Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts tagged as “Evictions”

Rent relief program shutting down — less than a month after opening

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

Evicted for the holidays: a padlocked house, a legal maze, and a powerful landlord

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.  

Harvard Avenue

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. 

Pandemic Protections

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.  

Moving Out 

 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.

 

 

Meet the Ward III Durham City Council candidates

Without an incumbent or primary results to signal a frontrunner, the Ward III Durham City Council race is the one to watch in the upcoming Nov. 2 election.

AJ Williams and Leonardo Williams are vying to fill the seat that will soon be vacated by Pierce Freelon, who was appointed in Aug. 2020 and decided not to seek another term. They didn’t face off in October’s primary because the top two vote-getters advanced to the general election, and there are only two candidates in the Ward III race.

Freelon endorsed AJ to replace him, but the candidates split the other major endorsements: AJ is backed by the People’s Alliance PAC, the Durham Association for Educators, and Durham For All while Leonardo is backed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and Friends of Durham. 

The candidates who earned the support of the same groups as Leonardo — including Elaine O’Neal for mayor, DeDreana Freeman in Ward I, and Mark Anthony Middleton in Ward II —  emerged as clear frontrunners after the primary. Both Freeman and Middleton are incumbents. In the Ward III race, the odds are much less clear. 

Leonardo Williams, co-owner of the Durham restaurant Zweli’s, announced that he would be running for City Council in June, one day after Pierce Freelon said he would not run. Leonardo is a former chair of the NC Foundation for Public School Children and a former executive board member of the Durham Association of Educators.

AJ Williams joined the race later, on Aug. 3. He is a grassroots organizer in Durham, director of incubation and ideation labs for Southern Vision Alliance, and a member of Durham Beyond Policing and other abolitionist organizations.

In the Durham primary election earlier this month, voter turnout was relatively low, with only 10.18% of Durham’s registered voters going to the polls. Some residents said they saw very little difference between the candidates.  But the same can’t be said for AJ Willimas and Leonardo Williams. 

They differ not only in their policy ideas, but also in the lenses through which they see governing. Leonardo is an educator and a businessman at his core, so these are the lenses through which he understands community engagement. 

He said that small businesses’ struggles during the pandemic motivated him to run for City Council. Over the pandemic, though large companies were still drawn to downtown Durham, small businesses struggled. Leonardo helped establish the Durham Small Business Coalition, which raised $3 million for the Small Business Fund, and organized a citywide job fair that required participating employers to offer $15 per hour. 

“I said to myself, where is the small business representation in our government? Small businesses collectively are the city’s largest employer. How can we have a city full of small, locally-owned businesses, and not a single representation of them in any leadership or decision making capacity?” he said.

If elected, Leonardo hopes to establish a robust Small Business Sustainability and Success Program and expand the Office of Economic & Workforce Development to reflect Durham’s small business sector. He also plans to facilitate better wages and conditions for workers.

As a former teacher and school administrator, Leonardo also is focused on education in the city. He said that while the county funds education, the city shares responsibility for educating and engaging youth.

“It will be my job as a city councilman to ensure that we are engaging our youth at a much broader age and a much more inclusive way,” Leonardo said. “We can utilize sectors such as education and parks and rec and the local corporate scene, maybe even working with the chamber to establish a citywide apprenticeship program for juniors and seniors in high school.”

He said he views education as a public safety issue, too. He hopes that young men in Durham who are engaged in education and economic opportunities will be less likely to turn to gun violence. 

In September, Leonardo stood outside the Hayti Heritage Center with Councilmember Middleton and the group he co-founded, One Thousand Black Men. Its goal is to curb gun violence and change the trajectory of young Black men through mentorship by challenging 1,000 Black men in Durham to spend one hour each week with a young boy in their neighborhood. These are the kinds of initiatives he hopes to uplift if elected to City Council.

