After spending the summer studying evictions, I learned that data can be an incredible resource for spreading awareness and working towards solutions, but it can also be dangerous when interpreted incorrectly. The total number of evictions each year in Durham county has been decreasing since 2010.
While this can be portrayed as a story of improvement as may be expected with the work of local housing advocates and the Eviction Diversion Program—it doesn’t consider the fact that some months actually showed spikes in evictions. Conversations I had with community members, activists, and lawyers from the Durham Eviction Diversion Program reinforced that Durham is experiencing not just an eviction crisis, but also an affordable housing crisis and a human rights crisis.
My research showed that there were, on average, 781 eviction filings—known as summary ejectments—per month in Durham County in 2018. This equates to more than one person receiving an eviction filing every hour. These filings disproportionately affected communities of color: Block groups with 50% or more people of color faced a significantly higher number of eviction filings compared to majority-white block groups.
But the Filing is Just the Beginning
Of tenants who can make it to court—which isn’t many because of the challenge of taking time off work or finding childcare when money is already tight—95% of them don’t have lawyers.
Access to justice is a basic human right, but tenants are not guaranteed legal representation in civil court as they are in criminal court. A lawyer could defend the tenant by arguing the landlord filed the eviction simply because the tenant requested maintenance in the home when it had a serious health or safety concern. (This is known as a retaliatory eviction, and is common based on anecdotal evidence.) Tenants with no attorney are unlikely to divert their own eviction, and those who don’t even show up to court have no opportunity to defend it at all.
Furthermore, the data doesn’t account for informal evictions even though they are common and catastrophic. Everyday, people in Durham are displaced due to rising rents as developers continue to invest in the city. According to one report from the Nation Low Income Housing Coalition, a person in Durham County working a full-time job had to earn at least $19.04 per hour in 2018 to afford a two bedroom rental home. This housing wage is a far cry from the $7.25 minimum wage in the city today. The eviction crisis is complex, but it provides a framework for understanding housing instability, poverty, and a biased civil justice system.
In our city today, the legacy of historic discrimination and systematic segregation is still ingrained in the urban landscape. This is why our neighborhoods are so segregated today, and why evictions disproportionately affect neighborhoods of color. Rebuilding a city of equality—and one with fewer evictions and more stable housing—is a challenge because the very infrastructure of the city itself was built with inequality; an example is the East-West Expressway in Durham, which cut straight through Hayti, a predominantly black and prosperous neighborhood.
Housing Policies Address Some Issues, Not All
An effective policy solution needs to be comprehensive enough to address all facets of the crisis while considering the federal-state-local government relationship. Rent control is often the first policy solution that comes to mind, except that it is explicitly forbidden by North Carolina General Statutes (General Statutes § 42-14.1). It could make housing more affordable, but would it discourage new development and lead to a housing shortage? And how does it address the issues with our civil justice system?
Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, proposes a change to national housing policy—making every family below a certain income level eligible for a housing voucher. While this policy solution addresses the nation’s housing crisis, it doesn’t do much to implement short-term change in our communities, nor does it address local nuance since each state sets its own tenant-landlord policies.
Universal right to counsel, which is providing legal aid to tenants with an eviction filed against them, has the potential to promote a fairer justice system and provide more immediate assistance to those at risk of eviction. Yet, it fails to address broader concerns of housing affordability and disregards those at risk of informal eviction by only providing support in reaction to eviction filings.
Whereas some policy solutions require sweeping changes to national housing policy, others require funding and support from Durham City Council. Finding one policy solution on one scale that addresses all facets of the crisis simply isn’t possible. Ultimately, my research hasn’t simply been studying policy solutions to evictions, but more so the balance between thinking “big,” like national housing policy changes, and thinking “local,” like a locally implemented eviction diversion program.
Studying evictions on such a granular level by considering the impacts on individual neighborhoods and even individual apartment complexes has shown me that evictions allude to larger issues of housing instability and social inequality. These are issues that cannot be addressed on just the local level, but at the same time, local collaboration and creativity is the place to start for change.
Samantha Miezio is a member of the Class of 2021 at Duke University. During the summer of 2019, she supported DataWorks through the Data+ program and continues to research national policies preventing displacement.