We have an eviction crisis in NC. Here’s what we can do.

Jesse McCoy, attorney and faculty at Duke Law Civil Justice Clinic who also works on the Durham Eviction Diversion Program, speaks to the group at the Herald-Sun office on Tuesday, August 28, 2018.
Jesse McCoy, attorney and faculty at Duke Law Civil Justice Clinic who also works on the Durham Eviction Diversion Program, speaks to the group at the Herald-Sun office on Tuesday, August 28, 2018. jwall@newsobserver.com

Since the 2017 publication of “Evicted: “Poverty and Profit in the American City,” America has been gradually awakening to our national eviction crisis. According to author Matthew Desmond, every year as many as 2.3 million individuals are evicted, an astonishing 6300 a day.

Eviction can be devastating. It is associated with increased health and mental health problems, educational disruption for children, loss of jobs, and homelessness. Renters often lose possessions as part of the eviction process. An eviction record makes it harder to rent in the future. And all too many of those evicted are families with children.

The eviction crisis is particularly acute in North Carolina. A recent analysis by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University listed eight North Carolina cities among the 100 American cities with the highest eviction rates. In Greensboro, which has the 7th highest eviction rate in the nation, 8.4 percent of renters were evicted in 2016. Winston-Salem and Fayetteville are in the top 20; Charlotte, High Point and Durham are in the top 50; and Wilmington and Raleigh in the top 100.

The causes of the crisis include ever-rising rental prices, lower public investment in housing, and stagnant incomes at the bottom of the economic ladder. Paradoxically, the greater a city’s economic success, the more acute its affordable housing problem can become as rental prices skyrocket.

But there is also another reason why the North Carolina has such a big problem: our laws and legal procedures make it easy for renters to be evicted and hard to connect the most vulnerable with resources that could help them.

By far the most common cause of eviction is non-payment of rent. For all too many, almost any unexpected expense or loss of income — a needed car repair or a cut in work hours — is all it takes to miss a rent payment. In North Carolina, eviction can follow quickly. If a tenant fails to pay rent when it is due, a landlord can give the tenant a “notice to quit.” Should the tenant not pay the rent in 10 days, the landlord can then file eviction papers, which will summon the tenant to appear in court for an eviction hearing.

At this point, most tenants simply don’t appear for their hearing, and those who do usually lack any legal aid. The vast majority of cases, therefore, end up as “summary evictions.” Yet, often there would have been ways to work things out had the tenant appeared and been represented. Most landlords, of course, also prefer alternatives to eviction because they lose income when properties stand vacant.

In Durham, where there are 500 eviction orders a month, a team at Duke Law School has been providing legal advice to those facing eviction. The premise of the Duke Eviction Diversion Program is simple: many evictions could be avoided if tenants had legal advice to argue their case, negotiate with the landlord, and help locate resources available to people in their circumstance.

The program is small, but the results have been so promising that the Durham City Council recently allocated $200,000 to double the Duke program’s capacity.

Durham is not alone. A similar clinic is now operating at UNC-Greensboro. And the UNC-Charlotte Urban Institute recently issued a comprehensive report on the eviction crisis in Mecklenburg County, along with a toolkit for taking action.

These university-based efforts are not a silver bullet, but the approaches they are pioneering hold considerable promise for making a real difference in the lives of tens of thousands of North Carolinians.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Cities and founding partner of HQ Raleigh. Frederick Mayer is a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy and director of the Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service at Duke University. They can be reached at authors@forwardcities.org.