I mean, it’s not the best place in the world. But it’s just something I got a key to, to come in and sit and watch and eat. That’s what I do mostly. Just come in, change clothes, and cook food, y’know? And I’m going again. I had a three-bedroom apartment, because I was raising my granddaughter. And they downsized me to a one-bedroom apartment.Ms. Lorraine Williams
No, no. I haven’t been evicted from any apartments since I’ve been living in North Carolina.
Durham is changing. What was once a quieter Southern town has drawn considerable attention over the past decade, resulting in a new culture of investment and restoration in the Bull City. Historic districts, fine arts, and a diversity of restaurants have come to define this new chapter in the city’s history, bringing with them an air of opportunity and revitalization. Since 2000, over $1.7 billion has been invested into the downtown area, creating new infrastructure, buildings, and promoting business in the burgeoning city center.
However, this change has not been entirely positive. While the promise of new opportunity and industry in Durham is tantalizing, it brings with it a range of issues, some of which directly harm the city’s oldest and most vulnerable residents. As investment floods into the Triangle, the issues of affordability and displacement have become increasingly pervasive as residents in historic neighborhoods are finding it harder to pay their rents and live comfortably.
Lorraine Williams, a Durham resident for over three decades currently living near Walltown, has been directly impacted by this increase in property values. Having lived all over Durham, Ms. Williams says she has experienced displacement firsthand. “Usually when a person moves out they just raise the rent. The rent was $650, but they raised it to $775,” she said, referencing her newest rental. “This place right here was supposed to be $650, but when he [the landlord] found out I had Section 8 he raised it to $775. That’s not right. These one-bedroom apartments right here ain’t worth $775 a month.”
Between 2010 and 2016, median rents across Durham county grew by 16% as outside investments into local real estate continued to lift property values. Properties by Walltown where Ms. Williams currently lives appreciated by 25%. And yet, American Community Survey (ACS) data shows median household incomes in that neighborhood declined by roughly $8,000 during the same period.
In Durham county, just under 50% of all households are occupied by renters. Of those households renting, 46% – or more than 25,000 households – are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their monthlyincome on housing and utilities. Furthermore, 25% of all renters in Durham are severely cost burdened, meaning they spend 50% or more of their income on rent each month. Those who are cost-burdened find it near impossible to pay their bills; with no money saved up, sudden expenses can become insurmountable.
While some are able to keep up with the rents, however debilitating they are, many cannot. This often initiates the process of formal evictions. When tenants fail to pay their rent by the date required in their lease, a landlord can file for a summary ejectment – the first step in a court process to evict a tenant.
In the calendar year 2016, 10,878 summary ejectments were filed in Durham County, translating to 195 summary ejectments per 1000 renters.
The rate of ejectments filed within Durham has steadily been decreasing over the past few years; from 2011 to 2016, the number of filings per calendar year fell by 3,000. Yet, court processes are themselves not the full picture. In addition to formal evictions, there exist unofficial means by which residents are displaced from their homes. This process, termed “informal” evictions, can manifest in many ways. One of the most common forms of informal evictions results from rent increases. As property values increase and investment flows into the city, so too do landlords increase rents, overburdening tenants and pushing them from their communities.
However, there are other ways in which informal evictions can occur. Harassment from landlords, deferred maintenance, and substandard conditions can all result in tenants feeling unwelcomed and being displaced. Ms. Williams experienced something similar, as a water main beneath a previous apartment broke, causing the living room to flood. When she requested maintenance, “they told me to get a bunch of towels and soak the water up.” After a constant back and forth between her and her landlord, Ms. Williams realized the apartment wouldn’t be repaired.
“I can’t stay in this house because of the mold and mildew that started to form… and I was so disgusted.” After having lived there for nine years, she was forced to move. “That was my home,” she said. “Since I left there I haven’t had a quality place to live.”
The implications of displacement are often insidious and multifaceted. Research by Matthew Desmond, and reporting from Durham journalists like Sarah Willets, Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan and Julia Wall, and resident groups like the Human Relations Commission illustrate this well. Often those who are forced to move cannot afford means of storing their belongings and transferring them to a new apartment; tenants are put in a position where they must dispose of many of their personal items. The move itself is stressful and exhausting, and it can necessitate time off work, costing the tenant essential income. Families are forced to move from their communities into new neighborhoods that they are largely unfamiliar with.
As a result of these factors, victims of displacement experience higher rates of depression and anxiety. At times, tenants cannot simply move from one apartment to another, resulting in a period of homelessness, one that can exacerbate symptoms of depression. In addition, these tenants struggle to keep employment, as new apartments may no longer be close to old jobs. Children who are forced to move are more likely to struggle academically, as the move between schools can be both tiring and induce anxiety.
Lastly, evictions themselves are lasting marks on a tenant’s record, making them significantly less likely to find safe and affordable housing. Instead, these renters are pushed into increasingly substandard living conditions, where the cycle of evictions continues.
There are considerable data gaps that exist in the realm of displacement. Details such as age, race, and socio-economic background are not included in digital records of summary ejectments, making it harder to analyze and address. A month of data collection by Durham’s Human Relations Commission in December 2017 and January 2018 reveals that 95% of tenants facing court evictions were Black or Latinx and 95% did not have legal counsel. Regarding informal evictions, little data exists on the scale of the issue. The number of people being displaced outside of formal court processes, the ways in which they’re being evicted, and the demographics of the people being displaced are not effectively tracked in any way.
“The challenges of life sometimes seem hopeless, but keep fighting. Don’t give up.”
At DataWorks, we are working to collect publicly-available data on displacement and evictions, compiling the numbers and talking with neighbors to better analyze the issue. Projects such as the Neighborhood Compass allow for improved understanding of the issue from a macro-perspective. Yet, we are looking to individual perspectives as well. Stories such as the one provided by Ms. Williams demonstrate the various ways in which displacement can occur, the impacts it can have, and the imperative to act against it. By continuing these interviews, and by further analyzing the data, we hope that new insights will be obtained and that the community will better understand the scale and impact of structural housing instability in Durham.
Armin Ameri interned with DataWorks in the spring of 2018. He is a senior at Duke pursuing a B.S. in Economics. Lorraine Williams is a member of the Community Empowerment Fund in Durham, where she is an active leader in affordable housing advocacy. Since she has been a member of CEF she has gotten stronger and become an advocate for herself and others. She is a certified peer support specialist.
Posts in the Community Instability in Durham series are in collaboration with Community Empowerment Fund (CEF).