In Durham, seeking a home in their own hometown

Development in Durham is making it even harder for low-income residents to find housing.
Development in Durham is making it even harder for low-income residents to find housing. clowenst@newsobserver.com

I’m fortunate to have lived in Durham for 40 years. Because of my financial health, I’ve never had to worry about whether I have a home here.

But Durham’s recent economic growth has priced many residents out of neighborhoods and houses where their families have resided for generations. It has left the city’s most vulnerable, often people of color, perpetually seeking home in their hometown. Affordable housing is becoming harder to find. The influx of young professionals able to pay market rate for luxury condos and apartments means landlords can choose to refuse low-income would-be tenants with Housing Choice Vouchers – subsidies that can be used to rent private units that tenants wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.

Currently 168 families hold Housing Choice Vouchers and are actively searching for a unit. Many will need extensions before they find a viable home, and some still will have their vouchers expire. In total, nearly 320 vouchers, worth $600 per month on average, are not being used because the recipients have not found a unit or the Housing Authority has not been able to process their paperwork and issue a voucher. A full $2.3 million in federal money could be infused into Durham’s economy if we used these vouchers.

As the chair of the Durham Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners, I’ve seen up close how difficult finding housing has become for Durham families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. In Durham, 11 families’ Housing Choice Vouchers have expired since January because they were unable to find housing, even with guaranteed federal money in their hands. These families must reapply when the waiting list opens, meaning that they must then wait months or, more likely, years before they’re able to obtain a voucher again.

Consensus-building for the sake of change requires honesty from all stakeholders. I recognize that the Durham Housing Authority has not worked as efficiently as possible in the last few years. Administrative funding for the operation of the voucher program was slashed by 30 percent in 2013 because of sequestration and budget cuts. Since 2013, Congress has restored funding levels to only 77 percent of what they were before the cuts, leaving the Housing Choice Voucher program understaffed and under-resourced. Budget limitations have resulted in customer service systems that often leave both voucher-holders and landlords frustrated and distrustful.

Nonetheless, I am hopeful. DHA has hired a new CEO, Anthony Scott, who brings tremendous experience from his time in Richmond and Baltimore. Most recently, he was the deputy executive director of Baltimore Housing Authority, where he oversaw 750 employees who worked with 25,000 households. This kind of background has taught him a thing or two about efficiency, and he has hit the ground running. He’ll work with the community and city officials to bring in new Housing Choice Voucher program leadership and make the lease-up process work better for both voucher-holders and landlords.

What truly makes me believe change is on the horizon is that, in my 40 years here, I have never seen such a strong public will to secure affordable housing for our residents. I’ve worked closely with the Unlocking Doors Initiative, a group of nonprofit leaders and city officials, to plan the Mayor’s Landlord Roundtable. Mayor Bill Bell is convening this roundtable to bring together all the affordable-housing stakeholders to discuss how the Housing Authority, the city and nonprofits can work together to get more landlords to accept Housing Choice Vouchers.

This is a critical moment in Durham’s history. If we as a united community can say unequivocally that affordable housing for all residents is who we are, then we won’t miss our chance for change. Unlock your doors, Durham. Step out onto your porches and sidewalks. Say hello to your neighbors. Choose community. Choose one another. Choose housing for all, especially the 320 voucher-holders currently seeking home. Choose a new day in Durham for affordable housing.

Dan Hudgins is chairman of the Durham Housing Authority Board of Commissioners.

Mayor’s roundtable

When: Thursday, 4 p.m.

Where: Self Help’s Temple Building, 302 W. Main St., Durham

RSVP: unlockingdoorsdurham.org/rsvp