Durham to Vote on $95 Million Affordable Housing Bond

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A Durham 150 Closing Ceremony Mural
Days after the closing ceremony of its 150th-year celebration, residents will vote on Tuesday on whether to approve a plan to resolve what advocates call a housing crisis. Photo by Michael McElroy

By Michael McElroy and Meredith Dockery

During the closing ceremony for Durham’s 150th anniversary, Mayor Steve Schewel stood on the DPAC stage in front of Durham’s officials and residents, its business leaders and community advocates, its first responders and teachers and bid them happy anniversary. Durham’s history, he said, both the good and the bad, served as a testament not just to how far the city has come, but the distance still left to go.

Durham’s past, he said, “embodies the belief that all residents must have an opportunity to share in our newfound prosperity.”

And on Tuesday, Election Day, Durham faces a similar choice about the city it wants to be in year 151. 

Durhamites will vote on a $95 million affordable housing bond on Tuesday that will form the bulk of a five-year plan to build, maintain and restore affordable housing in the city. The five-year plan, at a total cost of $160 million, is vital, Schewel says, to resolving a crisis that is a direct extension of the recent and heralded boom that makes Durham such an attractive destination to 20 new people a day. 

Schewel has been a firm advocate for the bond, delivering some form of his affordable housing stump speech at many of his numerous appearances throughout the city.

“If I walk from City Hall to Beyu Caffe,” Schewel told a crowd at Vert & Vogue last month, “the chances are 50% that I will meet” residents who say they cannot afford their rent.

“You all know this. You all know there are thousands of people in our city who have lived here for many, many, many years who are now having a really hard time being able to just afford living in Durham, especially in communities of color.”

Homeowners and renters, he said, “are being forced to the margins of our city,” away from the good jobs, away from transit lines, away from the amenities.

“We have created an increasingly unaffordable city,” he said. 

The crisis, he said, extends across income levels as the average new neighbors bring $10,000 more in annual income than the average resident already here, leaving developers with little incentive to stem rising home prices.

“We have two possible futures,” he said, “the one we’re getting now, and we know where that leads us: a Durham that is less diverse, a Disney version of the Durham that we love.”

Or, he continued, “we can try to boldly intervene against the market forces and create a different kind of future for Durham that is more inclusive and more affordable.”

The five-year plan and the $95 million at its center, is only part of the solution, he acknowledged.

“We’re not going to stop gentrification, we’re not going to end displacement,” he said. “But we are going to take a big bite.”

He added: “I have no doubt that it is worth it.” 

The bond, according to Durham’s plan, will “allow us to create or preserve 2,800 affordable rental units and for-sale housing opportunities,” and will reach 15,000 residents.

Over five years, the city will spend nearly $3.5 million on emergency shelter and rapid rehousing efforts to fight homelessness; contribute $6.3 million in down payment assistance; $4.6 million in home repair and rehabilitation; and $2.3 million in eviction diversion. 

But the scale and cost are the very reasons that some critics say the plan is either the wrong way to approach the problem, or is an example of egregious government overreach into the market.

A vote for the bond, after all, is a vote for a higher tax rate. The city says the bond will “add no more than 1.6 cents,” to the rate, which breaks down to $37 a year for residents with homes valued at $230,000, the average tax value in the city.

There is also an enduring distrust in the city, especially in the African American communities, Schewel said, because of previous affordable housing promises that proved hollow.

“People distrust government for understandable reasons,” Schewel said in an interview at City Hall, a week before the vote. There was no doubt that “previous promises have gone unfulfilled,” he said. Which makes the pitch tricky, he said, because, in essence the solution to the enduring distrust requires a whole new round of trust.

“We have to understand” the weariness he said, “and acknowledge it, and to explain the best we can how this will be different. And then we have to prove [this time] is different when we implement it.”

The prove-it process has been extensive, as Schewel and other city officials have sought a wide collection of supporters and groups and have spent much of their time speaking to business, political and community groups.

“That is one of the key things we’ve done,” he said, “to try to get the endorsements of various groups. Which we have done.” He laid out many of the groups who’ve offered their support to the plan: The People’s Alliance, Friends of Durham, the board of Housing for New Hope, among others.

And because off-year municipal elections across the country have notoriously low turnout, it was important this time “to spread the message out,” he said, not just to secure endorsements, but to “go in front of a bunch of groups that are not endorsing and explain it to them.”

The topic was also widely discussed in the business community.

Downtown Durham Inc. devoted its October speaker series to affordable housing, inviting the business community to hear experts on the issue including John Parvensky, the president and CEO of Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. 

However such “bold interventions” might cost a city, Parvensky argued, there are larger costs to doing nothing. 

Colorado residents, he said, end up paying for homelessness in the state through “jail days, police encounters, court costs, detox, ER and other medical visits.”

In Denver, the services cost $7 million a year.

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