Durham, NC, tenants face evictions for non-payment of rent

Olivia Ferguson moved from Raleigh to Durham because it was cheaper.

But the 31-year-old mother of three says her salary as a cashier in an internet cafe leaves her struggling to pay the rent for her family’s apartment in East Durham.

She applied for rental assistance and was approved, but her landlord is unwilling to accept the money. Now Durham City Council is looking for ways to protect people like Ferguson and other tenants, who make up almost half of the county’s households.

Ferguson moved into his home in March 2019 and said his rent went from $ 795 to $ 850 per month in July. She is currently two months late and owes $ 1,700.

In September, she applied to Legal Aid of North Carolina for emergency rental assistance in the event of the County Durham pandemic.

Ferguson’s request was approved, but his owner, Rick Soles, is not participating in the program. She is one of around 160 people renting in Soles who have asked for help, according to county records.

Soles filed an eviction notice against Ferguson in late November.

“I can’t even think of Christmas right now,” Ferguson said in a pre-holiday interview. “I have to worry about being able to keep the roof over their heads.”

“And I just don’t know how far it’s going to go until he comes and locks my house,” she added.

Akilia Jones, 31, spends time with her two sons, Dorian Jones, 6, left, and Quadarius Jones-Prescott, 2, at their apartment in east Durham. Jones is behind on rent and has applied for rent assistance from County Durham, who are willing to pay off all of their rent arrears, but their landlord Rick Soles will not accept the money. Travis Long [email protected]

Emergency rental assistance

The Durham Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) is a $ 9.6 million city-county program funded by the US Department of the Treasury. The County Durham Department of Social Services manages it.

Program manager Lee Little said payments are made electronically or by check after the parties sign a Landlord and Tenant Agreement (LTA) stating the amount owed for rent, utilities and late fees.

According to Little, the DSS has processed 2,858 of the 7,665 claims and expects to pay about 5,000 claims by February.

The program stopped receiving requests in October to focus on reducing a backlog after the federal moratorium on evictions ended in August. The county plans to have enough money to cover eligible households who applied before the deadline.

The money can now go to tenants if landlords don’t take it directly, but the county says the best way to ensure aid is used properly is for landlords to participate.

Soles said he signed an LTA in September to “test this thing,” but still hasn’t received any money.

“I have no working agreement with any of these people who were behind on rent,” Soles said. “If Legal Aid and DSS hadn’t been involved, we could have worked with these people and they wouldn’t be in the situation they find themselves in.

Akilia Jones, 31, a single mother of two sons, is behind on rent payments for her apartment in east Durham. Jones has applied for rent assistance from County Durham, which is prepared to pay off all of its rent arrears, but its landlord Rick Soles will not accept the money. Travis Long [email protected]

The agreements state that owners cannot apply for eviction for 60 days after signing the agreements. But Sarah D’Amato, the supervising lawyer for Legal Aid North Carolina, explained that landlords like Soles will dismiss some cases and then file others.

Soles maintains that the program did not confirm when a tenant was approved and for how much, making him reluctant to stay evictions.

But D’Amato said the county was in a bind until the next round of ERAP funding, which is expected in mid-January.

“The tenants are put in a precarious situation because it all depends on where their case is,” she said.

Fix another challenge

Paying the rent is just one of the challenges tenants in Durham face.

The decades-old residents of Braswell Properties apartments on North Buchanan Boulevard – many of whom are disabled, elderly and / or families with young children – are forced to leave their homes by December 31.

Charlie Reece, Durham City Council Member Durham City

“I’m angry. I’m very angry tonight,” said Charlie Reece, a city council member, at a council meeting on Monday. “Tenants at Braswell Properties, some of whom have lived in the area for nearly 50 years. years, were informed that their property had been sold by their owner and had asked them to vacate by the end of this year. ”

“Obviously, this is very short notice at a time of year when people should be celebrating the holiday season – not to suffer from the stress and tension of trying to find a new place to live,” Reece said.

The sudden termination of leases and other issues faced by tenants prompted council members to look for ways to strengthen tenant protections. Last month, the Bull City Tenants United group presented a draft Tenants Bill of Rights, which the city is reviewing.

“The way laws and regulations are put in place must benefit a subsection of the population of our community,” said DeDreana Freeman, Board member. “This problem is not limited to the Braswell properties.”

“We can use ERAP to fix rental issues, but we don’t have a way to fix repairs yet. And we have to make sure that we cover all the aspects that make our housing affordable, ”Freeman said.

On Tuesday, council voted to extend the city’s contract with legal aid from around $ 1.5 million to $ 2.6 million to provide legal advice to about 620 Durham residents facing eviction each year.

“I always enjoy it when the community comes together around an issue like what’s going on at Braswell Properties, but it’s just another day for us here at Legal Aid,” D’Amato said. “It happens every day in Durham.”

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This story was originally published 24 December 2021 09:24.

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