigate. When they don’t have lawyers, tenants almost always lose and get kicked out of their homes.

They get evicted even when they have reasons for not paying such as losing a job, having a sick relative, or a broken-down car. And it doesn’t matter if they were purposely not paying rent to pressure the landlord to address issues with rodents, cockroaches, clogged plumbing, and more.

North Carolina doesn’t allow retaliatory action from tenants, and the court doesn’t have any leeway to give a tenant just a few more days to get the money together. If there’s unpaid rent, the landlord can seek an eviction judgment.

Castillo’s situation was unusual. She didn’t retaliate against her landlord, and she didn’t expect to come up short at the first of the month. She had been robbed, and had to scramble to make rent for November. She couldn’t and soon received the paperwork summoning her to the courthouse.

In court, the magistrate doles out eviction judgments every weekday. Tenants have 10 days to appeal their case to District Court. But to stay in their property in the meantime, the tenant will have to pay a bond, which includes the overdue rent and court costs.

Most evictions end here, in the magistrate’s hearing room. Tenants without representation rarely stand a chance of stopping the process. But Durham’s new eviction diversion program is, for some tenants, a fighting chance to stay in their homes.

***

The third floor of the courthouse is eviction headquarters. Tenants congregate around three magistrate hearing rooms. On the wall is a docket with nearly a dozen pages with green, blue, and pink highlighter marks trying to give order to the chaos. Cases are processed by the dozen—sometimes there will be over 100 before lunch.

A flyer for the program is hard to notice in the courthouse.

About 20 steps away, sandwiched between a call for participants for a maternal incarceration study and an ad for the Bull City Chili Cook Off is a blue and green flyer that is easy to miss.

Are you interested in possibly preventing an eviction and possibly avoiding a judgment against you?

The flyer’s text can barely be seen from two feet away, let alone from the eviction docket where most tenants wait. On Wednesday afternoons, the lawyers from the program will meet downstairs, and tenants are invited to bring leases, late notices, and court paperwork for review.

Most tenants don’t see the flyer in time to get help. Some might see it on their way to the docket, but once they head into the courtroom, their fate is sealed. Eviction court doesn’t grant tenants an extension to pull together money for unpaid rent or find a lawyer.

The diversion program is supported by Duke Civil Justice Clinic, a partnership between Duke Law School and Legal Aid of North Carolina. Law students represent tenants in eviction cases with guidance from Jesse McCoy, the clinic’s supervising attorney. The clinic helps tenants pay rent and reviews their case to make sure tenants aren’t overlooking serious concerns with the property that could help them win.

Tenants “myopically focus on the rent that’s due as opposed to also talking about some of the conditions that they’ve been living in,” McCoy said. People often don’t focus on the condition of the property, which might help them build a defense against being evicted.

Even if the students can’t find a legal defense for the tenant, they’ll try to postpone the hearing so people can move out with dignity. The goal of the clinic is to avoid collateral damage of a judgment such as a bad credit report.

***

After she was robbed, Castillo knew that she wouldn’t be able to pay the rent. Desperate to work out a solution, she reached out to churches in the area. She thought she scraped together enough donations to piece together that month’s rent.

And yet it wasn’t enough. Up against an eviction case, she found herself just short of the money she needed to cover the unpaid rent. But one of the churches gave her something more valuable: information about the Duke Civil Justice Clinic.

“That was my last resort,” Castillo said. “I heard about them at the last minute. And I went, because I was just going everywhere, where people were pointing me to, and so then Legal Aid was my last resort.”

Castillo was given a four-week extension on her rent, and with the help of the Civil Justice Clinic’s fund, she was able to cover the remainder of November’s rent. But a December court date still loomed.

Sometimes, the money is enough—the landlord will collect what they’re owed, and no one has to lose their home. In some cases, though, the landlord still wants the tenant gone.

Castillo’s advocate from the clinic was able to get her case dismissed. That won’t be reflected on her credit report or in any public record that could come back to hurt her. She fared better than most tenants: in a sample of eviction cases from December 2017, just 9% of cases were dismissed.

Most tenants are doomed as soon as they’re served with the eviction case, but for Vickie Castillo, one-time assistance from Duke Civil Justice Clinic kept her finances from falling off the rails.

“That’s what they did,” she said. “It was wonderful.”

‘You don’t know what’s behind the door’: Inside Durham’s evictions

Durham County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Wood has the job that no one wants – especially not today, just a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, in the freezing weather.

Today is “padlock Friday,” the end to yet another week of evictions.

Wood has a stack of papers sandwiched between the sun visor and the roof of his white sheriff’s cruiser. Each one is a court order to complete an eviction, or a padlock, as they call it in the sheriff’s office.

It’s just above freezing, so Wood will have on his embroidered “sheriff” beanie, which falls just inches above his glasses. With a puffy black jacket on and a laptop that’s next to his steering wheel, there’s not much room left on the driver’s side of the car.

He’ll spend the day meeting with landlords and property managers, searching houses and apartments, and making sure that the locks have been changed on those properties so the evicted tenants cannot return.

Sometimes he finds families with children, abandoned pets, or, in one case, a tenant inflicting injuries on herself. But there’s nothing the sheriff’s office can do to change the eviction, Deputy Wood says.

“They were going to lose the property or wherever they live long before I got there,” he says, “and if it hadn’t been me doing it it’d have been somebody else.”

Durham saw 9,335 evictions in 2018, or about 180 every week. 

They all start with the same letter, calling the tenant to small claims court to answer for their failure to pay rent.

The tenant isn’t obligated to come to court, but if they don’t show, the eviction process will continue without them, Wood says.

***

Eviction court starts at 9 a.m. sharp nearly every weekday. Get there late for your hearing, and you might miss it in the sea of dozens scheduled for that morning. 

On some mornings, the magistrates will hear well over 100 cases, especially at the start of the month, when landlords file more claims.

Once defendants find their names on the docket outside, they slip quietly into one of the hearing rooms. Unlike in District Court, defendants here are handled first-come, first-served.

There’s no bailiff or court reporter. The only record of each hearing will be the magistrate’s scribbles on the back of the case envelope.

There are two tables. One is for the landlord and an attorney; the other is for the tenant and their attorney. But tenants rarely have one.

Sometimes, the landlords won’t show up. They’ll contract the case out to a law firm that specializes in eviction cases; lawyers will come in about every month or so, outgunning dozens of tenants in just minutes each.

Is your agreed-upon rent $550 per month?

Did you fail to pay rent for the months of September and October?

Are you still in possession of the property?

Tenants will admit that yes, they did sign the lease. And yes, that is the amount of rent that they agreed to. Yes, they missed rent for a month or two, but they were in a bind. They just lost their job, or their spouse died. Or their car broke down. Or a relative was sick. 

And many tenants tell eye-opening stories about poor conditions. Tammie Gibson said her rental home turned from a family atmosphere into a nightmare, a toxic environment that led her to develop depression. She described a stove that routinely caught fire, persistent issues with rats, and domestic disputes with other residents.

“I didn’t want to be there a minute longer,” she said to the magistrate.

Sometimes, tenants purposely won’t pay their rent to try to force their landlord to address a nagging problem such as a rodent infestation or perpetually clogged plumbing.

But North Carolina doesn’t allow this retaliatory action. If you live there, you have to pay for it.

The court also has no responsibility to evaluate why tenants can’t or won’t pay. Despite Durham’s problem with skyrocketing rents, with average rent rising 15% in the past three years, the court cannot grant tenants reprieve. From the court’s perspective, it’s simple: the tenant hasn’t paid rent, and the landlord needs the property back. The magistrate then has to rule against the tenant. 

Unless the tenant appeals the judgment within 10 days, it becomes a permanent eviction record, influencing credit scores and job applications for years to come.

***

Once that judgment is processed by the court, it’s added to Deputy Wood’s docket of padlocks.

He crisscrosses Durham every day, from downtown luxury apartments to public housing to  new suburban townhomes. Every hour, on the hour, he has an appointment to meet with a landlord to enforce the court’s ruling.

Deputy Michael Wood  | Photo courtesy of the Durham Sheriff’s Office

“You’re there for a job. You’re not there to judge people,” he says.

When he arrives, he gives the landlords his standard spiel: the tenant has seven days to reach out to the landlord to retrieve their property. Whatever is left in the property, whether it’s an unplugged fridge with rotting food or hordes of roaches scurrying around the corners, is up to the landlord to deal with.

He avoids most of their questions, advising them to get legal advice from somewhere else.

He knocks and presses his ear against the door, listening for movement to assess what he’ll face inside.

“With a padlock,” he says, “you don’t know what’s behind the door. You don’t know what’s in there. You have no idea.”

He walks in and holds up a flashlight as he searches rooms, closets, and cabinets,, hoping to avoid a possible threat around the corner.

People hide, he says. They’ll hide in nooks and crannies around the house, hoping to stave off eviction for a few more days, clinging to the time they have left.

But there’s no wiggle room, he says. He can’t give a tenant a couple hours, regardless how dire the situation. He is required to complete the eviction.

“At some point they have to know if they haven’t been paying their rent or fulfilling their obligation to the landlord … they’re being evicted,” he says.

A rare and lucky few will successfully appeal their eviction in District Court and get to stay in  their home.

Many others will work it out with their landlords — last-ditch efforts to cover the overdue rent or hastily work out a payment plan. 

“We’re standing there, the locks are in hand, they’re about to get changed and (the landlord and tenant will) make a deal or they’ll work it out and they’ll stop,” Wood says.

More often than not, though, he’ll find an empty property. Maybe the tenant left to avoid embarrassment, or maybe they fled the country, fleeing their eviction record as well.

But there’s nothing he can do about it now. He posts the orange sign and leaves.

In photo at top: Deputy Wood posts this sign before a landlord changes the lock. Once a padlock is complete, the tenant has seven days to arrange a time to pick up their belongings. Photo by Niharika Vattikonda | The 9th Street Journal