Durham renters are facing eviction for the first time since September 2020 after the Supreme Court declared the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium unconstitutional in an unsigned Aug. 26 statement.
After not receiving payments for a year, landlords are beginning to evict for non-payment of rent, said Sarah D’Amato, supervising attorney of the Eviction Diversion Program at the Legal Aid of North Carolina. After receiving an eviction notice, renters have 10 days to file an appeal. If tenants do not file an appeal within that time frame, they must be moved out within 30 days after receiving an eviction notice.
The CDC’s eviction moratorium prevented evictions for failure to make rent or housing payments. It did not cover lease terminations.
“A lot of those tenants [in Durham] are on month to month leases, so that means that … [landlords] can ask the tenant to leave at the end of the month,” D’Amato said.
D’Amato said that month-to-month lease agreements are usually mutually beneficial arrangements. However, during the pandemic, they’ve allowed landlords to evict tenants who are not paying rent.
“The housing market is so hot and … [landlords] are being presented with offers that are too good to turn down,” D’Amato said.
Jesse McCoy, James Scott Farrin lecturing fellow and supervising attorney at the Duke Law Civil Justice Clinic, attributes this to changes in Durham’s job market.
“We have catered to a demographic of folks who largely are not from the area, and as a result, people who are from the area feel like they're being pushed out,” McCoy said. “Their salaries are not commensurate with what companies are bringing in who are relocating to our area.”
McCoy also attributed rising housing prices to the influx of university students and businesses, for whom financial aid and high salaries make rising house prices accessible.
“The effect of that is to continuously push out folks from Durham who don’t make enough money to compete,” McCoy said.
New companies elevate housing prices
Apple recently announced it would bring a billion-dollar campus to the Research Triangle area. This development follows Google’s decision to develop a Google Cloud engineering hub in Durham. Real estate brokers suspect that these massive projects will elevate Durham housing prices even further.
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“It’s great to have these two tremendous companies come to the Triangle area, but I also know that they’ve made some pretty significant commitments to affordable housing on the West Coast,” Durham Housing Authority CEO Anthony Scott said.
Scott said he believes that these companies need to center affordable housing in their Durham developments to attract employees to the area.
Although the voters of Durham have made a significant $160 million dollar commitment to affordable housing, it will not go as far as it did five years ago due to rising rent prices, according to Scott.
Duke researchers found when rent prices increase in Durham, so do evictions. Joseph Laizure, staff attorney at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Clinical Programs, pointed out that Durham has historically had one of the highest rates of evictions in the state.
“I worry about a return to that rate at the end of the eviction moratorium,” Laizure said.
According to Scott, rising rent prices also reduce the purchasing power of housing choice vouchers.
“Our voucher budgets don’t rise at the speed of rents, so that $21 million is going to serve fewer households,” Scott said.
If the Durham Housing Authority fails to keep up with rising rent when allocating vouchers, landlords will not accept them, Scott said.
A shift in who’s facing evictions
The pandemic has also changed the demographic of people facing evictions in Durham.
“Before, it was easy to write off some of the concerns in the advocacy that we raised,” McCoy said. “The pandemic came along and the problem wasn’t just for low-income demographics. There were people in the middle class who were displaced for work, who contracted COVID-19 and were billed with unintended and unexpected medical expenses.”
McCoy said that pandemic uncertainty has given the issue of evictions and housing insecurity a greater degree of attention. For D’Amato, that has meant that her job representing tenants facing evictions has become politicized.
D’Amato said the ongoing struggle between the rights of property owners and the rights of government to enact regulations to benefit the health and safety of citizens has created backlash toward the eviction moratorium. The moratorium was meant to help control the spread of COVID in the community, she said.
“People do not have a place to live. They are using public resources more regularly. They’re using public facilities. They are living in cramped quarters with other family members. So, evictions are one key thing that we can do in order to help control the spread of COVID-19,” D’Amato said.
For Scott, the issue is one of resource allocation.
“Everyone is in the same boat in terms of not having the resources to continue their living circumstances,” Scott said.
The Emergency Rental Assistance Program
Durham is now dispersing $9.6 million in funds from the federal government via the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
Although rental assistance has been dispersed by Congress, Laizure said that many tenants who qualify will not receive their assistance in time to avoid eviction. Landlords are not required to accept money dispersed through ERAP, he said.
D’Amato said that even when people do receive assistance before eviction, the amount they receive may not be enough to cover the entirety of a tennant’s past due balance.
Another obstacle facing ERAP is a lack of applications, Scott said. He explained that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has made it clear that the DHA is not allowed to forgive rent. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website states that rental assistance funds must be paid toward overdue rent before addressing future rent payments.
Instead, the DHA dedicated funding they received through the CARES Act to raising awareness about the ERAP program.
“Our concern is that we have about a 50% response rate after almost two and a half months of outreach,” Scott said.
Laizure said that Durham County is taking key steps to make the complicated ERAP application process smoother.
“There are government workers who are assisting with rental assistance applications stationed in the courthouse just a few doors down from eviction court so that people who have already been served with papers and are showing up to court are able to access government services,” Laizure said.
In addition to ERAP dispersion, the Durham Housing Authority is expanding its affordable housing units to include more public and market rate housing options.
Scott said that the DHA wants to make sure “that we have a diversity of people in our communities and that they’re not these large pockets of poverty [and] really fit into the larger fabric of Durham.”