Many of us with secure tenure in our homes, whether renters or homeowners, have little notion of how swift the economic violence of an eviction proceeding can unfold. It is very easy for Durham landlords to get an eviction judgment (“summary ejectment”) in Small Claims court. A landlord can file eviction paperwork, have a quick process, and avoid hiring a lawyer. A tenant who gets a summary ejectment judgment could have as little as two weeks before the Sheriff padlocks them out. They may find a couch or a bed with family or friends, but may have no place to put their stuff and it gets thrown on the curb. Because of rising rents and surging demand, for many Durham households facing eviction, homelessness is the next stop.
Tenants do have the right to appeal the Small Claims judgment to District Court. Small claims are heard by a Magistrate, but a District Court Judge will hear their appeal.1 The simple act of appealing the magistrate’s judgment is an act of power that gives the tenant more time and leverage with the landlord. For some, it just means having enough time to find a new place and move out. For others, it means a community lawyer is now litigating valid defenses and claims against the landlord. There are many cases where the landlord ends up owing the tenant money.
The required paperwork for an appeal is publicly available, and community lawyers are working every day to help their clients to file. In addition to paperwork, tenants pay an appeal bond. When the court determines that the tenant, as a petitioner, can appear as “indigent” (poor), the bond is calculated by the court based on the uncontested rent amount that is owed, from the time the small claims judgment is entered, and each month while the appeal is pending. The bond is a security that is held by the court, the District Court Judge decides what happens with the money. Unfortunately, tenants’ general lack of access to funds for the appeal bond results in many fewer cases appearing before the District Court Judge, and many more summary ejectment judgements at the small claims court.
The Cost to Community, Courtwatching, and the Call for Change
The ongoing cycle of evictions in Durham is a window into the way the systems that undergird our City and County finances tend to punish the working poor. The brutal economic violence of a single eviction proceeding, multiplied by roughly 10,000 evictions per year, across decades, can hardly be measured in dollars; but we should tremble at the knowledge that tens of millions of dollars in Federal Rent Relief combined with State and Federal eviction moratoria2 during the height of the pandemic, no longer mitigate the eviction court nightmare facing Durham’s vulnerable renters.
Durham CAN volunteer Courtwatching campaigns were organized to better understand the harsh reality experienced by our neighbors who receive summary ejectment filings. In the wake of the pandemic and now that Federal Rent Relief is no longer available to new applicants, the gravity of Durham’s affordable housing crisis is being agonizingly revealed. A glaring example is the impending wave of evictions potentially facing public housing residents who rent from the troubled Housing Authority of the City of Durham (DHA). Despite recommendations included in the Report of the Durham Racial Equity Task Force: An Urgent and Loving Call to Action (a 2020 task force notably co-chaired by our current Mayor Elaine O’Neal), and following on a year-long direct action by Durham CAN’s housing team3 to ask the DHA Board and Staff to enact structural reform in its eviction policy and procedure, community lawyers and organizers are preparing for a potential “tsunami” of DHA eviction filings (beginning with 30-day Notice to Vacate letters) which are said to be arriving with March 2022 rent invoices.
Direct Donation of Funds for Appeal Bonds: An Act of Power
Today there are only a few public sources for money that apply to the time-sensitive crisis that confronts a tenant with an eviction filing. In an effort to address the specific need for immediate (in some cases, same day) funds to pay the appeal bond, community lawyers and organizers have created a unique instrument named “Durham Tenants Legal Power Fund” that stands ready to receive and distribute non-deductible individual contributions.4 This is a simple way for ANY community member to support Durham tenants who normally don’t have access to the money that they need to have some legal power to fight an eviction.5
Write a check for any $ amount, small or large, payable to “Lockamy Law Firm Trust Account.” In the memo line, please write “Durham Tenants Legal Power Fund” and mail it to:
The Lockamy Law Firm
3130 Hope Valley Rd
Durham, NC 27707
The pro-bono services of community lawyers with our local University Law Clinics and Legal Aid Eviction Diversion will help tenants appeal their eviction and then tap into this fund to pay the appeal bond. The fund is only accessed by neighbors who qualify as “indigent” or poor and are represented by a community lawyer. These funds will primarily be targeted to the urgent need for quick turnaround of bond payments amounts which are calculated by the Court.6
There is a lot of work ahead for the Durham community to protect our neighbors from unjust and unnecessary evictions. Successful change movements around the country have led to structural shifts like establishing Right-to-Counsel, Mandatory Mediation, and Landlord engagement strategies at the municipal government level. Behind these successes are years of combined incremental effort and collaboration between community organizers, community lawyers, public officials, and tenant groups; and such a movement is underway here and now in Durham. When tenants appeal their summary ejectment judgements they are exercising their rights to due process as an act of power. When payment for their appeal bonds is supported with grassroots fundraising, it signals that we as a community are ready for change.
Ajax Woolley is a Durham local, guest organizer with the Grant Street Community, and Co-Chair of the Durham CAN Affordable Housing Action Team. He responds at @ajaxwoolley on Twitter.
1In NC, magistrates are appointed officials and District Court Judges are elected officials.
2In Spring of 2021, Federal Aid was being assigned to local government for distribution. Known as Emergency Rental Assistance (or ERAP 1), the nearly $10 mil City/County share, offered a thin thread of promise to renters facing a steep climb following prolonged economic disaster in 2020. Local leaders in eviction diversion work assessed that the total rental arrears deficit in Durham was likely more than $40 mil. What we didn’t know, until the very last minute, was whether the Biden administration would extend the federal eviction moratorium that was originally set to expire March 31st 2021. By August 2021, ALL eviction moratoria had expired. Application intake closed for ERAP 1 on Oct 7 2021, and “ERAP 2” (also known as Durham Rent Relief Program, or DRRP), opened more than 3 months later and promptly closed applications within a month due to overwhelming demand.
3In January 2021, Durham CAN’s Affordable Housing Research Action team had begun an action to demand reforms (by Staff and Board) at the Durham Housing Authority to reform its eviction policies and procedures. Historic injustices around the way public housing tenants had been subjected to eviction as a blunt instrument used to cajole rent collection remain overdue for correction.
4All donations go directly into a secure trust account at Lockamy Law Firm. NCCU Professor Scott Holmes is an attorney of counsel with Lockamy Law firm and has set up this client trust account to handle funds to pay appeal bonds for Durham tenants. The Durham Clerk of Court has agreed to take a lawyer’s trust account check for appeal bond payments.
5Volunteer organizers serve as remote administrators to process secure requests from the community lawyers for bond payments to be processed within approximately 24-48 hours, thus allowing the appeal to go through within the timeframe established in the Courts. This avoids the delays in other funding sources that can cause tenants to be evicted even though they want to appeal.
6Though a donation to this fund is not tax deductible, every donated dollar goes directly to pay eviction appeal bonds at the Durham County Courthouse. Durham Tenants Legal Power Fund has a positive track record since Dec 2021. Donors and other interested parties can request more information via email inquiry to: firstname.lastname@example.org