‘Suffering in silence’: Durham residents face disproportionate rates of eviction

Lutrenda Sumpter, 65, is a long-time renter of Durham Housing Authority apartments. However, within just the last few years, she’s said she's had to handle mold, moving and multiple DHA eviction filings. (Staff photo by Maydha Devarajan)

Every day for months, it was simply routine for Durham resident Lutrenda Sumpter to shower with rain boots on.

“By myself, (in the) dark and everything,” the 65-year-old recounted as she perched on a leather sofa in the living room of her second-story public housing unit. “That’s how they left me.”

Sumpter has been renting apartments from the Durham Housing Authority for years. The bathroom of one unit she lived in a few years ago on Glasson Street was so caked with mold that she was forced to wear rain boots every time she stepped into the shower. She said the mold even caused her to lose a significant amount of weight and experience heart complications.

Currently, she lives in the DHA-managed Morreene Road community, primarily occupied by older residents. Last year, the DHA filed to evict Sumpter twice from two different units within the same complex.

Sarah D’Amato, her attorney, said the issue of Sumpter’s eviction filings largely stemmed from discrepancies in the monthly rental statements she received after Morreene Road underwent a Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD, conversion.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a RAD allows public housing authorities to “preserve and improve public housing properties” through a series of steps that includes entering into a long-term Section 8 contract and allowing housing agencies to leverage debt to be used as investment in public housing stock.

However, D’Amato said the change led to some confusion among tenants, who found conflicting rental charges following the annual recertification process, which public housing residents must undergo under the RAD conversion.

When tenants have trouble coming up with bank statements or other forms of documentation, it causes a delay in their recertification, D’Amato said. This can lead to a tenant’s rent increasing to the property’s market value or an earlier rental amount.

In Sumpter’s case, D’Amato said the DHA claimed she did not recertify in a timely manner and still owed the difference in rent money between the market value and what she had previously been charged.

Sumpter, who has been retired since 2009, lives on fixed income from disability benefits and said she has never been late paying rent. She pays $225 a month to live in the Morreene Road community.

“I can’t afford to move,” Sumpter said. “Once I pay my rent, my check is gone.”

Peter Gilbert is an attorney with the Durham office of the Legal Aid of North Carolina, a statewide nonprofit that offers representation to people in civil cases. Gilbert, who works with the Eviction Diversion Program, which helps Legal Aid represent tenants facing eviction in Durham, said Sumpter’s story is not uncommon. According to him, the county filed almost 10,000 evictions in 2019.

“The scale of our problem per capita is very high, even relative to other cities that are undergoing increasing housing costs and gentrification,” Gilbert said.

The Stop Evictions Network reported that the DHA attempted to evict 40% of its households last year compared to 1.2% of households in Charlotte and 1.7% of households in Raleigh.

Carl Newman, general counsel for DHA, said he believes the number is closer to 30% of households. He said he believes one issue accounting for the difference in eviction filings between the cities is that other housing authorities have rental rates higher than in Durham.

“And so, what we see is the problem isn’t in the filing,” Newman said. “It’s in private rent collection and trying to, sort of, eliminate the actual need for filing a case.”

In December 2019, the Emergency Committee to Stop DHA Evictions brought a petition to the DHA, which, among other concerns, asked for a moratorium on evictions of affordable housing tenants from December through the end of March.

In response, the DHA put out a press release outlining a series of policy changes made in August 2019, which the agency said had cut eviction filings by half. According to the release, one change includes providing additional information with tenants’ initial filing notices to assist in avoiding eviction. The DHA is also initiating an Eviction Prevention Pilot program that targets high-risk families to “suspend any court filings, remove prior legal and late fees, and provide access to other ways to reduce their rent burden.”

Additionally, Newman said the DHA has not filed any summary ejectment cases for the month of January. He said the DHA is also actively attempting to direct residents to rental assistance resources within the community, such as the Department of Social Services in Durham County, and ensure that more minimum renters receive the hardship exemptions they may qualify for.

“We’ve made a lot of decisions to try to house as many people as we possibly can because there is precious little low-income housing in America, but in Durham in particular, as it rapidly gentrifies in the private market.” Newman said. “And so, it is very important to us to try and figure out ways to preserve long-term stable affordable housing for the population that we serve.”

Mayor Steve Schewel said he believes Durham is making a “huge effort” to respond to the city’s eviction crisis. For example, Schewel said the city increased a Legal Aid grant from $200,000 in 2019 to $500,000 in 2020. Gilbert said the 2019 grant allowed Legal Aid to hire four more attorneys and the increased funding will potentially allow the nonprofit to represent up to 850 tenants facing eviction.

Schewel said while he believes it’s important to consider that the number of DHA eviction filings was higher than the number of actual DHA evictions in Durham last year, he recognizes the difficulties a tenant faces after having multiple filings made against them.

“We have to make sure that (the DHA is) introducing new practices so that they’re drastically reducing the number of eviction filings,” Schewel said. “And I believe that they will do that.”

Gilbert echoed this sentiment, noting that the DHA frequently dismisses its cases at the first court date, often because the tenant has paid their rent in the time between the initial filing and court appearance.

“The impact of the court filing itself—that stays on a tenant’s credit,” Gilbert said. “And so, the tenants become trapped in the Housing Authority; even if they get better jobs, they can’t find apartments on the private market because no one will rent to them once they have evictions on their record.”

Newman said while the DHA is working towards lowering eviction filings, there are other factors involved.

“Yes, we do want to reduce filings,” Newman said. “But it’s very difficult for us because we have to balance that against the fact that we have a waitlist of 3,000 people and that we are, you know, ultimately partially funded by the rents that we collect.”

Gilbert also emphasized that eviction filings in Durham disproportionately affect black women. He said of the 530 cases the Eviction Diversion Program handled last year, 74% of the heads of households were women and 87% were African American. Additionally, the majority of households were on an income of less than $15,000 a year.

“Even though our population is growing, we’re losing long-time, especially African American, low-wealth residents who are being pushed out of the city by housing costs,” Gilbert said.

Sumpter said she’s faced multiple eviction filings throughout her years living in DHA apartments. Although both of her eviction cases from last year were dismissed, Sumpter said she, along with other residents of Morreene Road, feel mistreated by the DHA.

“These people are suffering in silence,” she said. “Suffering, scared—‘turn your light out at a certain time, don’t sit on your porch and drink a beer, put it in a glass’—who the hell do they think they are?”

Newman wrote in an email statement that the DHA is not allowed to discuss any individual eviction case without a release signed by the resident in question.

Sumpter said she’s seen mold, along with cockroaches and other insects, in her new unit, which she’s been living in for around five months. However, she said she refuses to give up in fighting for adequate living conditions.

“Sometimes you’re tired; you get tired and you get scared,” Sumpter said. “But after so much of being tired, scared and traumatized, that goes away and something else comes up. I’m going to defend myself, I’m not going to let nobody hurt me.”

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7 thoughts on “‘Suffering in silence’: Durham residents face disproportionate rates of eviction

      • Why does it have comments from February 2020 then, if it was published April 2? To clarify, when was it published online?

        • Jock Lauterer says:

          Emma, Apologies! You are absolutely correct.
          The original story about which you are asking was posted on Feb. 13, 2020.
          The VOICE regrets this error.
          Keep in mind, we are a lab newspaper, where mistakes like this are teachable moments.
          Onward and upward.
          Jock Lauterer
          Durham Voice

          • Thanks for explaining.
            (I am undergraduate at a local university using this article as a source for a memo that I am writing.)

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