Featured photo: Keep Gate City Housed launch party on April 7. (Photo by Gale Melcher)

Courtroom 215, located in Greensboro’s Guilford County Courthouse, can feel like a machine, spitting out judgments as quickly as fresh eviction cases are filed. For those unfamiliar with the civil court system, it can be daunting, especially without legal help navigating the process. 

Unlike criminal court, where defendants have a right to an attorney if they cannot afford one, there is no federally upheld right to counsel in civil cases. It’s all dependent on the city or county.

According to the National Coalition for Civil Right to Counsel, as of March 2024, tenant representation through an attorney is as low as 4 percent and landlord representation as high as 83 percent. NCCRC also found that only 14 out of 50 states have a robust right to counsel specifically for eviction proceedings. North Carolina is not one of them. But residents all across Guilford County want it to be — especially since the introduction of the TEAM project — or Tenant Education Advocacy Mediation Project. 

The TEAM project — or Tenant Education and Mediation Project, a collaboration between Legal Aid North Carolina and the UNCG, staff of the TEAM Project can be seen sitting inside eviction court or tabling in the hallway just outside of it, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at the Guilford County Courthouse in Greensboro or on Thursdays and Mondays at the High Point Courthouse. 

The project began in December 2020 as a COVID-era experiment to prevent evictions during the nationwide moratorium on evictions. It was one of several solutions available for tenants during the pandemic alongside the Guilford Cares Emergency Rental and Utility Assistance Grant Program and Rental Assistance Program in Greensboro. Both programs were federally funded by COVID-19 Emergency Funds but have since ended their runs. 

Many cities had to experience the dire eviction cycle of COVID-19 and tenant mobilization en masse to spur change. This was the case in Jersey City, NJ. The city passed its universal right to counsel — regardless of income or status — in June 2023.

Just over the border, The Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project wasn’t just catalyzed by the pandemic but by an ongoing housing crisis. Since the launch of PEPP’s right to counsel, Philadelphia has consistently increased its investment in the program allowing for its expansion into more and more zipcodes within the city. The Philadelphia City Council also voted on May 30 to make the Eviction Diversion Program, a program that avoids the formal eviction process. 

Today, nationwide eviction protections spurred by tenant mobilization are changing the ways cities have historically handled issues of housing injustice. And there is real injustice — especially when it comes to race. 

A study published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS, in 2023 reported that though Black Americans nationwide make up about 18 percent of the renting population, but make-up about 51 percent of eviction filings. That demographic rings true in Greensboro. Forty-three percent of the city identifies as Black and all cases heard between 9:45am-10am on May 29th alone were against Black defendants. 

TEAM has been instrumental in helping tenants stay housed through mitigation and legal representation, as well as educating tenants and landlords about their rights and resources. 

But the program doesn’t have to end, with continued funding from the county, advocates for the program have been pushing for the city of Greensboro to commit to the program through the 2024-2025 city budget. 

For housing advocates like American Friends Service Committee Program Director Cecile Crawford, the math is simple: existing funds, plus $440,00 from the city, equals a fully-funded TEAM Project.

She said, “$440,000 is point zero, zero, six, three percent — that’s three zeroes — of last year’s budget.”

A glimpse into courtroom 215

A lot can happen within Courtroom 215 in the Guilford County Courthouse. Every business day, beginning at 9 a.m. until the docket is cleared, Courtroom 215 is reserved for eviction cases heard by a county magistrate. With more than 16,000 eviction cases filed last year, according to North Carolina Housing Coalition’s analysis of Guilford County’s Housing Need, the small courtroom is swamped all year-round. 

On Tuesday, April 28, it was as busy as ever. 

In one case, a tenant alleged they had no way of communicating with their property manager or the managing company, and that they had never received a notice of past-due rent. The property manager was not present, but a representative was. They alleged the tenant was carrying a balance of past-due rent for several months, and that they had made several attempts to rectify. 

In another case, a live-in employee of Econolodge alleged that the weekly rent that was automatically deducted from their paycheck was about $30 more than the agreed-upon rate. When the employee found out, they stopped automatic deductions and stopped paying rent entirely in early January. At some point, they alleged, their property manager and boss then stopped scheduling them for work.

In this instance, the property manager was represented by an attorney. The tenant then provided a copy of a document outlining the amount she thought she agreed upon to both the magistrate and the attorney, to which the attorney said, “It must have been a typo.” The attorney then furnished another past agreement. It was signed by the tenant with the correct rent.

The quickest case took less than five minutes. The landlord, representing himself, alleged that a family of three had been his tenants for years, but were failing to pay full rent on time and were carrying a balance of $5,200, accrued since 2022. 

Armed with a stack of documents, the landlord began pulling pages for the present tenant to look through. The tenant, dressed in scrubs and with a resigned look on their face, didn’t look once at the papers and quickly agreed to pay the money owed. 

“I just want to get it over with. It’s either find the money to move or pay it,” they said.

 These three cases were heard in less than 45 minutes. At least four other cases were scheduled that day but were not processed due to one or all parties’ absence. In all of the heard cases, the magistrate ruled in favor of “possession.”

Tenants were given 10 days to pay any owed rent, vacate the property or appeal. If the tenant did nothing, landlords could return to court for a “writ of possession.” This order would allow the sheriff to give several days’ warning to tenants that they are legally allowed to lock them out of buildings by a specific date. 

And just like that, a tenant has an eviction on their record. 

