Durham News

Durham group: Address neighborhood stabilization now

A social-welfare group asked the City Council on Thursday to protect Durham’s economically and racially diverse neighborhoods.

A presentation by Melissa Norton, who represented Durham for All, outlined rapid demographic change in the central city in regard to race and class. Norton urged the council to make additions to the 2016-17 budget, which the City Council is expected to approve June 20.

“I don’t know if we are going to have this opportunity, even two years from now, that we have right in this moment,” she said. “There is a real urgency to act.”

In 2015, Durham County completed a tax reassessment in which property values increased countywide by 14 percent since 2008, the last time a reappraisal took place. Some properties in and near downtown rose in value from 200 percent to 400 percent.

Norton applauded city officials’ ongoing efforts to establish an affordable housing strategy. Neighborhood stabilization has been broadly recognized in that effort, she said, but there is some uncertainly regarding what programs and policies would be most effective. Neighborhood stabilization ensures that long-term and low-income residents benefit from positive changes occurring in the central city and that economically and racially diversity is preserved in neighborhoods, she said.

Durham for All representatives knocked on about 900 doors and spoke with nearly 200 people in two different parts of Northeast Central Durham.

About 80 percent of those surveyed were concerned about a rise in property taxes following the reassessment. Renters were most concerned about affordability, she said. Homeowners were most concerned about repairs.

The county sent information in the mail about programs that could help elderly, disabled and low-income homeowners, but many didn’t look at the information, Norton said. People who did qualify had to go online and download the application, she said. After they download the application, they have to go back online and figure out where to send it.

“Each of these steps create significant barriers to applications,” for people who less likely to have computers and be computer literate, she said.

Durham For All recommended that the city expand its housing repair program, targeting low-income homeowners, and re-establish a minor repair program for landlords. The city should also coordinate with Durham County on existing tax relief programs and a long-term strategy for tax fairness and relief.

The city has set aside $350,000 for an urgent housing repair program in 2016-17 budget. City Manager Tom Bonfield suggested the council review the program’s guidelines this summer. Bonfield said the cost and extent of the repairs limit the number of houses the city can help.

“We are rebuilding, remodeling the houses in many of the cases,” he said. Other challenges include bidding requirements, Bonfield said, asking whether it would be more efficient to involve nonprofit organizations.

“I would to encourage you all and the groups thinking about this to also think about what are some different models that may get at some these problems more than just the traditional (model in which) the city runs a repair program,” Bonfield said.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges