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The increasing gentrification of Durham and how local organizations are fighting it

On Sept. 22, Durhamites could be found in front of the Durty Bull Brewing Company bidding for everything from fully operational road safety kits to custom-made Harry Potter wizarding wands—all to support Habitat for Humanity and its mission to create affordable housing.

After four hours, $1,750 was raised for the Inaugural Community Auction for Afforda“bull” Housing in the Bull City. Durham business owners donated diverse bundles of locally sourced and produced goods, services and expertise, such as paintings, daycare vouchers and Joe Van Gogh coffee and cupcakes.

“I just wanted to connect people, and to introduce them to local businesses who really make that community what it is,” said Chrysti Peek, a local realtor and an organizer of the auction. “The goal is for this to grow into a long-running community event, where you could come out and see all your neighbors taking part. And, well, I love to throw a party!” 

Peek is working toward fulfilling the Durham Regional Association of Realtors’ goal of raising $100,000 for affordable housing. The auction put them near the $40,000 mark. 

Such community initiatives have proved essential for addressing the growing affordable housing deficit in Durham. 

Only a few blocks away from the auction, one would find a high-dollar real estate boom in downtown Durham neighborhoods. Many individuals and organizations such as Habitat for Humanity have been working hard to create opportunities for equitable housing in the area, but it is still unclear whether their efforts will serve to correct this disparity.

‘Permanent housing failure’

At a September panel held at Duke, Durham community leaders described the origin of asymmetrical growth of industry in the city. 

Redlining—the historic practice of banks labeling some neighborhoods as profitable and others as not—has had a noticeable impact on urban planning in Durham since the 1930s, according to the panelists. This may be largely responsible for continued investment in certain areas, and chronic racially motivated disinvestment in others, the panelists said. 

In Durham, districts that were never invested in were later demolished and included in broad urban renewal projects that were never realized.

“If you’re driving along the Durham Freeway and you see empty concrete slabs, you’re looking at urban renewal,” said Henry McKoy, director of entrepreneurship at North Carolina Central University. 

The discontinuation of true urban renewal efforts has impacted the quality of city infrastructure, health facilities and educational institutions. Most notably, however, it has put further strain on the affordable housing network. 

“We have a permanent housing failure. I call it permanent, because it has been failing for the last 150 years,” said Melissa Norton, board chair of the Durham Community Land Trust and project director of Bull City 150, a Duke-based initiative dedicated to studying the racial and economic injustices in Durham. “In this country, we have never considered housing to be a fundamental human right.” 

Norton explained that redlining and municipal neglect over decades created dramatically undervalued real estate, particularly in the city center. This sparked a forceful wave of gentrification, which she defined as a set of processes by which people with higher incomes capitalize on the lack of investment in lower-income communities. 

Thus, she concluded that gentrification triggers the displacement of people who were there first. 

“The winning side of this economy has come with a different set of preferences,” Norton said. 

How gentrification has impacted Durham

Over the last decade, Durham has grown into a vibrant city with a strong local economy. However, not everyone has benefited from the city’s development equally. 

Downtown Durham’s upward trajectory began with public investment. $1.7 billion was invested in the downtown area between 2001-2017, according to Downtown Durham Inc. This figure includes the renovation of the American Tobacco Campus, Durham Bulls Athletic Park, West Village, Carolina Theatre and revitalization of streetscapes. 

Although this recent wave of economic development has brought new social opportunities and outside investment into Durham that might have been unimaginable a decade ago, it has also served to push locals who were not as affluent out of the city center and into the periphery or outside the city itself.

In some large neighborhoods in East Durham—most clustering around the historically black community of Hayti—around 50 percent of residents live below the poverty line. In other similarly populated districts a few blocks away, this percentage doesn’t even reach single digits.

Around 17 percent of Durham residents live below the poverty line, a percentage higher than the state average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Over 80 percent of these residents are renters, and are thus significantly impacted by rising rent prices. 

However, those numbers don’t paint a complete picture. Durham’s high poverty rate also includes Duke students, who may individually stand below the poverty line, but do not always reflect the associated purchasing power. 

Although Durham’s 2012-2016 median household income was $53,832, according the US Census Bureau, and the median family income of Duke students was $186,700 in 2017, according to a New York Times Analysis. This purchasing power impacts rents and consequently local renters’ ability to keep up with rising prices, but is not factored into local statistics. 

An $800 apartment right off campus is thus a bargain for a Duke senior or graduate student, even compared to Duke’s own housing costs. A few years ago, a house in the same area might have cost a third of this price, said Jesse McCoy, James Scott Farrin lecturing fellow and supervising attorney at the Duke Law Civil Justice Clinic, at the panel.

Though housing initiatives are continuously trying to expand their efforts, the landscape for affordable housing in Durham appears to be going downhill. Durham’s poverty rate has been steadily increasing over the last five years, paralleling the steady increase in rents and house prices. 

The fact that minimum wage has barely increased in 10 years has not helped either, Norton said at the panel. 

McCoy has jump-started a new program focused on litigation skills for eviction cases. At the panel, he emphasized that Durham County residents currently face approximately 900 evictions a month due to rising housing prices. 

In an interview after the community action, Peek argued that equitable housing can only truly be possible if landlords understand the consequences of their actions and consciously decide to create change. 

“The people who are making the decision to purchase these buildings must realize that their decisions to develop and market them in such a way will come at the expense of someone else,” she said. 

Nevertheless, rents in Durham are still significantly cheaper than in most large cities. As startups attract new residents from cities like New York and Los Angeles, it is not surprising that charging $1,500 a month for a two-bedroom apartment has become the norm in some downtown neighborhoods, according to local real estate listings. 

Fortunately, there are a collection of nonprofits, organizations and local businesses dedicated to expanding affordable housing options to Durhamites.

How Habitat for Humanity makes houses affordable

Habitat for Humanity is one such organization committed to housing equity. The nonprofit both builds houses and renovates those that have fallen into disrepair with the goal of “providing families with safe, decent, and affordable housing,” according to the organization’s website.

Habitat does not give houses away—rather, it gives people opportunities to purchase them. 

“The two most significant barriers to purchasing a house for a first-time homeowner are the down payment, and the mortgage,” said Rich Kells, director and development of communications at Durham Habitat for Humanity. 

Habitat sells houses by busting those barriers. Instead of a down payment, prospective buyers can offer “sweat equity”—250 or more hours of volunteer service at Habitat’s office, ReStore, or construction projects. No experience is necessary, all training and equipment is provided, and people can even opt to work on building the house they are going to purchase. 

As for the mortgage, Habitat functions as a bank, holding the mortgage on the home at zero percent interest—a rate that would be virtually impossible through any other intermediary—and collecting payments that average $650 per month on a family home. 

Through this business model, Habitat for Humanity has succeeded in becoming one of the top builders in the country and is celebrating its 400th completed project in Durham this year. 

“We are lucky to have amazing donors who make these projects possible,” Kells said. 

Kells highlighted the importance of making affordable housing a part of Durham’s trajectory of development—creating affordable housing projects areas closer to Downtown, and closer to public transportation. 

Habitat is currently building several houses in Durham’s historic Southside neighborhood, less than a mile from downtown and a priority area for redevelopment as defined by the city of Durham.

Duke University—through its chapter of Habitat for Humanity, the Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, departmental donations and sponsorships—has in fact helped realize many of these projects. 

Although Kells said he is proud of their accomplishments, he explained that the 25 houses they are able to build per year with their current resources are nowhere near enough to respond to the demand for affordable housing in the area. Habitat has a waiting list of about 50 individually assessed, interviewed and board-approved prospective clients each year. 

Maintaining sustainable wealth in a shifting market

There are a variety of Durham organizations aimed at bridging the gap between housing needs and resources at hand, such as the Durham Community Land Trust and the Durham Coalition for Affordable Housing Network.

"People find communities around what they’re passionate about, and then they can channel that into helping others,” said Tracy Cox, the impact reporting manager at Self-Help Credit Union and a Habitat board member. 

Self-Help provides affordable mortgage loans to low-income home buyers in the city. The UNC Center for Community Capital study recently highlighted their Community Advantage Program mortgage initiative as a means to achieve sustainable home ownership.

Self-Help also recognizes that promoting sustainable home ownership requires promoting financial literacy. 

In the same spirit, every Habitat for Humanity client must take course that instruct them on buying a house, mortgages, and debt management. 

These courses help people create and maintain personal wealth, as well as prepare clients for unannounced shifts in Durham’s housing market. 

“We ask that our clients check in with us regularly so that we can minimize the risk of default,” Kells explained. “If their circumstances change in any way, we want to make sure that we can be proactive about helping them through their struggles.” 

In a city like Durham, whose development has been largely targeted at the affluent, those with lower socioeconomic status can have a more difficult time achieving sustainable wealth.

“Development is not a bad thing,” Kells said. “We just want to make sure that all of our neighbors are benefiting from it equally.” 


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