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​From gentrification to revitalization: what Duke can do

This year, the Durham County Tax Administration will begin its appraisal of Durham property values to reassess property taxation. For many Durham residents this represents a significant risk to their home security and well-being. Property values in many neighborhoods have skyrocketed, and reassessment presents the possibility that yearly tax burdens could rise above what residents can afford to pay. Tax increases will affect renters similarly as costs are passed on, leading to the movement of poorer residents to less central neighborhoods. At the beginning of this month, the Franklin Humanities Institute sponsored the first in a yearlong series of talks titled “Gentrification and Durham’s Future.” We turn now to Durham’s development and Duke’s considerable stake in it as Durham’s largest employer and with its off-campus student population.

Gentrification is a process of rebuilding or renewal during which affluent populations move into previously ignored areas, displacing poorer residents. Displaced residents face well-documented shortages of affordable housing, reduced access to healthy food, unavailable transportation, loss of employment in communities and low quality schools as they are pushed into resource deserts. Moreover, their social networks and cultural heritage suffer as structures and communities, built over years in spite of material poverty, are destroyed. Historically, gentrification in Durham has disproportionately impacted black citizens as happened during the last reversal of white-flight when the Durham Freeway was built through Hayti, then the cultural and economic heart of Durham’s black community. Today’s development effort seems poised to have similar effects if left uncontrolled.

By contrast, revitalization is forward development which occurs without displacing local populations. Revitalization works to benefit everyone in a community by introducing economic opportunities through job development, increasing available public funds for infrastructure and programming and improving quality of life by considering appropriate urban planning and introducing restaurants, shopping and work spaces in order to create multi-use livable centers. In Durham, this development has turned our community into a southern destination with improvements in health, wealth and capacity. However, we must ensure that these developments do not come at the cost of diversity.

In cities going through similar renewals, efforts have been made to freeze property taxes for vulnerable homeowners, include affordable housing along transit routes and ensure public access to health clinics. Durham currently does not offer this taxation relief, though graduate students would qualify by income level, and many residents need this assistance. The city has also yet to ensure affordable housing will be built near transit lines and must consider the public health impact of moving low-income communities out of the city center given the downtown location of the Durham County Department of Public Health.

Duke’s existing strengths in providing support for neighborhood revitalization through the Office of Durham and Regional Affairs could be leveraged to address current policy deficits in transportation and housing. Interdisciplinary teams could be designed to combat the education, health and energy issues tied to gentrification. The University and its Health System employ 35,000 people, enough to make up 20 percent of working-age adults in Durham. We are Durham’s largest employer by a long shot and a huge income provider feeding into city development funds through taxation. Additionally, Duke’s more than 8,000 graduate and professional students live in off-campus communities and negotiate the rapidly changing rental and ownership markets on tight student budgets every year. The Duke community therefore represents a significant lobby capable of pushing for changes needed to move gentrification towards revitalization and guarantee access to benefits for all. We must continue to ensure that our university community does not ignore our local community during this critical process or we risk losing the diversity and history from which we all learn.

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