A wobbly toilet, sinking floors and mold spores were just a few of the problems that used to plague Jessica Barnes’ East Durham home. Jessica, a single mother with two kids, inherited the home – which her family had owned since 1965 – from her father in 2009 after he was diagnosed with cancer. Since then, she has battled a neverending cascade of problems, sinking more and more money into a seemingly hopeless house. The problems escalated and came to a head during one particularly brutal winter a few years ago.
“It was dumb cold outside, and there was ice everywhere,” Jessica says. “The pipes burst in the kitchen, the heat went out, the hot water heater stopped working. It was the nightmare of a lifetime.”
Frantic and desperate, Jessica did everything she could to keep herself and her son Jaden, 10, and daughter Janai, 9, warm. She put plastic on the windows, rented space heaters and used the stove for heat. She tried saving up as much as she could from her evening job as a dispatcher, but it wasn’t enough.
“I felt like I was drowning,” Jessica says. “It was eating me alive.”
This unstable living situation continued for months until Marcelle Thomas, a real estate agent at Urban Durham Realty, heard about Jessica’s predicament through a friend.
That’s when things took a remarkable turn for the Barnes family.
Marcelle brought up Jessica’s situation to Courtney James, the owner of Urban Durham Realty, and proposed a plan to fix Jessica’s home – free of charge. The company started a crowdfunding campaign and asked many of their vendors to help fix the dilapidated house pro bono. They partnered with Rebuilding Together of the Triangle, a local organization focused on helping struggling homeowners stay in their houses by restoring them. Once the plans were set, Courtney and her team managed to completely renovate Jessica’s home – inside and out – in about a month. Some days, Jessica says, she barely recognizes the home she’s lived in for the past decade.
“I wake up, and I’m like, ‘Where am I?’” Jessica laughs.
A shiny new washing machine whirs in the background as Jessica gives a tour of the renovated space. Smooth, greyish-brown wood floors, recently painted walls and new fixtures have given the home a completely fresh identity.
When asked what she thinks of the transformation, Jessica shakes her head like she can’t believe this is her new life.
“This is amazing, it’s more than I could ever ask for,” Jessica says, tears running down her face. “It’s the biggest blessing of my entire life. I feel like I’ve won the lottery.”
And while Jessica no longer has to worry about maintaining her crippling home, many in the same neighborhood haven’t been as lucky.
Jessica’s house sits on a street with many other older homes. Mini- marts and car repair shops mark the corners of the neighborhood while signs that say “We Buy Houses” can be found tacked up on electrical poles. Jessica says that owners in older homes like hers have left the area after selling to investors who make a profit from flipping houses. Some of the more aggressive ones even come to her house.
“I’ve been offered everything under the sun,” she says. “$10,000, $20,000, $30,000.”
And when those like Jessica can’t afford to fix the problems in their homes, many end up taking what they can and getting out, Courtney says.
“But that is often a mistake, because these investors typically aren’t professional appraisers and usually offer way below the value for the home,” Courtney says.
A quick check on the real estate website Redfin shows that Jessica’s home is worth at least $62,000, a number likely calculated before the added value from the renovation. That’s why projects like this one can be a solution for those unable to fix their homes themselves. While there are some government assistance programs and loans available to struggling homeowners, they can take months and piles of paperwork to acquire, and often have qualification requirements such as being elderly or disabled.
“In some ways, it feels daunting that this is just one house,” Courtney admits. “It took a lot of work in a city that needs so much more than this.”
Courtney says that Urban Durham Realty wants to continue the momentum started with Jessica’s home.
“Like it or not, [real estate agents] are a part of the reason that this is happening,” Courtney says. “And we need to be a part of the solution.”
Looking ahead, she hopes to get other real estate companies to help in this kind of work.
As for Jessica and her kids, they’re happy to have reclaimed not only their house, but their lives. Without the financial stress caused by the house, Jessica says she’s excited to spoil her kids.
“I want to put them in classes,” Jessica says. “They both love music and dancing, you know? Maybe I can put them in a dance class. I just want to do more together.”
Photography by Briana Brough