How Fines and Fees Stop Us From Paying Our Debt to Society
By Stephon Whitley and Boris Franklin for The Star- Ledger
August 7, 2022
Boris Franklin, left, and Stephon Whitley say they left prison, but prison did not leave them.
They were saddled with debts due to a system of fines and fees in our justice system that exploits
the most captive of captive audiences.
We were released from the New Jersey prison system, after serving lengthy sentences for crimes that we committed, over three years ago. However, we are still not free. The whole notion of ʻpaying your debt to society,’ which for us meant imprisonment for a combined total of more than 30 years, did not end when we walked out of the prison gates.
We left prison, but prison did not leave us because while we were denied the opportunity to take our treasured library of books that we had studied in our cells while earning college degrees, we were saddled with debts due to a system of fines and fees that exploit the most captive of captive audiences.
The extraction starts the moment someone is arrested, long before he or she is convicted of any crime, with an immediate $50 county jail processing fee. Imagine if, after every traffic stop, before it’s been determined that a motor vehicle offense has occurred, that the officer slapped you with a $50 charge for just pulling you over.
Once incarcerated, every single need that a prisoner has — for food; communications by telephone, email or video calls; for MoneyGrams; for medical care; for the opportunity to attend the funeral of an immediate family member – is used to impoverish those with almost no ability to pay. For instance, a cup of Ramen Noodles, which costs 28 cents at Walmart, costs $1.03 in the county jail commissary.
One of us spent an average of $100 at the commissary monthly, including a 10% surcharge on every purchase. During a 20-year sentence, that meant $2,400 in surcharges were paid. Surcharges
permeate every transaction — $5 for every visit to the medical area, $1 for every mediation, 30% of income earned while in a halfway house before final and full release.
One of us could not attend the funeral of his son because the cost imposed by the prison system — anywhere from $400 to $800, depending on the distance — was more than he had. And while
incarcerated, the interest for outstanding motor vehicle tickets just continues to build, as does the amount that the prisoner owes for child support, even though there is no possible way that an individual can pay off those traffic tickets or maintain a child support payment while in custody.
This spider’s web of fines and fees ensnares every incarcerated person. One of us left prison with approximately $56,000 in debt.
While there is a great deal of discussion about equity, while high-level committees and task forces are deliberating, sometimes endlessly, about the need to end the exploitation of African Americans, Hispanics, and all those who are excluded from the mainstream of American social life, this system of fines and fees grinds on.
It extracts from those least able to defend themselves, those with no choices and no options. It systematically widens the gap between those who can build wealth and those who are saddled with heavier and heavier debts. It makes all those conferences and committees look like just new ways of delaying the task of correcting these inequities.
Those serious about social justice and reducing recidivism don’t need any more time to dismantle this system. They can begin now, piece by piece, by reducing fines and fees, by enabling those incarcerated to live decently while in prison and freely, free of burdensome debt, once released.
Boris Franklin is the lead organizer of Jersey City Together.
Stephon Whitley is an organizer with ONE Wake in North Carolina. Both organizations are affiliates of Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, a network of citizen organizations working on a wide range of issues, including criminal justice reform.
Public Comment on the 2022 Qualified Allocation Plan for the Distribution of NC Low Income Housing Tax Credits
Thanks to our Affordable Housing Finance Training this past spring, Durham CAN leaders learned about the different tools available for creating affordable housing. One such tool, The Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), is the largest federally-funded affordable housing program; every year, North Carolina receives nearly $30 million dollars to fund the private construction of affordable housing residences. LIHTC are used to cover construction financing gaps that result from lower rent costs in projects like the newly-built Willard St. apartments in downtown. In order to receive Tax Credits, teams of developers, designers, and investors apply through a competitive application process. Applications are then scored across various categories, including site conditions, local housing needs, service to specific underserviced groups, design standards, and more. The scoring guidelines are outlined in the North Carolina Housing Authority's (NCHFA) Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP). Because the competition for Tax Credits is intense, Tax Credit developers design their housing projects to achieve maximum scoring under QAP scoring categories. Thus, the QAP has a major impact on which populations are served, the types of projects that are undertaken and, indirectly, where affordable housing is built.
To better center the needs of residents in the allocation of this extremely powerful affordable housing resource, Durham CAN gave public comment on the annual QAP draft. Our comments centered around ways to preserve the affordability of LIHTC developments, improve the rights of LIHTC residents, increase maintenance standards and regulations, and create practices that pursue racial equity and justice. It is our hope that by sharing our perspective as a community organization that is deeply rooted in relationships with residents, LIHTC developments will become an empowering platform for upward mobility that begin to reverse historic reproductions of systemic inequity in Durham and across NC. On August 31st, Durham CAN leaders will meet with Scott Farmer-- the executive director of NCHFA-- to discuss these goals and our public comment. View our comments in their entirety at the link above.
