In downtown Durham, progress will bring change, and a move, for elderly residents

Forest Hill Heights, in foreground, is a public housing community near the Durham Bulls Athletic Park that has a gazebo, sidewalks and benches connecting 55 garden apartments for seniors.
Forest Hill Heights, in foreground, is a public housing community near the Durham Bulls Athletic Park that has a gazebo, sidewalks and benches connecting 55 garden apartments for seniors. dvaughan@newsobserver.com

Mary Mobley has lived in a garden apartment at Forest Hill Heights for 17 years. She knows all her neighbors.

“It’s nice and quiet out here, and everyone is pleased with how it is,” she said.

The public housing community built in 1981 has 55 garden apartments for the elderly within a block of downtown and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

It is also slated to become part of a new U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program that will replace traditional public housing units with Section 8 housing vouchers that residents can use to rent apartments wherever landlords accept them.

For Forest Hill Heights, that means demolishing the one-story apartments and replacing them with a mixed-income, mixed-use development that will include the same number of public housing units as well as hundreds of more subsidized and market-rate apartments in buildings up to five stories tall. In all, there will be 575 apartments once it is redeveloped around 2022 or 2023.

The redevelopment of Forest Hill Heights would be funded by a $95 million affordable housing bond referendum planned for the November ballot.

‘I don’t want to go’

Forest Hill Heights’ modest white apartments connected by sidewalks, benches and grass lie just south of the Durham Freeway. A crane working on luxury apartments downtown can be seen over their rooftops.

“Everybody knows everybody,” Mobley said.

While the community is redeveloped, residents will move to available spaces in other public housing sites. They will be able to move back if they want.

“Some will come back, and some will not,” Mobley said. “I don’t want to go anywhere else, really. It would just be like starting over life again,” she said.

But, she added, “I have to go along with it.”

Mobley grew up in eastern North Carolina and moved to Durham to be closer to her brother and son after her father died. She lived in J.J. Henderson, the nearby apartment tower for the elderly, before moving to Forest Hill Heights in 2001.

A large landscape painting of green rolling hills and farmland hangs on the wall of the community center. “Presented in loving memory of all deceased residents of Forest Hills Heights, 1981-2001.”

On the open wall beside it Wednesday afternoon, Meredith Daye, the Durham Housing Authority director of development, showed the agency’s plans for its downtown sites. But only a few residents showed up, mostly because they came to the community center to get their mail. Daye said another meeting for residents will be scheduled soon.

Images of the preferred architectural character of new mixed income buildings planned for redeveloped Durham Housing Authority traditional public housing sites downtown. Durham Housing Authority

Arthur Green, who grew up in Durham and has lived in Forest Hill Heights for seven years. liked what he saw.

“I think the plan is going to be really good,” he said, adding he lives in a studio apartment now and would like a one bedroom. He wants to move back when the redevelopment is complete.

“It’s going to be a good place,” he said.

Mixed-income redevelopment

Four Housing Authority sites downtown are slated for redevelopment in the next five years: J.J. Henderson Housing Center, Liberty Street Apartments, Oldham Towers and Forest Hill Heights. They are part of HUD’s rental assistance demonstration, or RAD, conversion of traditional public housing into a housing vouchers system.

The four sites’ existing 447 public housing units, for households at up to 30 percent of the area median income (AMI), will be replaced. But they will be joined by thousands more affordable and market-rate apartments to help meet Durham’s growing demand for housing.

The new apartments will include around 843 for residents earning 30 to 60 percent of the AMI, and another 560 apartments for those up to 80 percent of the AMI.

Market-rate apartments, which rent to those earning 80 percent AMI and above, would total around 663. That equals 2,513 new apartments, with almost three quarters of them designated for affordable housing, according to the Durham Housing Authority.

The renovation of J.J. Henderson on Duke Street is underway, and the Housing Authority has applied for a federal low-income tax credit for a second, new mixed-income building there.

The Housing Authority first planned to develop Fayette Place, the demolished Fayetteville Street public housing community, so no one would be displaced.

But a market assessment found that project less viable than the others, CEO Anthony Scott said. So instead, the redevelopment of Liberty Street Apartments and Oldham Towers will follow J.J. Henderson, then after that Forest Hill Heights and the DHA office building on East Main Street downtown. The authority’s offices will be relocated to the Liberty Street/Oldham Towers redevelopment site.

Since Forest Hill Heights is the last project on the authority’s five-year plan, it will still be a few years before residents have to move.

What’s next

The Housing Authority will give its presentation again at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 19, at Monument of Faith Church, 900 Simmons St.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer