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Durham mayor calls for $95 million affordable housing bond

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel
Durham Mayor Steve Schewel

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel wants a $95 million bond referendum on the November ballot for affordable housing.

Schewel announced it during his annual “state of the city” address at Monday night’s Durham City Council meeting. The bond would fund a five-year affordable housing plan.

“We have to decide if we as a community really want to do something about gentrification and affordable housing, or if we’re just going to complain about it. Are we going to talk about racial equity a lot, but ignore it when it comes to the biggest equity challenge our city faces?” Schewel said.

As about 20 new people move to Durham every day, the city has been grappling with a housing crisis and gentrification.

Schewel said the bond could be paid for by “about two-and-a-quarter cents on the tax rate.” But the tax rate for the coming year hasn’t been set yet.

“Here is what that means in plain English: If you own a $250,000 house in Durham, you will be paying $56 more per year to help provide housing for others, and to help create the just community that we all want. It’s a big lift, I know. But it’s time one city in this nation did it, and I know that city can be Durham,” he said.

New county tax appraisals show property values in the downtown Durham area have more than doubled. The City Council and Durham County Board of Commissioners will set the tax rate in June.

The last bond referendum in Durham was in 2016, when county voters approved $170 in bonds for Durham Public Schools, the main Durham library, Durham Technical Community College and the Museum of Life and Science.

Affordable housing plans

Schewel announced the Durham Affordable Housing Loan Fund in his speech last year, to be started by the late Phail Wynn, a Duke University vice president who died last year. Others have since taken on the work, Schewel said, and the $10 million fund will launch this spring to allow nonprofit affordable housing developers to compete in the market when a property comes up for sale. The fund will allow nonprofits to hold the property for up to five years at a low interest rate while it arranges a permanent subsidy, he said.

The $10 million to start is funded by $2 million from the city, $2 million from the North Carolina Community Development Initiative, a $3 million loan from Duke and $3 million low-interest loan from SunTrust Bank. If the bond passes, Schewel said the fund would increase to $15 million.

Other affordable housing projects Schewel wants to support and expand if the bond referendum passes include the Durham Housing Authority’s conversion of downtown public housing to mixed income, mixed use developments. The housing authority has applied this year for a low-income housing tax credit to redevelop the J.J. Henderson complex.

The bond would help fund several other Durham Housing Authority redevelopment plans, including Liberty Street/Oldham Towers and Forest Hills Heights, which would both become mixed income, mixed use developments, too.

Affordable housing apartments are planned along the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project line downtown.

Light rail

With a funding deadline approaching, Schewel also stressed the need for light rail, which he called “affordable transportation to the good jobs throughout our region. We need it to mitigate the highway gridlock that threatens our quality of life, and we need it because it’s the single most important thing we can do locally to fight climate change.”

The 18-mile, 19-station, $2.5 billion Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project has a Feb. 28 deadline for GoTriangle to sign cooperative agreements. The light-rail line will run from UNC Chapel Hill to N.C. Central University, with stops along the way in downtown Durham and at Duke University.

“Although intense negotiations are ongoing, neither the [North Carolina Railroad and Norfolk Southern] nor Duke has signed yet as this critical deadline approaches,” he said. If the agreements aren’t signed by the deadline, “light rail, so close now that we can taste it, will die a sudden death,” Schewel said.

“I have urged President [Vincent] Price of Duke and the railroad executives to sign the cooperative agreements so we can move forward together, and I call upon them again tonight to do so. The future of our region depends on it,” he said.

Immigration

Schewel also talked about his great-grandparents, who fled anti-Semitism in the Russian empire in 1889, in what is present day Lithuania.

“Elias and Bluma [Schewel] were members of a despised minority fleeing persecution. They were refugees, undocumented immigrants with few skills and no English at all, but they dreamed of a better life and they set out against all odds to find it here on these welcoming shores,” Schewel said.

“This could not happen today. In Durham, the flow of refugees has slowed to a trickle due to the policies of the Trump administration,” he said.

Schewel mentioned the letter he wrote and six other North Carolina mayors signed last week in response to the ICE raids in the state. He congratulated new Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead for ending ICE detainers in the jail.

“Whatever message you are getting from Washington, D.C. — in Durham I want you to feel the welcoming embrace of a big-hearted city,” Schewel said.

The mayor also announced an expansion of the Durham Police Department’s U-visa program, which allows certifications to undocumented residents who help the police solve violent crimes. In 2018, 244 U-visas were granted in Durham, he said. The program started with those who contributed to solving crimes within the past four years, but Schewel said now any undocumented person who has contributed to solving a Durham crime since 2011 will be eligible.

Schools

Schewel echoed his first state of the city, when he urged Durham parents to send their students to Durham Public Schools, as he did.

Schewel said he is willing to speak to any group of five or more parents “who are trying to decide where to send your children to school in Durham.” Schewel said that he or another elected official with kids in the Durham Public Schools system will visit your home for a conversation about DPS and what the school system offers. Parents can schedule a meeting at bullcityschools.org.

In his 47-page speech, Schewel also highlighted the work of city employees, participatory budgeting, driver’s license restoration and transitional jobs for people re-entering the community from incarceration.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.

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