North Carolina was allocated $273 million from the Homeowner Assistance Fund (HAF), which was established through the American Rescue Plan to prevent mortgage delinquencies, defaults, displacements, and foreclosures for homeowners experiencing financial difficulties after January 21, 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Durham CAN offered public comment to the NC Housing Finance Agency (NCHFA) to guide the development of the HAF allocation plan, which will open this fall. It is our priority that the HAF addresses disparities faced by BIPOC homeowners, who make up more than half of those currently at risk of losing their homes. Investing HAF in land trust models would preserve existing affordability, reduce tax burdens, and serve as a tool to prevent displacement. Read our full comment below:
Date: June 23, 2021
To: North Carolina Housing Finance Agency (NHFA)
Re: Public Comments on Draft NCHFA Homeowners Assistance Fund (HAF) Plan
Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods (CAN) is a broad-based, community organization that works to coalesce, train, and organize the communities of Durham across religious, racial, ethnic, class, and neighborhood lines for the public good. Our primary goal is to develop local leadership and organized power to fight for social justice. We strive to hold both public and private power holders accountable for their public responsibilities, as well as to solve deep community social and economic problems. Durham CAN is affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, the nation’s oldest and largest community organizing network.
Over the course of our 22 year history, the creation and preservation of low-income, workforce and affordable housing has remained a top priority for our 30+ member institutions. And through our campaigns calling for the construction of affordable housing, on public land, in close proximity to public transportation, we’ve come to understand NCHFA’s significance with regard to the state’s Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program. According to the Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey data from January 2020 to February 1, 2021, of the 2.6 million homeowners who are currently past-due on their mortgages (as reported by the Mortgage Bankers Association) over half of them are people of color. We hope to see the $273 million HAF allocation deployed across North Carolina in ways that make real the commitments of our public institutions and officials to dismantling systems of racism and white supremacy. We submit the following comments for your review and incorporation in the final draft of the HAF Plan:
(1) Add a map and list for the Urban Counties with Federally Designated Census Tracts in Table 7 (For example, Durham has 18 tracts listed with no further information which makes it difficult to know which communities are targeted in this category).
(2) Designate up to 50% of the total funding for the launch and implementation of a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Homeownership Stabilization Pilot Program based on a shared equity model that would stabilize homeowners by "buying" their home into a land trust. This would also reduce tax liability, secure more permanently affordable housing without having to build it, and serve as an anti-displacement strategy.
Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods
Public Comments on City Council Work Session Agenda Item #25 Update on Disposition and Redevelopment of the Property Located at 505 W. Chapel Hill Street
Date: May 6, 2021
To: Durham City Council
Re: Public Comments on City Council Work Session Agenda Item #25 Update on Disposition and Redevelopment of the Property Located at 505 W. Chapel Hill Street
On Monday, May 3rd, we learned about the Fallon Company’s decision to terminate their Purchase Agreement with the City of Durham for 505 W. Chapel Hill Street. Considering the extensive amount of time that we have invested in relating with Mr. Vucannon and the Fallon Company over several years to lend our support and feedback in the development plans for this site -- and ultimately in support of this proposal -- we are disappointed by this recent development and that the Fallon Company did not communicate this update with us directly.
Much has changed in the world and our community since our last comments concerning the modifications to the Master Development Agreement seven months ago. What we hope has not changed are the commitments that the Durham City Council made to Durham CAN and the Durham community in response to our demands to see affordable and low-income housing, built on public land, near public transit, in the downtown core.
The Fallon Company’s assertions and alternatives raise a number of questions such as:
● Whether the City should obtain a new market analysis to affirm or deny Fallon’s claims that an almost $ 3 million price reduction is justified due to “market risk”?
● How would subdivision of the site impact the affordable housing restrictive covenants currently tied to the land in perpetuity?
● Whether the additional units under Alternative B could remain affordable in perpetuity?
● What -- if any-- impact would alternatives have on recent zoning changes made to the site or need for further zoning changes?
As we celebrate with neighbors moving into Willard Street Apartments while supporting those who struggle to find housing within their income range, we’re reminded of how important it is for Winn and the City to continue on the path of delivering the units of affordable housing as promised. We look forward to this afternoon’s presentation and learning how we move forward on this path together.
Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods
On January 27th, 2021, the Durham CAN Affordable Housing Team held an action at the monthly Durham Housing Authority (DHA) Board of Commissioners Meeting and spoke during the public comment period about our proposal with the goal of changing the current eviction policies at the DHA.
We asked that DHA: (1) change the policy on the “time of filing” to extend the court filing date to at least 90 days after the rent is due; and (2) require direct and documented communication between the property manager and resident prior to filing an eviction notice. Increasing the time before filing will allow for recently proposed eviction interventions to take place and will decrease the long-term harm for some residents as well as lower overall evictions which many elected leaders -- including our Mayor -- have repeatedly referred to publicly as “a crisis.”
Since the January Board of Commissioners meeting, the Durham CAN Affordable Housing Team has engaged with DHA leadership and staff on multiple occasions to discuss long-term eviction procedure and policy. As the AH Action team moves to close this phase of our eviction action and develop new strategies, we ask you to JOIN US on Wednesday, March 24th at 5:30 pm to affirm our two procedure/policy recommendations to prevent eviction filings in the long term and highlighting how CAN’s recommendations serve the common self-interests we share with DHA.
Please consider volunteering at Lincoln Community Health Clinic COVID Vaccine clinics in the available slots via Sign Up Genius. (new dates and times will be added in the future)
Dr. Amie Koch
DHA is proposing to issue tax-exempt, multifamily housing revenue bonds worth $9M for financing the construction of JJ Seniors, an elderly, affordable housing project with 20 out of 80 units dedicated to low income.
We have been told by both Mayor Schewel when we were asked to approve the Affordable Housing Bond and by DHA management and members of this board that redevelopment and conversion of public housing units to project based vouchers via RAD is the only option to address the maintenance and renovation needs of DHA’s entire portfolio. We hear that new revenue streams will not only provide extra dollars for maintenance, but also new programming opportunities for residents.
Yet, we are learning that redevelopment via RAD isn’t turning out to be the panacea it was portrayed to be. 1) We were told that units would have 1:1 replacements, but 3 1-bedroom units is not the same thing as 1 3-bedroom unit. 2) Despite promises that residents won’t be permanently displaced, we know people who have been. 3) We are learning of actual costs exceeding budgeted and 4) We are hearing about displacement of residents due to serious structural issues in the newly renovated units following RAD conversion.
With this being just the beginning of the redevelopment process, I ask you, how do you think it is going and are you, as members of the board, providing enough oversight, the thing you were appointed by the City to do?
The members of our community served by DHA have few options when it comes to housing. They are more likely to be affected by the harmful process of eviction. But being low income and having fewer options does not mean they deserve less dignity and respect. As members of the Board, as management of DHA, as taxpayers and community members of this city, we all have a shared responsibility for making sure that promises made are kept and the dignity and respect of each person is upheld.
Durham CAN held its first Metro Council Meeting of 2021 via Zooom on Thursday, January 21. We kicked off the meeting by welcoming our new Strategy Team co-chairs Mr. Kevin McNamee, Mr. Cullen McKenney, and Ms. Ketty Thelemaque. Long-time co-chairs Rev. Dr. Herbert Davis and Rev. Dr. Timothy Conder will serve their final year on the strategy team in 2021, and we cannot thank them enough for their years of hard work and dedication to our work.
We also met this semester's interns: Rachel Hefner, a senior at Meredith College pursuing her Bachelor's of Social Work field study requirements; TJ Bryant, a first year Master of Divinity Student at Duke Divinity School where he is in the Thriving Communities Fellowship; and Erin Light, an Architecture student at the University of Southern California with a passion for spatial justice. We are so excited to start the new year with this dedicated group at our helm.
At the meeting, we also heard updates from the Criminal Justice Reform and Affordable Housing Action Teams. The CJR team will continue its gun violence listening sessions campaign and its Covid-propelled decarceration campaign into 2021. The Affordable Housing Team will have its first major action on January 27th @5:30pm at the Durham Housing Authority (DHA) Board Meeting. Durham CAN members will speak during the public comment period about our proposal to the DHA Board of Commissioners with the goal of changing the current eviction policies at the DHA. We ask that DHA: (1) change the policy on the “time of filing” to extend the court filing date to at least 90 days after the rent is due; and (2) require direct and documented communication between the property manager and resident prior to filing an eviction notice. Increasing the time before filing will allow for recently proposed eviction interventions to take place and will decrease the long-term harm for some residents as well as lower overall evictions which many elected leaders -- including our Mayor -- have repeatedly referred to publicly as “a crisis.”
