At Durham Fair Housing Event, Dozens Share Stories of Rising Rent, Discrimination

At Durham Fair Housing Event, Dozens Share Stories of Rising Rent, Discrimination

Raafe-Amaad Purnsley has been renting a unit in Durham for almost a year. In that time, he and his roommate have dealt with mold, broken furniture, and faltering air conditioning units.

Now, it’s nearing time to renew their lease, and their landlord is raising their rent.

“Due to increases in the market,” Purnsley says, “our rent is going up without discussion of all these issues we’ve been having.”

Purnsley says they haven’t complained out of fear of retaliation. They don’t want to lose their lease and don’t know where they would live if they did. After a neighbor asked the property managers if her unit was up to code, the landlord ended up choosing not to renew her lease. Purnsley worries what will happen if he brings up similar concerns — and like Purnsley, his neighbor identifies as LGBTQ, adding to his fears about retribution.

“If you’re going to raise my rent, I would like to know if my apartment is actually up to code,” Purnsley says. “But I’m worried to even ask that question.”

Purnsley isn’t alone in fearing landlord retaliation. At a Monday evening event at the LGBTQ Center of Durham, he and dozens of others shared stories of what they called housing discrimination. 

The event was co-sponsored by the LGBTQ Center of Durham, the city’s Human Relations Commission, and the North Carolina AIDS Action Network. The three organizations aimed to bring together Durham residents living “at the intersection of multiple identities” to discuss access to housing. LGBTQ-identifying individuals face exceptionally high rates of homelessness across the country—the National Coalition for the Homeless Reports that 40 percent of youth experiencing homelessness who are served by government agencies identify as LGBTQ.

Though the Fair Housing Act legally prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability, it does not explicitly protect against discrimination on the basis of sexuality or gender identity. For Durham residents who believe they may be victims of such discrimination, this can be a problem.

Phil Jordan, Durham’s human relations manager, says the HRC will often try to include sexual orientation-related discrimination within the buckets of sex or familial status. (In 2017, a federal judge ruled for the first time that the Fair Housing Act may protect LGBTQ people discriminated against for not conforming to gender stereotypes.) Jordan says the HRC accepts complaints from Durham tenants who claim to have experienced discrimination in their housing experience—this could be related to an eviction, a rejection, or an undue cost. The HRC reviews these complaints and, in cases it deems appropriate, works to mediate between landlords and tenants.

Jordan told attendees that the Durham HRC currently has twenty-three open housing cases, and about 50 percent of the HRC’s cases relate to discrimination against disabled individuals. Usually, these cases involve landlords refusing to accept service or emotional support animals. Jordan encouraged attendees to file complaints or ask landlords for reasonable accommodations.

For people like Purnsley, this process does not look so attractive. What’s more, many of the attendees cited obstacles to finding housing that were outside of the purview of the Fair Housing Act.

These obstacles were often related to gentrification and the lack of affordable housing, but some were explicit restrictions that kept poor people from finding homes: credit score minimums, minimum income requirements, costly non-refundable administrative fees, and rejections based on their criminal histories. For Durham residents on fixed or limited incomes, these burdens and restrictions represent nearly insurmountable barriers.

Part of the event tasked attendees with envisioning a Durham that could overcome these obstacles. Attendees recommended rent control policies, just-cause eviction laws, and increases in affordable housing for residents making between 0 percent and 30 percent of the area median income. While some of these solutions would require unlikely action from the state legislature, LGBTQ Center executive director Helena Cragg said that the activity was useful in what it provided for the community.

“For us, it was important for community to have some space to share what’s actually happening day to day in their lives,” Cragg said. “We wanted to show what a wide range of people are currently struggling with housing in the city of Durham.”