Peering through the chain-link fence at scrub grass and concrete pads, Durham residents saw the remains of the Fayette Place public housing project. Demolished in 2009, the crumbling slabs sprawl abandoned.
“This area was one of the best in the country. We’re standing on holy ground,” said William Lucas, pastor of First Chronicles Community Church.
“Now it’s turned into a place where senior citizens are afraid to go out on their porches.”
In their quest to channel public-private investment toward affordable housing in and near downtown, Durham CAN (Congregations Associations & Neighborhoods), led public tours last month. They stopped at private properties that have benefited from public money, as well as properties like the former Fayette Place that Durham CAN sees as prime candidates for affordable housing development.
About 200 people fanned out on foot and in a bus. They got a firsthand look at publicly incentivized projects: The Durham Hotel and 21c Museum Hotel, the American Tobacco Campus, and the Southside mixed-income housing lofts, bungalows, and rental properties.
Downtown development has benefited from over $1.2 billion in public and private investment since 2000, said Mel Norton of the Durham People’s Alliance.
During the tours, Durham CAN invited residents to envision how similar partnerships could go toward ensuring affordable housing on properties including:
▪ The 2.15-acre city-owned parcel on the corner of Jackson and Dillard Streets next to the Durham Station Transportation Center
▪ A 2-acre county-owned lot on the 500 block of East Main Street, between First Presbyterian Church and St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church
▪ A 4-acre county-owned lot on the 500 block of East Main Street, by the Durham Human Services Complex.
▪ The 20-acre former Fayette Place lot, on Fayetteville Street. (While the land is currently owned by Philadelphia-based Campus Apartments, the Durham Housing Authority has the opportunity to re-purchase the land.)
Ivan Parra, lead organizer for Durham CAN, described the tour as a way of “dreaming big.”
While the city cannot legally mandate affordable housing development on private property, the city can set those mandates for its own land, Parra explained.
“This is an attempt to cast a vision for downtown,” he said. “This is an opportunity for everyone to understand what has happened in downtown in the last decade, and how it has happened, with a view on the future, with what could be done, if citizens in the community work with elected leaders.”
“The way downtown is going, if we don’t work together with different sectors, it could become unaffordable, and very white,” he continued. “We have an obligation and an opportunity to change that.”
The City Council has set a goal of ensuring that at least 15 percent of housing in transit-served districts is affordable to households with incomes below 60 percent area median income.
Elected officials joined the tour, including Durham City Council members Jillian Johnson, Steve Schewel and Don Moffitt; Durham County Commissioners Wendy Jacobs, Don Moffitt and Ellen Reckhow; and Durham Housing Authority commissioner Daniel Hudgins.
‘Holding some cards’
A December report published by Enterprise Community Partnerships reinforced Durham’s need for affordable housing.
Using data from up to 2013, the report found there’s only enough affordable housing in the city for 79 percent of “very low-income” residents (those making 31 percent to 50 percent of the city’s average median income).
For “extremely low-income residents,” who make 30 percent or less of the median income, there’s only housing for 38 percent.
As of 2012, 42 percent of all renter households, and 15 percent of all owner households, were considered “housing burdened” (paying more than 30 percent of their total income for housing).
So, how could understanding downtown development help change these numbers?
First, the tour oriented participants with a crash-course from Norton, about how Durham’s urban core came to be “gutted” — beginning with institutional racial discrimination.
As early as the 1930s, the process of “redlining” meant some neighborhoods – in Durham usually black neighborhoods – were labeled as too risky for mortgage lending.
Meanwhile, low-interest mortgages more readily available to whites encouraged “white flight” out of downtown, urban renewal projects demolished the heart of the Hayti district and bisected it with the Durham Freeway, and investment shifted toward private transportation and economic development outside of the downtown area.
“We lost tremendous physical resources and cultural resources, and created a whole new set of divisions,” Norton said.
Geoff Durham, president of Downtown Durham Inc., helped to de-mystify some of the financing mechanisms more recently used to re-construct the downtown economy.
Using Tax Increment Financing (TIF), for example, the city has been able to attract developers but still protect tax payers: developers only reap tax incentives once the project is built and starts generating tax revenue.
This incentive also allow for a vetting process, in which the community can have some say in advocating for projects that meet overarching objectives — like affordable housing.
The city not only has the obligation but now also more ability to use this process to protect downtown’s “economic and racial diversity,” Durham said, amid a “feeding frenzy” of potential developers.
“Downtown Durham is actually in a position where we are actually holding some cards,” he said. “When we talk with developers, it’s important we realize we actually have authority in asking for the broader good.”
Saturday’s tour gave residents a chance to “audit” the investments already committed and dream of what could happen next, said People’s Durham founder Ray “Bro Ray” Eurquhart, a lifelong Southside resident .
In his neighborhood, the city has already provided $11 million in tax incentives for the “holy grail” of mixed income housing at the Lofts at Southside, as Schewel described it.
The city’s “penny for housing” tax helped build mixed-income bungalows in Southside. The city’s also already committed $4 million for the Lofts at Southside’s second phase.
However, even when trying to provide affordable housing, developers sometimes miss the mark, Eurquhart said. The new bungalows at Southside are home to approximately 80 percent white homeowners, while the longtime residents — and the majority of renters — are majority black.
“One of the things the city was concerned about (for qualifying for homeownership) was the lack of credit-worthy Latinos and African-Americans,” Eurquhart told the CAN group during the tour. “I have my own opinion about that.”
“Say it, Ray,” Schewel said, from a few seats down the tour bus.
Eurquhart said he wished project managers had worked harder to reach out to more African Americans, including through the area’s 12 historically black churches.
In addition, many of the Southside housing units designated for mixed-income housing only guarantee “affordability” for a set number of years.
Marvin Wickware, an elder at Durham Presbyterian Church, said the tour of Southside showed him the need for long-term planning, even in projects that currently seem successful.
“How do we think about making it not just getting homes in places, but making them neighborhoods where people can continue to live after these housing deals play out?” he said.
The tour brought home just how much strategic planning is needed to meet the city’s goals for affordable housing, explained Lanier Blum, specialist in residential development and lending at Self-Help Credit Union.
“We have to have an unprecedented plan … and use all of the tools to get affordable housing,” Blum said. “Planning, zoning, publicly owned land, financing, partnerships, nonprofit development. And that needs to be done by the city, county, and public housing authorities, together.”
Parra: ‘The devis is in the details’
Some of Durham CAN’s housing proposals are en route to fruition.
After back-and-forth negotiations about the Jackson Street lot downtown, City Council members held firm to a commitment to Durham CAN to designate 80 percent of future units there affordable to families below 60 percent of the area median income, and 20 percent of units selling at market rate.
But CAN organizer Ivan Parra emphasized the need for community members to stay involved during the development process.
“The devil is in the details, and that’s why we organize,” he said. “We need to stay at the table, making sure that the result is a good result.”
“We want to make sure that our effort is successful, so we can go to the next place.”
Michael Burton, outreach coordinator for Monument of Faith Church, said the Hayti area should be one of those “next places.”
Decisions such as the construction of the Durham Freeway that plowed through the Hayti district resulted in the once self-sufficient community needing public housing. Then, even that housing was demolished.
“We’re trying to change that narrative,” Burton said. “We don’t want to go back; we just want to go forward.”
“I think the city of Durham has to focus on the big investment ... focus on humanity.”