Less than two years ago, Raynell Mays and his family were homeless. They were renting a house when, suddenly, their landlord sold it.
From May to January, Mays helped build a pair of affordable housing units on Kent Street in Durham’s West End neighborhoods. One of the families who moved in — a mother and her three children — used to be homeless, too.
“I’ve been there, homeless, to where you didn’t know where you’re going to lay your head that night. Where your next meal was coming from,” he told The Herald-Sun. “It hits close to home.”
Mays was a member of Bull City YouthBuild, a program that helps 16- to 24-year-olds earn their high school equivalency. As part of the program, the students work on Habitat for Humanity of Durham construction projects, like the one Mays helped with on the West End.
Affordable housing is needed in the gentrifying city. Durham Community Land Trustees (DCLT), a nonprofit that manages 286 housing units including the two new West End homes, has nothing currently available for rent or sale. Its wait time for rental housing is at least eight months.
The West End neighborhoods, around West Chapel Hill Street between downtown Durham and Duke University, are historically blue-collar and African-American-majority. They include the Burch Avenue, West End and Lyon Park neighborhoods.
“Habitat sold a house in March last year on Cornell Street [in Lyon Park] for $150,000,” said Blake Strayhorn, president of Habitat for Humanity of Durham. “Two weeks later, the house next door sold for $547,500.”
“That’s the environment which we’re building in,” he said.
A growing gap
In the last five to seven years, developing affordable housing in the West End has become nearly impossible, said DCLT executive director Selena Mack.
Gentrification — newcomers moving in, driving up rents and/or property values and displacing longer-term residents — has widened the gap in the West End between what it costs to build a rental unit and what groups like DCLT can charge in affordable rent.
“We honestly can’t afford to develop anymore,” Mack said.
So, at the Durham Co-op Market, which has helped revitalize the West End, people involved in the Kent Street project came together for a celebration Wednesday.
“We don’t ordinarily celebrate when we finish a house, but we had this ‘village’ of partners, and that’s what we want to celebrate today,” Mack told the crowd.
Besides YouthBuild and Habitat for Humanity, DCLT also partnered with Families Moving Forward, Housing for New Hope and the Durham Housing Authority to help match low-income families to the new homes.
Before that, the city government, Self-Help Ventures Fund and the Duke University Office of Durham and Regional Affairs helped with land acquisition and funding.
“I don’t know if we can provide the affordable housing that’s needed in Durham,” Strayhorn said. “The only way we can come close to making a dent is to partner together.”
New homes, new futures
Devin Mosby, another YouthBuild student, once lived in a home built by Habitat for Humanity.
“I like that they help people who are not as privileged,” he said. “I just liked the vibe and the feeling [of a Habitat home].”
Mosby said it was “beautiful” to give back by building affordable housing for others. Both families who moved into the two houses had a single parent and her children, said DCLT spokeswoman Kristen Cox. The families were unable to attend last week’s celebration.
DCLT predominantly houses African American and Latino adults and families.
“We get people coming through our doors literally in tears because they can’t find housing in Durham,” said Marcia Rogers, manager of property and sales for DCLT.
Federal Housing Choice, also known as Section 8, vouchers help low-income families pay for private housing. But, they come with limitations, she explained.
“You only have a certain amount of time before your [housing] voucher expires,” she said. “If you don’t find anything, you lose it.”
The formerly homeless mother is in the National Guard, said Cynthia Harris, Rapid Re-Housing program manager of Housing for New Hope, a non-profit that aims to end homelessness.
She was homeless before staying at a Families Moving Forward shelter for three months. She received a housing voucher, then an extension that let her secure the new home in the West End. Harris said the mother wanted to raise her children in a safe environment.
When the family saw their new house, she said “they could not believe it.”
For Mays and Mosby, building these homes is just the beginning to their careers. Bull City YouthBuild gives its students an alternate track into the construction industry. The pair graduated from YouthBuild in January, shortly before the finishing touches were put on the two homes they helped build.
Mosby said he hopes to work for Habitat for Humanity because the organization lines up with experiences that he enjoyed. He wants to join Mays, who — by “some kind of magic,” he said — got a job with Habitat as a repairs apprentice.