This year the Human Rights Center at Duke has been hosting a series of public discussions on gentrification, reflecting growing concerns across Durham about the effects of the city's rapid transformation on longtime, low-income and minority residents. In the first talk in the series, area activist Melissa Norton asked audience members to examine the ways in which our own actions (and inactions) contribute to gentrification. It is past time that Duke asked itself the same question.
Gentrification can be succinctly defined as the process through which higher-income people move into neighborhoods traditionally occupied by lower-income people and displace them. Key to this process is a prior cycle of underdevelopment, creating artificially low property values which can lure potential investors. Neighborhoods, as Norton notes, "don't become disinvested overnight." The precursor to Durham's current development boom lies in a long history of segregation, redlining, public and private underinvestment and the outright destruction of Black neighborhoods via now-infamous urban renewal programs.
The final nail in this coffin was the demise of the city's manufacturing base. But if the shuttering of the last textile and tobacco mills heralded the end of an era, it also signaled a new relation between town and gown. Virtually overnight, Duke became the largest employer in Durham, with an unrivalled financial and political presence. Historically, the University had left questions of public policy to Durham's business magnates, neglecting city matters almost entirely. By the end of the '90s, however, Duke became the only game in town.
Duke responded to this new position in contradictory ways. Under the leadership of President Nannerl Keohane, the University proclaimed a new commitment to community development. This goal was ostensibly philanthropic and disinterested. At the same time, the University had a decided self-interest in "securing" the inner city, particularly after the decision to house incoming freshman on East Campus. (As one article in Duke Magazine put it, "if Duke planned to place its youngest, most vulnerable population in the midst of the city... it needed to ensure safety and stability for students.") Did Duke want to enrich poor people or secure poor places? If these goals were not necessarily in conflict, they did not automatically converge either.
In a sense, Duke dealt with this potential conflict of interest by dividing up tasks: the newly-created Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership tackled philanthropic interests, while the Real Estate Office handled pecuniary ones. The latter quickly began working on major development projects, including the American Tobacco Campus, West Village and the new Durham Tower. Rather than purchasing these properties directly, the Real Estate Office partnered with private developers, committing to leasing up to 50 percent of new office space. In a fascinating interview with Durham Magazine—now unfortunately offline—Scott Selig, Duke's associate vice president of capital assets, explained how this choice facilitated development while avoiding negative perceptions of Duke dominating downtown. Asked about the impact of such development on low-income and minority communities, Selig essentially punted, saying "I am not the best person to answer that question."
The best people to answer that question were presumably those involved in the new Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership (DDNP), later folded into the Office of Durham and Regional Affairs. While the Real Estate Office partnered with private developers, DDNP worked with Self-Help Credit Union and the city of Durham to revitalize low-income neighborhoods around Duke's perimeter. The strategy, first pioneered in the historically Black Walltown neighborhood just north of East Campus, was for Duke to loan money to Self-Help in order to purchase and revitalize run-down properties. These would then be sold to low-income, first-time homeowners, with preference given to Duke employees.
Walltown is indicative both of the successes of this tactic and its failures. Once decimated by urban blight, it is today a vibrant and attractive neighborhood. In a sense, this is the problem. When Self-Help began purchasing houses there in 1995, they paid an average of $11,000 per unit. By 2005, the average sale price of a home in Walltown had risen to $107,000, and by 2015 it had more than doubled to $230,000. While the project initially brought almost 80 low-income families into homeownership, today homes in Walltown are simply unaffordable to low-income renters and buyers. In the long term, the project has less hindered gentrification than—ironically—facilitated it.
I have no doubt that the individuals behind DDNP possessed the best intentions—and I know that Self-Help is now grappling with the implications of this strategy in terms of long-term affordability. But if Duke's attempt fell somewhat short of its philanthropic goals, it succeeded quite well at its more self-interested ones. Viewed cynically, the aforementioned division of labor assumes a more ominous tone: Duke partnered with private developers where the market conditions for gentrification were ripe and with non-profits in poor Black neighborhoods where gentrification required a little more legwork.
So what is to be done? In brief, I propose three things.
First, end the firewall between the Real Estate Office and DDNP. It makes no sense to have the latter putting out brush fires that the former partially started. Minimally, the Real Estate Office needs to conduct racial equity impact assessments before partnering with private developers. Better yet, they should insist on an affordable housing component as a precondition for any future partnerships.
Second, Duke needs to expand its focus on homeownership to engage with deeper questions of long-term affordability. The Durham Community Land Trust provides an excellent model in this regard. Essentially, community land trusts allow individuals to purchase housing while retaining partial ownership through a long-term ground lease. This dual ownership model ensures that the property remains affordable, one owner after another, in perpetuity.
Finally, raise wages. Supplying affordable housing mitigates the effects of inequality; raising wages addresses the cause. As the largest employer in Durham County, Duke has the opportunity to be a trendsetter for the whole region. I thus second the call to raise wages for all workers on campus to at least $15 an hour.
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Bennett Carpenter is a graduate student in the literature department. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.