Durham mayor, alum Steve Schewel calls for referendum on $95 million affordable housing bond

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel says he wants to make living in downtown Durham affordable for all—not just “upper middle-class white people.” 

At his second State of the City address Monday night during a Durham City Council meeting, Schewel called for a referendum in November's elections—for a $95 million bond issue for affordable housing and to “change the future of our city forever." 

“It’s a big lift, I know. But it’s time one city in this nation did it, and I know that city can be Durham,” said Schewel, Trinity '73 and Ph.D. '82. “We have to decide if we as a community really want to do something about gentrification and affordable housing, or if we’re just going to complain about it.” 

Schewel, who said he wants Durham to serve as a “progressive beacon for the South and the nation,” will assemble an advisory committee to explain the plan to Durham residents. In the five-year plan, as a part of the ambitious plan funded by 2.25 “cents on the tax rate,” Schewel said Durham will help create 1,800 new affordable housing rental units and preserve 800 more, mostly downtown. 

He also called for moving 1,700 homeless households into permanent living situations, to offer nearly 200 new "home ownership opportunities” and to provide additional assistance via eviction diversion and emergency rental assistance, among other things. 

“We will create an inclusive downtown in Durham, a racially diverse downtown, the impossible dream for growing American cities,” Schewel said, noting that few cities are acting on a similar scale. 

Schewel doing in-home visits to recruit for Durham Public Schools

If you want Schewel to come sit on your couch, now you have a chance. 

In a bid to sell residents on Durham Public Schools, Schewel offered for him or another elected official to come visit the homes of Durhamites waffling on where to send their kids to school. 

Schewel, whose sons attended public schools in Durham, said that sending students to public schools is "one of the most important things Durham residents can do for our shared future.” 

Just get a group of five or more indecisive parents together and Schewel might just be sitting on your recliner, donning his signature round glasses and pitching you on public education. 

'Trust is up and crime is down'

Schewel also took time in the lengthy speech to offer his evaluation on crime in Durham, discussing the need to stop violent crime and earn trust from local residents. 

He said the state legislature's lack of "common-sense gun control" leaves Durham to use "every other resource at [their] command." Schewel noted that all police officers now receive training in "racial equity," "de-escalation" and domestic violence, and that 45 percent of officers have undergone advanced Crisis Intervention Training. 

He also said policing has changed dramatically, slashing traffic stops by two-thirds and drug charges by half. Durham saw a steep drop in shootings in 2018, but Schewel said that such "amazing results" are unlikely to continue. 

“But the trend in Durham is clear—trust is up, and crime is down,” Schewel said. 

Durham's new police chief, CJ Davis, also boosted Durham's U-Visa certifications in 2018. The visas offer incentives for undocumented people—particularly victims of violent crime—who may fear cooperating with law enforcement to help police bring criminals to justice, Schewel said. Durham certified 144 U-Visa applications in 2018. That's "far more than ever before," Schewel said. 

Schewel urges Duke to support the light rail

With deadlines approaching, Duke and the North Carolina and Norfolk-Southern Railroads have not signed onto the Durham-Orange Light Rail project. 

Schewel said he urged Duke University President Vincent Price and the railroads to agree to a deal that would let the light rail project move forward. The proposed light rail line would run for nearly 18 miles between Durham and Chapel Hill at a price tag of roughly $2.5 billion. 

The current project route would necessitate that Duke give up land. Schewel said Durham needs the line for more affordable transportation and in order to stifle traffic, in addition to being "the single most important thing we can do locally to fight climate change.”

“If we don’t have these agreements signed by February 28, a 15-year effort to fund and build the light rail will die a sudden death,” Schewel said. “The future of our region depends on it.” 

Ben Leonard profile
Ben Leonard

Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor 

A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks. 


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