Structural Problems meet Individual Solutions at Mayor’s Landlord Roundtable
by Claire Sorrenson
Let us start with the vision: a tenant who needs housing and a landlord who wants to rent, linked and supported by the systems in place to serve them.
This vision arose early on at the Mayor’s Landlord Roundtable on July 11th, which brought together the Durham Housing Authority (DHA), city leadership, affordable housing advocates, and landlords to discuss incentivizes for landlords to rent to low-income tenants. A video introduced Lisa, a Durham native, who had a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher that subsidized her rent. Lisa struggled to find a landlord who would accept her voucher—until she met Jesse, a landlord who partnered with Durham’s Unlocking Doors Initiative to provide housing for voucher holders like Lisa.
Lisa called her new situation “a real blessing. My kids love it, I love it.” Jesse even owned property on the south side of Durham, returning her to the neighborhood where she’d grown up.
Jesse, for his part, described the experience—specifically the rent that the voucher guarantees each month—with three adjectives rarely heard in conjunction with housing authorities: “relaxing and peaceful and easy.” With additional supports in place from the city and partner nonprofits, he argued, “There’s no reason why you shouldn’t accept vouchers.”
Jesse’s words neatly underscored the two central questions of the event: What barriers are still preventing landlords from renting to voucher holders? And how can a network of nonprofits and government agencies eliminate these barriers? As Janet Xiao, Co-Director of the nonprofit Community Empowerment Fund, put it to landlords, “We are building out the supports that you asked for to make this an easy decision for you.”
Following the video, Mayor William Bell “challenged” the Durham Housing Authority to house 20 voucher holders in the next six months. Bell seemed aware of the obvious retort to his challenge; he followed up with, “Now, 20 might seem like a small number. But if you’re one of the persons fortunate enough to get one of those vouchers, like Lisa, that’s what this is all about. You’ve got to start somewhere.”
When Bell convened the first roundtable in 2016, “somewhere” fell below basic standards. A damning federal audit from the Department of Housing and Urban Development had recommended that the DHA reimburse HUD for more than $100,000. Anthony Scott had just come on board as CEO of the DHA, promising major overhauls to a broken system.
Given this starting point, the DHA has made significant strides in the past year. They have reshuffled and retrained their staff, added more temporary workers, hired an outside inspection company, and cut inspection times from three weeks to one. The Unlocking Doors Initiative has sought to fill remaining service gaps by bringing on partner nonprofits, who pre-vet referrals and provide third-party mediation and case management. The Initiative is also launching a risk mitigation fund later this year that will cover up to $2,000 in property damage for landlords renting to voucher holders.
When the sheer scale of need comes into play, however, this supportive network begins to strain at the seams. Scott explained that when the DHA opened their waiting list in September of 2016, they received 6500 applications. They narrowed the list to 1500 applicants, screened over 900, issued vouchers to 386, and housed 153 families. “At the end of December, we still had 236 families that were looking for housing. They had vouchers, they were on the streets, but they were still looking for housing.”
Cora Tucker, a peer advocate with Carolina Community Support Services, is intimately acquainted with this reality. She helps voucher holders try to find housing, a process that she characterized as “heartbreaking” when her clients are turned down “more times than” not. She listed the potential strikes against voucher holders: a “blemish” on their record, bad credit. “It’s heartbreaking to work with them and see the hurt on their faces.”
Some landlords are up against challenges themselves: Michelle Laws, a landlord with property on Guthrie Road, hasn’t been able to rent to voucher holders because she can’t cover the costs of renovating a building that a former tenant burned down. She detailed the struggle of trying to pay her own mortgage and rehabilitate her property, all while watching other black property owners be displaced. White landlords, she said, “are getting property that once belonged to African-Americans who just can’t get the loans and the capital to keep up.” She would like to keep her property and eventually open up a home for formerly abused women. “But we can’t compete with the historical barriers in place.”
Ellie Bergman runs Bergman Rentals, which has owned and managed property in Durham for over fifty years. She saw a different barrier for landlords—entitlement on the part of voucher holders. She wanted nonprofits to be having a “heart to heart conversation with that applicant in an effort to impress upon them what opportunity they have right in front of them.” And she wanted voucher holders to understand, “I’m not entitled to this, I’ve got to earn this. And if I don’t earn this, if I blow it away, I’m not the only one that’s going to be hurt. It’s the people that are standing behind me, that want that voucher too, that have now destroyed any opportunity.”
“Isn’t That a Down Payment on a House?”
Ted Stevens, President of Veterans Helping Veterans of America, came at the problem from another angle. “How about a program where you allow them to purchase their homes?” he asked, to applause from the audience. “Call it a voucher, call it a loan. If you give them a voucher for $800 a month for a year, that’s $9,000. If you take that for two years, that’s $18,000. Isn’t that a down payment on a house?”
Anthony Scott stood up after Stevens had his say, adding, “There actually is a program like that. We currently have about 60 participants in our voucher program that are in our homebuyer program.”
Stevens interjected, “You said you had 6500 homeless people.”
“Yes,” Scott replied.
“And you have 60 in the program,” said Stevens.
This exchange summed up the at-times fraught call-and-response between the DHA and the people it purports to serve: the DHA listed the ways it was trying. Community members responded with the ways it could do more. The DHA reiterated that it was trying. (Scott to Stevens: “We are at the mercy of regulations from HUD.”) And there, by necessity, the conversation came to a close.
“We’re Asking You to Step Up”
In the end, the most obvious beneficiaries of the roundtable were a select few individuals who testified. An elderly woman complained, rather incongruously, that she was being harassed and stalked at her retirement community; a landlord questioned how he was supposed to get his unit up to HUD standards when he couldn’t afford a $500 repair; Michelle Laws bemoaned her Durham property sitting burned-out and vacant. All received assurances from important people, business cards and contacts, offers of personal help.
At the close of the event, Bell returned to the podium. Actually, Scott had told him, the challenge was supposed to include 30 voucher holders, not 20. “So now we’ve got a challenge to provide 30 voucher [holders with housing] over the next six or seven months. And the landlords, the property managers, are very key to help us meet that goal.” Bell surveyed the room, the landlords sprinkled amongst the housing advocates and city officials. “So, even if you already have a voucher, we’re asking you to step up and maybe take one more.”
Claire Sorrenson is a writer in Durham, North Carolina. Visit her at claireallegra.com