As COVID-19 rages, Duke housing hits home in gentrifying Durham

At the end of March, a year after Erin O’Brien Regan first signed her lease at an apartment complex off West Campus, she said her landlords threatened to raise rent $80 a month.

Duke gives Regan, a 40-year-old in the Class of 2021, $900 a month for housing while she finishes her bachelor’s degree. But she had just lost her bartending job. In the midst of a pandemic, she saw the rental inflation as a money grab.

She told the landlords that if they raised her rent, “they would lose Duke’s money, and good luck getting in another low-income tenant with guaranteed on-time payments like me.”

They didn’t raise her rent.

“If I didn’t have the security of Duke, I would be evicted by now,” she said.

The Durham affordable housing market, volatile even before the coronavirus pandemic, is now on the verge of collapse. The statewide eviction moratorium expired June 20, leaving hundreds of Durhamites, newly unemployed and months behind on rent, in danger of homelessness. 

Then Duke denied campus housing to most juniors and seniors, and students poured into the city to take over apartments and houses, hastily secured mere weeks or even days before the first day of classes. Affordable housing experts worry Duke’s decision could exacerbate Durham’s housing crisis by encouraging landlords to raise rent and evict low-income tenants as students backed by the wealthy institution and familial capital vie for last-minute living arrangements.

The frenzy for off-campus housing came as a surprise to Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president for student affairs. She said the policy was designed to push juniors and seniors to remain at home if possible and take classes remotely.

“I did not anticipate the extent to which people were going to read [Duke’s decision] that way,” McMahon said. “It feels that it’s more extensive than I thought.”

McMahon recognized that students might have chosen to stay home if the decision had come sooner. But she said various iterations of Duke’s reopening plan were considered mere days before President Vincent Price’s email announcement July 26. She thinks some students never truly considered staying home because they wanted to salvage their expectations for the semester.

“Students were counting on a return to normalcy in the fall,” McMahon said. “This shift is an acknowledgement that we’re not there yet.”

While the rush to find off-campus housing was widespread, so was criticism for Duke’s decision. Students like junior Olivia Reneau objected in an Aug. 1 Chronicle article to the “horrendously cut and dry” nature of the email announcement, saying it “lack[ed] any kind of acknowledgement that they have caused pain and anxiety.” 

The pandemic’s economic downturn has made Durham renters more vulnerable to losing their homes. Unemployment in the Durham-Chapel Hill area was up from 3.7% to 10.6% in two months—before falling back to 7% in preliminary June data—and although evictions halted in mid-March, the moratorium is now up.

Jesse McCoy, supervising attorney at the Duke Law Civil Justice Clinic, said Duke’s housing plan may make landlords more eager to pursue evictions.

“It throws students onto a market in which the landlords know that students, for the most part, can pay,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for landlords to raise prices and recoup what they’ve lost.”

McCoy said Duke’s housing decision may also raise the stakes for previously or newly evicted residents.

“When there’s already a low supply of affordable housing, Durham residents can’t go out into the housing market with an eviction on their record with students in the mix,” he said.

Regan, who inherited the record of an eviction from her late husband, agreed with McCoy. 

“Landlords want no part of you if you have an eviction,” Regan said. “You’re locked out of any apartment complexes.”

It’s impossible to talk about Durham’s housing crisis without talking about race, McCoy said. According to a 2014-2018 County Health Report, only 29% of Black residents and 33% of Hispanic and Latinx residents own their homes, while a dramatically larger 64% of white residents do––leaving the groups vulnerable to fluctuating rental prices and impending evictions. 

The pandemic has disproportionately affected the two communities, too. Latinx residents, who make up 13.7% of the Durham County population, account for more than half of all COVID-19 cases in the county––whereas white residents, 43% of the population, account for less than 19% of cases. Black residents have also been hit harder than their white counterparts, accounting for more than 25% of cases as 36.9% of the Durham population.

McCoy said there is a “strong possibility” that the combined consequences of Duke’s reopening plan and the coronavirus pandemic will alter Durham’s rental market in the long term.

“Once the landlords get accustomed to getting rent from a Duke student, what’s the likelihood that they’ll go back to renting for less than that after this year to Durham residents?” he questioned.

Regan said low-income residents aren't able to demand better-quality housing for the same price like she and other Duke students can. 

“I have the leverage to say, okay, I’ll just move to another place if they jack up my rent,” she said. “Someone unemployed does not since they can’t prove income to qualify for a new lease elsewhere. You don’t need to prove income if you’re a Duke student.”

She fears residents with less wealth and institutional support will fall prey to landlords “who will charge high rents to low-income families for housing that Duke students might not tolerate.” 

Yet others think Duke’s housing decision may not have long-term ripple effects in the Durham housing market. Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham Board of County Commissioners, said it’s impossible to know for sure.

“It’s not like people are moving around right now,” she said. “It may not be an issue.” 

Still, according to a Pew Research Center survey in early June, nearly one in five Americans changed their residence due to COVID-19 or know someone who did.

Jacobs met with Duke administrators and other city and county leaders last week to discuss the university’s reopening plan. She said she didn’t hear any discussion about the effects of Duke’s plan on the Durham housing market.

“My biggest concern is the impact that Duke students will have on infection rates in the Durham community,” she said.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, said the University has been in “constant contact” with local leaders about its reopening plan.

“We are all acutely aware how disruptive these changes are, regardless of when they occur,” he said.

Jacobs applauded the University’s dedication to student safety, calling Duke a “national leader” in its COVID-19 response plan. She also noted that the influx of Duke students will benefit local businesses—but she hopes students will support those businesses “in a safe way.”

“What every Duke student does, it really does affect the entire Durham community,” she said.

McCoy criticized the federal government for its insufficient response to schools and universities seeking guidance for their reopening plans.

“You’re seeing a lot of schools wing it because they don’t have direction from the government about how they should operate,” he said.

While McCoy recognized the consequences of Duke’s housing decision for the city, he said that “while it doesn’t help the situation, it didn’t create the problem.”

Yet he fears the combined impacts of the Durham housing crisis, a pandemic and Duke’s housing decision will reverberate far beyond the fall semester.

“There are a lot of people I feel won’t make it out of this situation,” he said.


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