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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Where Can Durham's Workers Live?

In October 2012, Indy Week published an article called "Durham's Affordable Housing Crisis," written by Lisa Sorg.  It featured the closing of the Lincoln Apartments, reported to be eliminating affordable dwellings for 200 low-income residents.  On a much larger scale, it told the story of too few affordable housing units for so many of the working poor.  These people work in the service industries building a new economy in which only the highest levels of management see increasing wages.

What has often been misunderstood as a problem for only those working poor has become a problem for many workers holding critical public service jobs:  police officers, fire fighters, school teachers and other school employees.  In addition, as new economic development occurs, restaurant and cafe serving staff, maintenance and cleaning workers, retail workers, and many others need housing that is convenient to their work.  The affordable housing crisis is a workforce housing crisis.

City planners and architects have had opportunity to learn a great deal about how to develop affordable housing successfully, if they want to learn.  Mixed income communities are much more successful than overly stratified, class segregated communities.  The world of work and commerce is made up of people with many different roles and responsibilities, and they constantly share space and interact.  Clerical workers and managers, store owners and checkout clerks, chefs and food preps--all need a place to live, accessibility to their work, places to eat and shop, and safe neighborhoods.

New age redlining would say that certain urban playgrounds are for entrepreneurs and young urban pioneers, not for low-income workers.  But how is this different from the kind of politics of urban development that led to ghettos and housing "projects" that became icons of public planning failure?

Durham's affordable housing situation has not been solved since 2012, and in fact it threatens to become much worse.  As older neighborhoods become destinations for house flipping and gentrification, Durham is developing a new doughnut hole where only the wealthy can live.  Houses that needed repair are now being restored, enlarged, and upgraded, taking housing out of the affordable range.  Property values surge, meaning that even more modest homes in a redeveloping neighborhood also become unaffordable.  I'm not telling anything new, just saying it again.  Most of Durham's already limited affordable housing is threatening to disappear.

The incentives adopted to urge developers to include affordable housing in their projects have not produced the desired outcome.  With thousands of new housing units built downtown, none are affordable.  Moreover, some developers want to claim that a house costing $250k is still affordable.  What do they think that most workers earn in Durham?  I am for increasing wages, but while we are waiting for that to happen, housing costs need to be proportional.

Recent study of Durham's affordable housing situation recognize that the potential of Light Rail Transit means neighborhoods with affordable housing may see their property values rise and the affordability disappear.  This creates a mandate for the city and county to take action.  The best leverage they have is existing property that they own.  In these situations, they can require affordability as part of a plan for development.  Federal housing funds and various public and private partners committed to affordable housing are available for this kind of development.  What it will take is a public commitment to see that all residents can afford quality, safe housing.

Durham CAN and Self Help have proposed using a parcel of land in downtown Durham for a mixed-income affordable housing development.  The land is next to Durham Station Transportation Center and near NC Mutual and American Tobacco.  It would give members of Durham's workforce access to housing near the jobs and commerce which are booming downtown.  Approximately 90 high quality units of various size could be made available through this project.  City officials have been looking at this proposal, and it is no surprise that there are differences of opinion about how to use this piece of real estate.

Often the conversations about such projects get derailed by misunderstandings or out-and-out misinformation.  A focused affordable housing development is not the same thing as a ghetto.  Mixed-income affordable housing provides opportunities for low-wage workers as well as for low-salary professionals like police and teachers who are being squeezed out of town by rising housing costs.  NC State Employees Credit Union has a strong interest in affordable housing for its members, and funds to support projects. 

To be honest, some of the arguments against affordable housing are coded language against potential Latino or African American residents.  One would be hard-pressed to find someone who would publicly oppose ethnic and racial diversity in downtown, but approaches to affordable housing which push it all away from downtown still smell and look like redlining.  Durham does not want to take the path of cities which cannot recruit these workers because the affordable housing is just too far away.

Mixed-income affordable housing in places where retail and service businesses are already thriving does not lead to blight.  In this location, affordable housing will lead to improving neighborhoods, greater use of transportation services, and a stronger Durham.  Success in this case can help to promote future projects that will build a better Durham for all of us.

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