Some residents of University Gardens, an affordable housing complex in Chapel Hill, have continued to receive eviction notices — a process that began drawing community attention at the end of June 2022 and has continued through this year.
A resident, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Daily Tar Heel in January that they received a 30-day notice from Reformation Asset Management (RAM) to vacate their unit.
Gaye Benton, who lives in University Gardens, has not received an eviction notice because a different organization, EMPOWERment, Inc., owns her unit. Still, she said that she’s watched her neighbors struggle to find housing on short notice.
RAM is a management company from Durham whose clients that closed escrow on 74 units in University Gardens the past year, starting with 68 units in July.
Residents in the community previously received eviction notices on June 30 and were expected to vacate their apartments by the start of August because of a shift to new ownership.
The timeline was extended to the end of September with support from a coalition of organizations including the Orange County Board of County Commissioners, the Town of Chapel Hill, the Community Empowerment Fund, EMPOWERment, Inc. and Community Home Trust.
Later on in the year, the coalition worked with RAM to host resource fairs for tenants in December and January. Several community members attended each of the resource fairs, Libbie Hough, the community stability manager at the Orange County Housing Department, said, but it was not as robust as they had hoped.
“Both times we were able to make connections with residents either to follow up on an application they may have submitted for emergency housing assistance, or in the case of one gentleman, connect him with someone who could help him conduct a housing search,” Hough said.
President of RAM Charles Bulthuis said that, as of March, 46 of the 74 units that RAM manages are non-paying. He said RAM is beginning to evict residents who have been behind on rent since it took over management in July.
RAM has vacated the lower units of the complex in order to start construction and offset the displacement, Bulthuis said RAM offered to move residents up to comparable units in other buildings on the property to live out the term of their lease, as well as partnered with the coalition of affordable housing organizations to provide relocation and payment assistance.
“What my company does is it looks for properties that are in this situation because then we want to buy these properties, we want to bring them up to market condition. And then we want to bring them up to market rent, and currently University Gardens is neither up to par and condition or in market rent,” he said.
While Bulthuis said RAM has not raised anyone’s rent since taking over their units, he also said that after repairs to the property, he expects that rent prices will increase to reflect market prices.
At the end of 2021, residents of apartments on North Buchanan Blvd. in Durham — also owned by RAM — were given a similar 30-day timeline to vacate their homes, raising attention from Durham media and affordable housing organizations.
According to The News & Observer, these properties are being sold for cumulatively $900,000 more than they were purchased for in December 2021.
A wider perspective
According to the North Carolina Housing Coalition, 606 families in Orange County faced an eviction filing in 2022, which comprises 6.26 percent of the county’s cost-burdened renters.
Kathryn Sabbeth, a law professor at UNC, said non-payment is the most common reason that tenants face eviction, a problem that has only been exacerbated as a result of the pandemic.
“The problem in recent years, even pre-pandemic, is that the cost of housing was going up a lot faster than people’s incomes were going up and then, with the pandemic of course, people’s incomes, some of them went away all together,” she said.
North Carolina law dictates reasons that tenants can be evicted, which include claims that the tenant didn’t pay rent, breached the lease agreement, can be held responsible for criminal activity or is still living on the property after their lease has ended.
Tenants are given 10 days to respond to their landlord’s demand for rent, but if they have still not paid, Sabbeth said tenants and landlords must appear in court. And if one of them does not, the case is decided in favor of the other — a situation called "default."
She added that there is a very high rate of default for tenants. Many are given short notice about their court date and are met with other challenges such as needing transportation or leave from work.
“My own view based on both empirical evidence and my own anecdotal experience, even if people know their rights, they also on some level are appropriately skeptical if the judges are going to respect those rights if they are there by themselves,” Sabbeth said.
Many of the people appearing in court do not know what their legal defenses are and are rarely briefed by judges or the court on what those defenses might be.
Eviction is an issue of racial and gender justice, Sabbeth added. She said that demographically, Black women with children are often the defendants involved in eviction cases.
“If there’s something that I would want people to know, it’s that eviction is very much a race- and gender-specific phenomenon. Which is not to say that it doesn’t affect lots of people, but that a lot of it is gendered and racialized,” she said.
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