Durham News

Durham City Council OKs affordable housing, rental-assistance contract

The one thing Mayor Bill Bell made clear at last week’s City Council meeting was that he is ready to help low-income families pay the rent to move downtown.

“I think we are over thinking this. I think we are making it a lot more complex than it needs to be,” Bell told a consultant who proposed putting together a plan for the proposed rental-assistance program by mid-January. “I think the time frame is unrealistic. I think we need to be able to do this sooner than 90 days.”

What isn’t as clear, however, is what the program will look like, and whether Bell will ultimately have enough support to move it forward.

After a nearly 90-minute discussion, the City Council unanimously approved a $101,000 consultant contract to explore ways to help more people live in Durham.

The contract with Enterprise Community Partners includes $77,000 to develop recommendations on affordable housing and transit areas. That work is expected to be completed in February.

The rest, $24,000, will go to exploring creating a downtown rental-assistance program. Bell persuaded the council to move the date to Dec. 31, but not the 90-day time line he sought.

Karen Lado, a vice president with Enterprise Community Partners, said the company will look at who lives downtown, review housing needs in the market and determine policy priorities.

“We may also look at different household compositions. Are we talking singles? Are we talking couples? Are we talking people with children?” she said. “Pick two to four of them and really model the program.”

Bell tried to convince council members to skip the analysis.

They’ve defined the area, the target families and know there is an lack of affordable housing in downtown, Bell said. They also know there are new apartment complexes coming online.

“What I am concerned more about is persons in the category that we defined ... have an opportunity to rent one of those apartments downtown,” he said. “I think it’s a waste of time to talk about who’s living downtown, what the demographics are.”

What they need to understand, Bell said, is how to establish and monitor the program, define how much money they want to spend on each family and overall. Bell also said he wanted to take action before new members elected in the fall come onto the council in December. Nine people are running for three at-large seats. Two incumbents aren’t running for re-election.

City Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden supported the move, and Councilman Eugene Brown, who is retiring from the council this year, said he would back moving forward in incremental steps. Bell said he is open to working with the Council to define per unit rental-assistance limitations that members are comfortable with, along with other factors.

Council members Steve Schewel, Diane Catotti, Don Moffitt and Eddie Davis said they supported the consultant’s time line.

Schewel, who is running for re-election, said there are lots of issues to be worked out.

“If the consultant thinks it is going to take five months and not three, I respect that,” Schewel said.

Catotti, who is also retiring from the council, said she wants to see what other options the consultants find.

“I am not sure that is the best use of our affordable housing money,” she said.

Moffitt said he sees a lot of potential benefits and pitfalls.

“What I don’t want to do is rush a process that winds up with a lot of repair work,” he said.

Bell, who is running for re-election against three opponents, introduced the rental-assistance proposal earlier this month.

His proposal includes the city covering the difference between the market rate rent and what Durham families earning 60 to 80 percent of the median area income can afford to pay. Money from the city’s 1 cent property tax dedicated to affordable housing would be used to pay the rent gap.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges