Will Durham’s business community support the city’s $95M affordable housing bond?

“A generation of opportunity” could be lost if voters don’t approve Durham’s $95 million affordable-housing bond this fall, a local businessman said Monday.

Speaking at a forum on affordable housing, Steve Toler said support from the business community is crucial to the bond’s chances.

But first community members, as well as businesspeople, must understand what’s at stake, he said.

“It’s going to be a heavy, heavy lift,” he said.

About 30 people attended the morning forum sponsored by Manning Fulton & Skinner law firm, a member of The Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber vice president Joshua Gunn said housing costs were a factor when Durham was competing with Raleigh and other cities to land Amazon’s HQ2.

Raleigh eventually made a list of 20 finalists, and while Gunn said Durham scored well on livability, it had less to offer on affordability.

“Durham is talent rich,” Gunn said. “It’s a community with great cultural fabric, all of the things larger-scale tech companies are seeking for a headquarters.

“But the affordability of housing was raised, and we didn’t have good answer for it,” he said. “We didn’t have a good response, to be honest.”

Amazon did not respond to The News & Observer’s phone message Monday seeking comment.

Gunn recently launched his campaign for an at-large seat on the Durham City Council. He is one of 10 candidates vying for the three seats currently held by Javiera Caballero, Jillian Johnson and Charlie Reece. The field will be narrowed to six with the results of the Oct. 8 primary election. The general election will be Nov. 5.

Mixed use, mixed income

Durham is working on a plan to keep the city affordable, says Mayor Steve Schewel.

It includes more mixed-use and mixed-income development, he said. It also hinges on the passage of the $95 million bond referendum to pay for affordable housing redevelopment that will be on the November ballot.

“We can keep our city affordable,” Schewel said. “We know how. Our businesses, if we continue on our current trajectory, will have employees traveling greater distances for their jobs.

“If we pass the bond issue, we can keep workers closer to their jobs. I hope our local businesses see that is in their interest to pass the bond. We are a diverse city. If we lose the affordability, we’ll lose the diversity and that will make it harder for businesses to attract the talent they need.”

Businesses have a stake

Toler says community members need to understand why affordable housing matters to them.

“I’d like to compare it to [past] countywide bonds on issues that were understandable. People knew about them and what they benefited,” he said. “One of the things that struck me [about affordable housing] is that there’s still a lot of understanding and awareness that needs to happen.

“We need to make a stronger business case for the business community. We need to make a stronger business case for tax payers. If we don’t get it passed this time, we can come back later. But we may miss a generation of opportunity.”

Developers are building hundreds of market-rate units downtown and in the area near the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Soon the city and county governments will begin building affordable housing on some of their underutilized properties.

Downtown development

The city recently broke ground on the 82-unit Willard Street Apartments downtown near the Durham Station transit center.

The one- and two-bedroom apartments will be available for people who earn 60% or less of the area median income, or AMI, which for Durham is $28,313 for one person, $32,363 for two people and $40,425 for a four-person household. Twenty-one units will be offered to people making up to 30% of the AMI.

Durham Housing Authority CEO Anthony Scott says the right approach is a mixed-income approach.

“It’s been around from a public-housing perspective since 1996 when Atlanta was one of the first to do it,” he said. “I’ve taken people to Charlotte, where they have some fantastic mixed-income housing, just to let them see what it is. And where they feel it and touch it. And they’re like, ‘Oh, this is affordable housing. Yeah, this is mixed-income housing, and what it looks like.’ You do not know the difference.

“Affordability is a major struggle, not just for us.”

About $60 million of the bond would be used to redevelop several DHA properties, including the Liberty Street Apartments and Oldham Towers. DHA has 447 units near downtown for residents with the lowest incomes. Residents will get priority to move back once redevelopment happens, Scott said.

DHA is already doing some redevelopment ahead of the bond referendum.

Construction of a new apartment building with 80 units at the J.J. Henderson complex will begin soon, Scott said. This will give some residents a place to live when the current building with 170 units is remodeled, Scott said.

New development at Forest Hills Heights will increase the number of units from 50 to 533.

When Oldham Towers and the Liberty Street Apartments are redeveloped, 214 units will be turned into 570 units, according to the plan.

“Educating the general public around what is housing diversity, affordable housing really is one of our biggest challenges,” Scott said.

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Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.