The independent news organization of Duke University

'Anywhere can serve a kale salad'

When Mayor Bill Bell took office 16 years ago, the city of Durham looked nearly unrecognizable compared with its appearance today. There was no American Tobacco Campus, no DPAC, no Parlour, and little to do in the downtown corridor. When Bell took office, he pledged to undertake an unparalleled revitalization effort that would sweep the city in the following decade. The investment brought billions of dollars to the city that renovated old tobacco mills into livable spaces, attracted novel start-ups and businesses, and made a Durham a destination for arts, food, and culture. 

Today, the city stands on the brink of a precipice in the form of a mayoral election. The candidates are all quite progressive—let’s face it, it’s Durham—but each brings a unique toolset and worldview when it comes to facing the rising challenges of the new Durham. Regardless of who wins the election, the new mayor will be forced to confront the challenges of a rapidly gentrifying city, whose residents need the assurance of affordable housing and increased programming for youth. Where Bill Bell sought reinvestment and economic development, the new candidates must seek to protect the most vulnerable populations in Durham, if they want the new “renaissance” to last.

Durham provides a striking juxtaposition: while its flourishing streets are home to ramen shops and high tech incubators, 66% of the students enrolled in the Durham Public School system receive free or reduced-cost lunch. This represents a significant problem for the municipal government: as the upper income bracket of the city gets wealthier and wealthier, the vast majority of the city remains vulnerable to economic exploitation. Even more worrisome, the majority of children in the city of Durham belong to families susceptible to this economic injustice, deeming the next generation nearly powerless in accessing the opportunities and resources available in downtown Durham.

This discrepancy in wealth and resource is only intensified along the dividing lines of neighborhoods. Contextually, the median income across the city of Durham is $51,000. In the wealthiest, mostly white areas of Durham, that median rises to $80,000. In poor neighborhoods like East Durham, that median falls to $26,000. On an annual family income of $26,000, there is hardly money to pay for food and electricity, let alone rising rents and mortgages. 

It should come as no surprise that as Durham develops, property taxes and valuations steadily climb. In 2011, the average rent across the city was $715 per month. And as of August 2017, the average monthly rent in the city of Durham has nearly doubled to $1,204. Meteoric increases in property valuations like these certainly point to the success of the Bill Bell renaissance, but they also necessitate the creation of programs that keep Durham residents in affordable housing and raise wages to match the rising cost of living. 

The pressing disparities in access to money, healthcare, college, and housing will define the term of Durham’s next mayor. The duty of the next decade is to ensure the equitability of this city’s growth, to keep the artists and families who have given Durham its character at the steering wheel, instead of handing it off to corporations and banks. This feat, though seemingly simple, represents a difficult balancing act. Yet it is the inevitable job of our new mayor to manage this balancing act and see it through.

The primary issue at hand? Affordable housing. The city must adopt not only a continued dedication to task forces on community homelessness, but also creative policy solutions to the problem of gentrification. For example, property taxes could vary based on income and length of residence. Those who have lived here longest should not be pushed out based on rising costs over which they have no control. Durham should invest heavily in subsidized rents and in renovating Public Housing facilities like Section 8, bringing them up to a modern standard of living. Finally, the city should offer tax incentives to landlords who commit to progressive rent policies and maintaining affordable prices on units. Over the next few years, Durham faces a test: can it execute on these objectives, or will it give in to the pressures of development?

Commitment to affordable housing and equitable development is an imperative when considering social justice and fair community-building, but it is also a commitment that will preserve Durham’s unique, resilient spirit. So much of the culture of this city lies in its inhabitants and our creative, historical, progressive manner of life. In his appearance in a recently released documentary, “The Rise and Fall of Liberty,” Justin Laidlaw of Runaway warned of the dangers of neglecting age-old community and culture of Durham.

“Anywhere can serve a kale salad,” Laidlaw proclaimed. “The more Durham begins to resemble any other hipster outpost, the more Durham crushes important historical buildings into oblivion, I think it becomes no different than anywhere else at the end of the day.”

Leah Abrams is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, "cut the bull," runs on alternate Fridays.

Comments