Date: Monday, January 18, 2021
To: Mr. Daniel C. Hudgins, Chairperson
Durham Housing Authority Board of Commissioners
330 E. Main St., Durham, NC 27701
Subject: Changes to DHA Eviction Filing Policies and Practices
In 2019, the year prior to the pandemic, there were 867 eviction filings by the Durham Housing Authority (DHA). Eviction filings have serious consequences for residents. Even if a judgment is not rendered against the resident, the eviction filing shows up in the individual’s public record for seven years. This documented history can have a detrimental effect on DHA’s imperative that residents “move in, move up, and move out” of public housing. Landlords, employers, and financial institutions search these public records to make decisions about whether to rent, employ, insure, and/or loan money to individuals. In addition to the complex negative impact on individuals and families, evictions are costly to DHA, taxpayers, and the City of Durham.
Date: January 4, 2021
To: Ms. Ashanti Brown, Durham Housing Authority
330 E. Main St., Durham, NC 27701
Subject: WRITTEN COMMENT - FY2021 Annual PHA Plan & 5-Year Plan
In 1998, the US Congress established the public housing agency (PHA) plan to ensure “that the PHA is accountable to the local community for choices it makes.” Our comments highlight specific recommendations that the Durham Housing Authority (DHA) should consider to increase accountability for the significant investments of tax-payer funds including:
- Publishing complete information for all prior and current RAD Conversions on the DHA website.
- Prioritizing the organization and training of a Resident Advisory Board and Resident Councils as required under federal law.
- Revising the Durham Housing Authority Downtown Neighborhood Plan (DDNP) to incorporate feedback from long-time homeowners and community members about what the plan gets wrong and is missing.
- Presenting a financial update at the next DHA Board of Commissioners meeting on how the RAD conversions of Damar Court and Morreene Road have generated funding that is being used to address maintenance issues in other DHA communities.
- Providing a briefing to the City of Durham’s Affordable Housing Bond Implementation Committee on the return of investment of City funds granted to DHA since 2017.
Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments on these plans. In the future, please consider how your scheduling of public hearings and public comment impacts religious and cultural holiday observances. A public review and comment period that falls over during the busiest months for clergy leaders and community members prevents meaningful public participation in the process.
Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods
Date: January 5, 2020
Attn: Ms. Ashanti Brown, Durham Housing Authority
330 E. Main St., Durham, NC 27701
Subject: MTW WRITTEN COMMENT
The Moving to Work Demonstration program (MTW) is an opportunity for Public Housing Authorities (PHA) to participate in testing new policies aimed at 1) reducing the cost to the PHA of administering rent policies, 2) incentivizing families to work or prepare to work, and 3) increase housing choices for low-income families. The Durham Housing Authority (DHA) is applying to be a part of Cohort #2: Rent reform with the desire to test a Tiered Rent policy. Thus, a DHA resident in the treatment group would pay rent within an income tier and that rent would be the same until the next recertification in three years. DHA has suggested that the cost reductions of not having to recertify every year and the flexibility to use existing PHA and Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) funds would allow them to fund 4 new programs: 1) resident support services 2) increase funding for Project Based Vouchers (PBV) 3) increase landlord incentives, and 4) pre-development costs. However, no new funding for such programs will be provided as part of participation in the program.
We have no comment about the merits of MTW or the expansion; however, we believe it is not the right time for the Durham Housing Authority to apply to participate in the program for the following reasons:
- We fully support an increase in resident services and increasing the number of families DHA is able to assist with more PBVs; but, with no new money being provided to the agencies chosen to participate in the program, we question where this money will come from. A large portion of DHA’s communities have been failing the Physical Assessment Subsystem (PASS) for many years. Resident inspections at Hoover Road in 2019 and the carbon monoxide crisis at McDougald Terrace in 2020 confirm the deteriorating conditions that families in these communities live in. The top priority for DHA should be ensuring that all units across all its properties are in safe and livable conditions.
- The tiered rent system as described at the end of the application would create a system in which some families end up paying more than 30% of their rent if their monthly income is less than the midpoint of the tier. A family with an income of $5,000 places them in tier 3 and a rent of $156 per month or 37% of their monthly income.
- As of January 2, 2021 DHA has 13 open positions listed on their website including the person who will manage the Jobs Plus Program that is set to launch on February 15 (according to the 2021 Annual Plan on page 17). We are concerned with DHA’s capacity to take on a new program while negotiating a recovery policy with HUD for the “Troubled Agency” designation as well as managing existing and new programs like ROSS and Jobs Plus.
- DHA has been designated a “Troubled Agency” under the Public Housing Assessment System due in large part to the PASS scores. According to the Moving to Work Operations Notice ( FR-5994-N-05), “MTW agencies will not be scored in PHAS unless and until HUD develops a MTW-specific system or successor …”. This would deny the public and its residents the one way of reviewing the overall performance of their local housing authority including the physical assessment of its units, potentially leading to a further erosion of trust within the community.
We thank you for the opportunity to submit comments on the MTW Plan and Application.
Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods