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Posts tagged as “Evictions”

Coronavirus concerns halt evictions in Durham

Sheriff Clarence Birkhead has stopped serving eviction notices and padlocking rental properties in Durham County to help slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Evictions stopped in Durham days after North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley issued a series of emergency orders pausing nonessential court proceedings and giving sheriffs across the state the ability to postpone some enforcement actions.

A Monday evening statement from Birkhead confirmed that his office has decided to halt eviction service.

“I am suspending the service of these judgments until further notice,” Birkhead said. “Although Chief Justice Beasley’s order does not specifically address this process, it has been interpreted that under that order a suspension would be allowable.”

Beasley’s issued the first order halting nonessential court proceedings in North Carolina on March 13. In a memo two days later, she clarified that her first order included eviction proceedings.

That effectively shut off the flow of new writs of possession — the court orders to evict tenants that have lost to landlords in court. But while new writs stopped coming more than a week ago, dozens already existed. The sheriff’s office estimates around 180 evictions occur in Durham every week.

As of last Wednesday, the sheriff’s office said it was still legally required to serve those pending eviction writs. But on Thursday, Beasley issued another order that ended up freezing those writs, too. It pushed back the due dates for many filings and “other acts” of the North Carolina courts, including evictions. Under this order, actions due on March 16 or later would now be on time if done by April 17.

Normally, tenants who lose in court have 10 days to file for an appeal. Under Beasley’s order, motions to appeal an eviction ruling are still timely if filed by April 17. That means all eviction cases with original final appeal dates on or after March 16 are postponed.

Last Friday, the office of the Clerk of Durham County Superior Court said it had stopped issuing writs for such cases and recalled all of the writs it had sent throughout that week involving those cases.

Several of the state’s largest counties had determined by Saturday that Beasley’s order also gave them discretion to halt eviction service. Peter Gilbert, a Legal Aid lawyer who focuses on eviction defense, said those included Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Forsyth and Cumberland.

On Thursday evening, the Durham sheriff’s office indicated it was working to interpret Beasley’s order hours after it came out that day. The office continued to consult with legal teams and the judiciary on Friday.

By the time the sheriff decided to stop serving writs, there may have been none left to serve. Gilbert, who works in the Eviction Diversion program run by Legal Aid and Duke Law’s Civil Justice Clinic, said the pending writs were likely all recalled by the clerk.

“It’s essentially moot,” Gilbert said Monday, before the sheriff issued his statement. “It’s not his authority, because the clerk has started recalling any writ from March 3 or after. That should be and almost certainly is all of the pending writs of possession.”

Clerk of Durham County Superior Court Archie Smith could not be reached Monday evening to clarify whether all pending writs had been recalled. But on Thursday, Smith told The 9th Street Journal he intended to follow the spirit of Beasley’s order.

“The lens from which I will interpret things where I have the option to interpret things will be through public safety, with a focus on limiting social contact for the purpose of limiting the spread of contagion,” Smith said.

Birkhead’s Monday statement said that “no one has been evicted into a homeless situation as a result of recent orders.”

But some evictions may have already occurred amid confusion. According to Gilbert, at least one padlocking occurred on Thursday before Beasley’s order, but after sheriffs in other counties had stopped serving evictions.

“Anyone being evicted during this time is at a great risk, not only to themselves, but as a vector carrying disease,” said Gilbert. “The governor is urging us to stay home. It’s impossible to stay home if you don’t have one.”

Durhamites struggling to pay rent will be able to stay in their homes for several weeks, but eviction still looms over them.

“These cases are delayed. They are not dismissed,” Gilbert said, adding that courts are still receiving new eviction filings.

“When this ends, there is going to be a tsunami of evictions,” Gilbert said. “That is going to be aggravated by the fact that so many people in Durham are cost burdened. They are already spending over half their income on rent, and with so many workers losing hours or being unable to work at all, I suspect that whenever this ends, we are going to have a real eviction crisis.”

At top: A sign posted by Durham County sheriffs deputies before a landlord changes the lock. Photo by Niharika Vattikonda

A Courthouse Moment: ‘You think you’re helping someone, but it hurts’

Durham Habitat for Humanity had been trying to help Victoria Dorsey buy a house since 2016. They set their sights on a new Chapel Hill Road home for Dorsey, her husband Otis Johnson, and her 13-year-old daughter Jamila Dorsey.

Over three years later, those aspirations ended in a Superior Court trial in courtroom 6A of the Durham County Courthouse. Onlookers watched as the trial morphed from an amicable discussion of mistakes to a resentful blame-game. 

When Lakeisha Minor, Habitat for Humanity’s family services director, was helping Dorsey close on the house, Minor ran into some roadblocks. First, Dorsey’s subletters missed a rent payment. Then, she falsified some work hours that she needed to purchase the home. 

As the Chapel Hill Road home construction was nearing completion, Dorsey still hadn’t paid off her debt. Habitat wouldn’t let her purchase the house until the outstanding debt was paid. 

“We decided that once the house was completed, then we would allow her to move in and rent the property until she paid off those collections,” Minor said from the witness stand.

On July 18, 2018, Dorsey signed a five-month, 13-day lease agreement with Habitat for Humanity. That would allow her to stay in the new house until the New Year. In the lease agreement, Dorsey agreed that she’d keep her debt under a capped amount. 

But in Dec. 2018, Dorsey decided to cosign for a new car, Minor explained. “When she was cleared into the (housing) program, it was clear that she couldn’t afford more debt. Her ratios were outside what she needed to qualify to purchase a house.” 

At that point, Minor urged Dorsey to take her name off the car loan. It was a recent loan, so they both assumed it wouldn’t prove too difficult. 

“But that didn’t happen,” Minor said flatly.

But Habitat for Humanity, again, gave Dorsey grace.

Habitat for Humanity granted Dorsey three more lease extensions, allowing her to rent the apartment from Jan. 1, 2019, through May 31, 2019, according to Dorsey’s affidavit. Each month, she paid the $650 rent.

In June, Dorsey didn’t extend the lease, she just handed over the $650. Habitat for Humanity accepted the money. 

But then Habitat ran out of patience. On July 9, 2019, Habitat for Humanity sent Dorsey a notice: it was terminating her lease, and she’d have to move out by Aug. 9, 2019.

“Anything from the defense?” Judge Clayton Jones said in a routine fashion. 

Dorsey’s attorney Sarah D’Amato stood up from the chair, seizing an opportunity to change the momentum of the case.

“At this time, I’d like to move to a directed verdict,” said D’Amato, a Legal Aid of North Carolina attorney. 

On Aug. 15, Habitat for Humanity had filed an eviction complaint against Dorsey. It was just six days after Dorsey should have vacated the home, D’Amato argued. And, otherwise, move-out dates don’t come until the term ends at the end of the month.

“Any notice to vacate has to end at the end of the term,” D’Amato said, citing case law from 1898. “Therefore, based on longstanding case law, you will find that the notice that was sent on July 9 was not sufficient notice.” 

“I’m going to side with the defendant in this case,” Judge Jones said, signaling that Dorsey won.

D’Amato and Daron Satterfield, the plaintiff’s attorney, shook hands. Then, D’Amato and Minor walked toward the exit: D’Amato with a grin, and Minor with her lips pursed. 

“It’s a catch-22,” Minor said. “You think you’re helping someone, but it hurts.”

‘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