Durham leader says city’s affordable housing bond won’t push people from their homes

When affordable-housing advocates have heard phrases like “mixed-use development” or “mixed-income neighborhoods,” it’s usually meant bad news for public-housing residents, they say.

During a forum Thursday night at the Whitted School, they pressed Mayor Steve Schewel and Durham Housing Authority CEO Anthony Scott about the redevelopment of DHA properties if a proposed $95 million bond referendum for affordable housing passes.

Y.M. Carrington, who works for the Community Empowerment Fund, asked Schewel and Scott about the 447 units DHA has for the city’s poorest residents.

“I hear mixed-income and that concerns me,” she said. “It usually means people start getting pushed out. It concerns me.”

Scott assured Carrington and the crowd of more than 100 people that wasn’t the plan.

Rather than selling the land, DHA wants to use its downtown Durham locations as leverage for its goal of mixed-income, mixed-use and a public-private partnership, Scott said.

He explained that federal law requires DHA to provide at least the same number of units when redevelopment happens.

These 447 units will be reserved for households making less than 30% 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.

Households are considered “cost-burdened” when they pay more than 30% of their income on rent or mortgage and utilities. Nearly 1 in 3 households in Durham County spend more than that, according to the N.C. Housing Coalition. Among renters, it’s almost half.

The city will redevelop the Liberty Street Apartments, Oldham Towers, J.J. Henderson and Forest Hills Heights. These properties were chosen because they are close to downtown, Scott said. Also, more units can be built on the properties he said.

When Oldham Towers and the Liberty Street Apartments are redeveloped, 214 units will be turned into 570 units, according to the plan. People living there now will be moved but will have an opportunity to return when construction is completed, Scott said.

Oldham Towers, a senior citizen high rise on East Main Street, and Liberty Street apartments, right behind it, are considered one site and cover 14 to 15 acres. Oldham has 106 units and was built in 1969. Liberty, with 108 units, was built in 1972.

Scott said it’s very important to keep public housing in downtown Durham.

“This is where they live, where their social networks are,” Scott said. “If they want to return, they will have the first choice.”

At J.J. Henderson, which has more than 170 units, another building will be constructed on the property that will have 80 units. Scott said most of the current residents could be moved to the new building and then the renovation of the current building would begin.

The remake of Forest Hills Heights would increase the number of units from 50 to 533, Scott said.

‘We don’t need light rail’

In a 2018 op ed in The Herald-Sun, Scott said the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project was “critical” to DHA’s goals for low-income families and to increasing affordable housing in the city.

But the light-rail project’s recent demise will not have a significant impact on DHA’s redevelopment plans, he said Thursday night.

“We don’t need light rail to make this successful,” he said. “Light rail was an amenity but not a component.”

If the referendum passes this fall, it will kickstart DHA’s redevelopment plans, Schewel said.

The passage of the referendum would mean a property tax increase for city residents, though. Schewel said homeowners with an average-valued house, which for Durham is about $237,000, would see an increase of about $37 to their annual tax bill.

It could take 10 years or more to complete the redevelop plan, Scott said.

More forums will be held in the coming months to explain how the bond will aid the city’s affordable housing plans, Schewel 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.