“I know that if I spend an hour a week with a young Black boy, as a professional Black man, I can have a positive impact on his life. And so if I asked 1000 Black men to join me, to step up and step in, let’s take this together, take accountability for what’s happening with our young brothers,” Leonardo said.  

AJ Williams approaches governing as a fourth-generation Durhamite with deep roots in the city — from his father’s journalism career, to his grandma’s work as a small business owner, to his participation in little league.  

In addition to working with Durham Beyond Policing, AJ was appointed to Durham’s Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee and collaborated with delegates across gender, age, class, race, and ability as well as staff from the Transportation Department and Budget and Management Services Department. He also has served financial roles on multiple BIPOC-led nonprofits.

AJ is genderqueer, and if-elected, would be Durham’s first transgender councilmember. He said he sees governing and organizing through a queer, Black, feminist, trans lens. He wants to listen to not just cisgender, heterosexual people in Durham.

“The Black queer feminist praxis is a part of so much of the work that I’ve done. And it basically tells us that we actually cannot have Black liberation unless we have liberation for all Black people,” AJ said. “So that has also heavily informed the way that I want to show up as an elected official. Really centering the voices of the most marginalized people in our communities who have been left out of the conversation is the way to do that.”

He said it was a natural progression to move from community organizing to running for City Council. If elected, he hopes to maintain the wins that the organizers achieved in the past few years, especially around community safety. As a member of Durham Beyond Policing, AJ was part of the push for Durham’s new Community Safety Department, which is working to address non-violent 911 calls with mental health services instead of police presence. 

“With organizing, particularly for things within our municipal budget, you need to know that you have the support of your elected,” AJ said. “Durham is shifting and changing in new ways, so it felt like a natural next step to be on the Council and get input from community members.”

AJ supports diverting funds away from law enforcement; creating new public safety institutions, such as Bull City Violence Interrupters, a community-led Safety & Wellness Task Force; and supporting other community-led abolitionist movements. He said he is determined to listen to what residents want, something he learned from his work with Durham Beyond Policing.

“We’ve had a budget hearing where we invited over 300 residents to come and participate and share their personal testimonies and stories — the ways that they were impacted by over policing. So, holding the spaces to hear folks has been something that’s always been really important to me as an organizer, and I think that that’s a transferable skill,” AJ said.

 After living in Durham his whole life and watching demographics shift as gentrification has risen in the city, AJ is concerned about affordable housing. He supports land trusts, protections for historically Black neighborhoods, and an eviction moratorium.

“We need to make sure that folks who are in the market to rent are able to live here, affordably, as well as those who are pursuing homeownership. We need to also support an expansion of the Long-time Homeowners Tax Assistance Program to protect people who have been here not just for decades, but generations,” he said.

AJ shares a background in filmmaking and art like his predecessor Pierce Freelon, who endorsed him. Freelon said the most important advice he ever got was from former mayor Bill Bell: to answer every email that he receives. It’s engagement in the community, Freelon said, that changes lives, whether it’s enacting historic city policies, or just responding to a resident about their broken door. 

This level of engagement is especially important to Freelon when interacting with gun violence victims in the community, and it will be necessary for his successor.

“That means something to me: being present in the community. The day after a shooting, you need to be there: knocking on doors and talking to residents in the communities that are experiencing the violence,” Freelon said. “If you’re going to be advocating for anything that impacts that community: the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

He said that when he does engage with community members, they are often surprised that he took the time to reach out and respond to their issues.

“This seat is different. You know, there’s something special in Ward III, and so whoever wins the seat will need to listen to residents,” Freelon said. “Whoever it is, they will be there to listen.”

***

Correction: This story was updated to correct that Leonardo Williams was a former chair of the NC Foundation for Public School Children and a former executive board member of the Durham Association of Educators.

Correction: This story was updated to correct the voter turnout rate in Durham’s primary election.

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check with us Election Day for updates and results. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At top: From left, candidates for Ward III Leonardo Williams (left) and AJ Williams – Photos by Josie Vonk, The 9th Street Journal.

A Courthouse Moment: ‘I love where I stay.’

It’s a Monday morning in Durham County’s eviction court, and Joseph McMoil’s home of four years is on the line. 

McMoil, a stout 51-year-old man, shuffles to the witness stand. Dressed in a faded navy-blue T-shirt and old jeans, he settles into a swivel chair and gazes out at the smattering of people in the courtroom. 

“Mr. McMoil, what do you want me to consider as it relates to your case?” Judge Shamieka Rhinehart asks. 

For eviction cases in North Carolina, defendants are not guaranteed counsel, so McMoil represents, and testifies for, himself. 

Um … um … the fact that the times that I missed the rent,” McMoil mutters into the microphone. “During that time, I wasn’t receiving as much of a gross amount of money as I usually do. Because of my work.” 

When McMoil’s employer, a retirement home in Durham, reduced his hours early on in the pandemic, his income shrank to $1,800 a month, according to court documents. From April to September 2020, he couldn’t pay the $868 monthly rent for his apartment on Campus Walk Avenue. 

Though McMoil has paid his monthly rent since September 2020, he still owes $10,104.36 in accumulated rent and late fees, according to court documents.

Morreene LLC, the company that owns the apartment, wants an order for possession of the property. 

McMoil’s plight isn’t unique. With the pandemic causing layoffs and diminished hours throughout Durham County, many tenants have struggled to pay rent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium ended in late August, meaning many more Durham residents could face eviction in the coming months. 

Durham Social Services  (DSS) offers rental assistance, and Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm, helps residents navigate the court system. But eligibility for rental assistance depends on earnings: residents can qualify only if they make less than 80% of the county’s Area Median Income, which is $48,400.  

McMoil says he doesn’t qualify now that his income has returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

“Have you thought about applying for any of the [COVID-19] assistance that’s available?” asks Charles Carpenter, a tall, thin attorney representing Morreene LLC. 

“I’ve called all those numbers,” McMoil says, exasperated. “I’ve tried, yes. They are looking into what I make presently and [the fact] that I’m doing well now.” 

Carpenter pauses. “But you do acknowledge that there still are a number of months of rent that remain unpaid?” 

Yes,” McMoil says. “I’ve stayed at this place for a long time. Before [COVID-19], I paid every time. I was a good outstanding resident.”

“We don’t doubt that, Mr. McMoil,” Carpenter says. His shoulders droop. He appears to hold no enthusiasm for evicting McMoil.  

“I was a very good resident before this happened,” McMoil says, his voice growing desperate. “So if you make it where I pay a little extra and catch up or come to an agreement where I can improve it, I would very much like to stay. I love where I stay.”

A long silence hangs over the courtroom. Rhinehart glances back and forth between Carpenter and McMoil. 

Anybody want to be heard?” she says, her chin resting on her hand, exhaustion in her voice. 

Just briefly, Your Honor,” Carpenter says. “We certainly feel for Mr. McMoil. I will point out, to his benefit, that when we proceed, that doesn’t cut off his avenue of discussion with us about the possibility of working something out.” 

Suddenly, the mood in the courtroom shifts. Despite McMoil’s testimony about his failed attempts to qualify for DSS rental assistance, Rhinehart sits up in her seat and asks a lawyer to find the phone number for the program. Various attorneys talk over one another, trying to find the contact information. 

“Mr. McMoil, we’re trying to get you some help, OK?” the judge calls out amid the hubbub.

When the commotion dies down, Rhinehart issues her judgment: “Mr. McMoil, it is unfortunate that I have to grant possession to the claimant. They met their burden.” 

“However,” she quickly adds, “you did hear Mr. Carpenter state that although I have entered a judgment, that they may still be willing to work with you.” 

Judge Rhinehart recommends that McMoil go immediately to the third floor to find DSS representatives and assigns someone to escort him there. 

McMoil walks slowly down the aisle, a gloomy look on his face. He has lost his home for now, but maybe there’s still a chance to save it. 

 

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