2018: New faces, controversies and housing dominate the year in Bull City Politics

The Major the Bull statue at CCB Plaza is flanked by Unscripted Hotel and 21c Museum Hotel, with One City Center directly behind him.
The Major the Bull statue at CCB Plaza is flanked by Unscripted Hotel and 21c Museum Hotel, with One City Center directly behind him. dvaughan@heraldsun.com

The year 2018 started with three new faces on the Durham City Council, and another new one soon after.

Led by the city’s first new mayor in 16 years, the council saw its share of controversy amid the daily work of municipal governance.

One of the first tasks was to appoint a new council member to the seat left vacant when member Steve Schewel became mayor.

Schewel succeeded longtime former Mayor Bill Bell, moving down the dais to the center seat.

Brand new to the council were DeDreana Freeman, the Rev. Mark-Anthony Middleton and Vernetta Alston, all elected for the first time.

The new council appointed Javiera Caballero in February to finish Schewel’s at-large, council term. Caballero is the city’s first Latina council member.

The two faces on the seven-member body (including the mayor) that remained the same were at-large members Charlie Reece and Jillian Johnson. But Johnson’s role expanded in late 2017 when her peers elected her mayor pro tem.

New sheriff and DA

This was not an election year for the Durham County Board of Commissioners. Wendy Jacobs and James Hill were re-elected board chair and vice chair, respectively, by their peers.

In other county races, voters chose a new sheriff, Clarence Birkhead, and district attorney, Satana Deberry. They both defeated incumbents in the Democratic primary — Sheriff Mike Andrews and DA Roger Echols — and had no Republican opposition on the November ballot.

Durham politics was already all blue, but a new wave of progressive Democrats brought new ideas and a new agenda to the Bull City.

Controversial statements

With Johnson as mayor pro tem, work on two of her goals began in 2018: a Racial Equity Task Force was appointed, and the city has launched participatory budgeting, which will let residents age 13 and older choose how to spend $2.4 million of the city’s budget.

Durham City Council actions that got the most public attention this year were more often political statements than policy changes.

In April, the council released a statement opposing militarized policing that included a reference to Israel. The statement generated months of debate by residents, international attention from the Jewish community, and two lawsuits. The Durham Human Relations Commission will issue a report in early 2019 about what it thinks the city should do next.

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In August, the City Council released a statement on Johnson’s council Facebook page about controversial Canadian speaker Jordan B. Peterson, who was coming to the Durham Performing Arts Center.

The statement called the psychology professor a ‘misogynist and transphobic,” setting off another wave of attention from outside Durham. Peterson called the council self righteous.

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But for those who spend many hours at City Hall, much of the council’s work in 2018 focused on Durham’s affordable-housing crisis.

The housing crisis

The joint city-county planning department launched Expanding Housing Choices, a yearlong study of how to solve housing demand with zoning. Ideas included making it easier to build accessory dwelling units, cottage courts and other denser housing options.

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The council approved several new “missing middle” housing developments, a phrase for more compact, denser housing options like townhouses.

Also in 2018, the city was awarded the 9 percent low-income housing tax credit it needed to pull off Willard Street Apartments, the affordable housing project formerly called Jackson/Pettigrew. Construction will begin next summer on 82 one- and two-bedroom apartments for people who earn 60 percent or less of the area median income. (A two-person household in Durham at 60 percent of the AMI has an annual income of $32,400.)

And the the county commissioners approved plans to develop the 300 and 500 blocks of East Main Street as affordable housing for people at 80 percent of the AMI or lower, which is often referred to as workforce housing.

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The government owns most of the property downtown, and two new city and county building projects finished in 2018. The old courthouse is now known as County Administration Building II, and the new Police Department headquarters on East Main Street.

The new Durham Police Department headquarters and Emergency Communication Center is a $71.3 million complex that has been in the works since 2010.

The City Council decided to sell the old police headquarters on West Chapel Hill Street providing any future development includes affordable housing.

In 2019, the City Council will again have a majority of its seats up for election — the mayor and three at-large seats.

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