The TEAM intervention

The TEAM project works in two parts: One side deals with mediation, in which a mediator from UNCG helps facilitate a conversation between the landlord and the tenant, helping both parties avoid the formal process of the court system. The other side deals with legal representation for tenants if the landlord pursues the eviction process. 

Renée Norris, from the UNCG Center for Housing and Community Studies, eviction mediation program coordinator for TEAM, explains that the process of mediation can go a long way to avoid pain, hassle and court fees.

For mediation to work, both parties need to be willing to have a facilitated conversation. Norris’ role in these meetings isn’t to take sides, but rather help both parties reach an agreement that avoids the courts entirely. That could mean paying in installments or the landlord making necessary fixes to the property. The conversation is free and stalls, if not entirely redirects the case away from eviction court. 

“They both just have to be willing to talk,” said Norris. 

“A lot of times one party doesn’t know what the other person is going through. I can have a landlord explain that they have a mortgage to pay, or the tenant say that they lost their job. They can have a civil and facilitated conversation,” Norris continued. 

During her time with the program, Norris has observed all kinds of cases filter through the court, though their focus is helping the most under-resourced and low-income residents. She has interacted with all sorts of tenants — from families to those who are on the brink of homelessness — as well as all kinds of landlords — from mom-and-pop operations (the most willing to come to mediation) to larger companies running multiple properties. 

In most cases, tenants do not have an attorney present during mediation. It’s more likely that landlords will have some form of legal representation.

“In the majority of our cases, the tenants cannot afford an attorney,” she said. 

That’s where the other side of the TEAM Project can help. If a resident meets the income guidelines, Legal Aid can help provide legal representation for free. This is especially helpful if a magistrate does issue a judgment of possession, which can happen in a matter of minutes during the first hearing. 

“It’s not too late. If anything it helps buy time,” says Ayowunmi Kuforiji, an eviction defense attorney with Legal Aid and TEAM. “We can help stall the process.”

With an attorney by a tenant’s side, tenants are able to get organized and get the guidance they need to help navigate the complexities of eviction court and increase their chances of remaining housed. Of the roughly 16,000 eviction cases filed last year, TEAM was able to help an estimated 240 households avoid eviction, or approximately 15 percent of cases. 

Sometimes tenants do not qualify for TEAM’s one-on-one services. They can make too much money, or their landlords are unwilling to go through mediation. In those cases, TEAM staff directs them to other resources like emergency housing or to one of their educational workshops. 

Due to funding, much of which comes from Guilford County’s budget, TEAM currently only has the capacity to operate two days a week in each courthouse. They also do not have the budget to hire more attorneys. 

Their outreach has been limited to their part-time presence in the courthouses and word-of-mouth. But Guilford County housing advocates want to change that. A growing number of residents and housing advocates have been pushing the city of Greensboro to enshrine the program by making it part of the budget. Their hard work may just pay off this budget season. 

Pushing for more

Crawford has been part of a growing movement of residents, who have been bringing attention to the necessity of programs like TEAM, as well as other housing interventions in Guilford County at large, but Greensboro specifically.

Crawford explains that AFSC has steadily been growing a coalition of residents and other community groups, especially around Greensboro as residents have been feeling the rise of housing costs — specifically renters.

In 2022, Rent.com listed Greensboro as the city with the highest percent increase in rent for a one-bedroom apartment nationwide. At the moment, Greensboro isn’t topping Rent.com lists, but Guilford County ranks sixth for the number of evictions according to the North Carolina Housing Coalition. 

For their part, Greensboro City Council has been looking into state funding for rental assistance — akin to the program that existed during the height of the pandemic. But for Crawford, cementing the TEAM project as a line item budget means that the council is serious about keeping residents housed.

After months of advocacy work, the much-desired $440,000 funding for TEAM has made it into Greensboro’s 2024-25 draft budget. A hearing is still scheduled for June 4; the city council will consider adopting a final budget on June 18. 

Although strides have been made, funding TEAM is just one of many things on the longer to-do list for AFSC’s housing advocacy. AFSC community organizer Terrell Dungee says they’re taking notes from other cities, and states that have more robust protections for tenants and better housing policies overall. 

In Dungee’s research, one model in housing rights and eviction prevention opens doors for even more success.

“The biggest inspiration right now is Kansas City,” said Dungee. Dungee explains that when Kansas City, Missouri, first experimented with right to counsel for a year, tenants who used legal representation had a 90 percent positive case resolution. They’ve since codified the right to counsel without income restrictions, within their city code. 

“I think over the first few months, they got it down to like 30 percent. And that’s really our goal is to see, ‘Can we do some of that? Can we get more preventative like we were doing COVID and keep some of those things that we know help families and communities stay stable?’” said Dungee.

But before right to counsel became policy, Kansas City residents, much like Greensboro’s were fighting hard to stave off evictions that were already endemic in the city. Tenants collectivized and created the KC Tenant Bill of Rights in 2019.  

Tenants rights experiments in Kansas City, Jersey City, Philadelphia have varying results, but most of the data shows that when people are represented they are more likely to remain housed. For Dungee and Crawford it’s clear: keeping people housed keeps communities safer, more productive, and whole. 

“[Evictions] destabilize all of our neighborhoods. And so I just think that no matter what your salary is, no matter what your background or where you come from, everyone deserves housing and a safe neighborhood that fosters thriving and well-being,” said Crawford.

On June 18, Greensboro city council will vote on the draft budget for 2024-25. If the budget is approved as is, TEAM will get their funding. 

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