For three months in 2020, we experienced a sudden and unexpected stop in the ongoing trauma of evictions in Durham. For the first time in the 20 years of eviction history we can report on, there were fewer than 500 evictions filed in a given month. There were fewer than 70 in April, fewer than 50 in May and fewer than 60 in June of 2020. During those months, zero writs of possession were filed, the second formal eviction process in which the Sheriff removes tenants and their belongings from a home.
Similarly there was a sudden and unexpected sharp drop in global emissions from the nearly complete stoppage of business-as-usual. For the first time on record, people were producing dramatically less carbon emissions, globally, due to COVID-19 lockdowns. And for the first time in several generations of climate change predictions, an alternate vision of the future seemed visible. No one wanted a catastrophic pandemic to show us how it would be possible to live without ruining our own habitat. And no one wanted a global pandemic to illustrate what the world would look like with no evictions.
This could be the last time
Either way, the moment was short-lived on both fronts. The push to get back to business and ‘open up’ grew in momentum. The confusing and bare-minimal pandemic tenant protections continued, creating uncertainty over whether all back-owed rent would come due at the end of the month or if it could be forestalled another while longer by the chief justice, the governor, the president. We want rent to be cancelled. But here we are, maybe at the end of those various and incomplete temporary tenant protections. It is widely anticipated that the backlog of evictions landlords have been longing for will flood the courts starting in July. Sometime down the line they will go back to normal too: daily, pervasive, routine and profoundly tragic like so many normal American experiences.
But we are not returning to normal. This may be one of the last months we report a relatively low (but still entirely unacceptable) number of evictions during a prior month. We are not going into any new phase of housing violence and displacement with the intent of normalizing it. It has been devastating to even observe the level of toxic stress families experience due to displacement. If one eviction is a preventable and unnecessary community failure, what clearer indictment can there be than 500 to 1,000 households being forced from their homes each month? And we have the temerity to espouse progressive values.
Leaving and not leaving
When people leave Durham, they do so for many reasons. Some uncertain number of them are leaving because they can no longer find or afford a home in Durham. They move to relatively close communities where homes are still cheaper, the housing voucher wait list isn’t years-long, or maybe they settle with friends or family. Many of these folks may not want to leave at all – their community, their loved ones, their jobs are still here.
But in a recent conversation here at DataWorks, the topic of wanting to leave came up. We had been reading Robin D. G. Kelley’s interview with George Yancy which touched on the question of whether or not to leave America, this distinctive place of racist fascism and violence. A place where the high vision of human rights and democracy clashes ceaselessly with the material threats of daily life. A place that by design values property over human life. Dr. Kelley offered that on one hand, physically leaving America may not solve these problems because American racial capitalism is global in its prevalence. And also, you can exit without leaving.
We are at that kind of moment. We cannot comply with a return to normal, when that normal is so thoroughly documented in its violence to community well-being. We are not capable of it.