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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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Sunday, September 06, 2015

Durham's Housing Crisis and the Wise Exhortation of James

Today I heard a sermon based on a passage from the New Testament Letter of James.  It made me think about the current crisis of affordable housing in Durham and strategies to fix this problem.  Addressed as a letter, James looks more like a collection of wisdom teaching and moral exhortations.  Rev. Dr. William C. Turner, Jr., pointed us to the first ten verses of chapter 2.
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
Housing has been driving economic restructuring for more than a decade.  At first, it was the housing bubble created by overinvestment and irrational exuberance about buying up mortgages.  That led to all kinds of bad risks in writing mortgage loans, misleading people without experience in dealing with real estate markets, repeated selling of a property for inordinate profits, lying about the reliability of mortgage-backed securities, and in general lots of swindling, taking the money, and running.

When that manipulated, false market crashed, more restructuring happened through a foreclosure crisis.  Housing values dropped so far that many business's and investor's paper wealth disappeared overnight.  High-risk securities and credit default swaps were exposed to be the emperor's new clothes.  An economic recession led to massive layoffs and soaring unemployment.  That put millions of people into foreclosure.  Efforts to ease the foreclosure crisis failed as the "bailout" turned out to benefit only the banks, the brokerages, and the very actors who had caused the economic crisis.  Average workers and homeowners were left high and dry, unable to pay for their overpriced mortgages.  The powers of government and financial institutions resisted any serious plan to offer principle reduction or debt forgiveness, which had successfully restored the economy after the Great Depression.

People who did manage to stay in their homes found the new housing market to have very low demand, so that if they needed to move or get more space for a larger family, it was almost impossible to sell their homes.  Slowly, the market started to recover.  First, all the bargain housing sold.  Next, slowly people began to be able to sell near the uninflated prices before the housing bubble.  There are still many pockets of foreclosed neighborhoods, and not all housing prices have recovered.

But now we are seeing what looks to be another bubble emerging.  Cities and municipalities are putting capital into downtowns.  They are trying to bring recovery and prosperity to city centers.  A new generation, facing a long period of high gasoline prices and tired of traffic jams for commuters has regained interest in living downtown.  These trends attract developers, which is something that is good for all of us.  Every city wants to see vibrant businesses and neighborhoods.  However, prices are skyrocketing for central city housing.  As rents and purchase prices rise, speculators begin to look into other nearby streets and communities for more land to buy up.  Lower cost housing gets razed, and the occupants have to look elsewhere, away from their neighborhoods and friends, to find a place to live.

We know this process as gentrification.  Some see it as only good--better housing units replace older, unmodernized, sometimes run-down units.  Property values rise.  More money in the neighborhoods attracts businesses and jobs.  I don't think anyone is against those kinds of things.  But many are bothered by the callousness that some have about displacement of people, relationships, institutions, and communities.  They also wonder why it is that lower income people always get displaced and told to go somewhere else.  Why can't redevelopment create spaces for people to continue in the networks and neighborhoods where their families have lived for years and decades?  Why is redevelopment only targeted to attract new colonizers of old and established communities?

No one is surprised that developers want to maximize their profits on the risk they take in building new housing.  We know they won't take those risks if they can't expect to make a profit.  Building new housing takes big up-front capital investment, so we don't begrudge developers a profit.  On the other hand, part of building a good city to live in means that people of various income levels need to share in the benefits the city has to offer.  If I live in Durham, I will depend on city, county, state, and commercial institutions to help structure schools, fire protection, medical care, and public safety.  Doctors and entrepreneurs, pharmaceutical executives and hi-tech wizards may have six- and seven-figure incomes.  But teachers, firefighters, nurses, and police will live on more meager salaries.  Shop clerks, wait staff, cooks, mechanics, maintenance workers, and cleaning staff--all of these people will contribute to making a city a good place to live.  They are fellow-members of the community, not merely servants to the ones who have more money.  All of us need a place to live.  All of us deserve to enjoy the benefits of a flourishing city.

That's why, in the wisdom of our civic traditions, leaders have seen fit to put in place programs and incentives to make sure there is adequate housing for people of many levels of income.  One such program, the Low-Income Housing Credit, provides tax subsidies for developing affordable housing that enable developers to make a profit.  Durham CAN and Self-Help Credit Union want to use that subsidy to build 80 to 100 units of housing downtown, by the Durham Station Transportation Center and across from the NC Mutual building.  City leaders have expressed a desire to see better affordable housing opportunities, and by donating this land for affordable housing development, they can do their part in helping make Durham affordable to more of its citizens.

These units would be affordable to people who make 40% to 60% of the median income of Durham County.  That means up to $37,000 for a household of one, or $43,000 for a household of two, and slightly more for larger households.  These people, working hard to bring home enough money to feed, clothe, and shelter their families are of equal importance to a flourishing city as those who make the median salary or more.  Durham has had notable success in the recent past with some affordable housing, and we hate to see that only in the past.  We are hoping this project can be the next planting of a seed, the down payment, toward a new strategy and plan for creating more high-quality, affordable housing in neighborhoods all around Durham.

Sadly, there are some who have said that downtown is for the millennials, for entrepreneurs, for people with higher incomes.  They say that Durham can find a way to provide affordable housing for lower incomes somewhere else, somewhere less in demand, somewhere less desirable, somewhere out of the way of the profits a select few desire to make.  Those kinds of arguments sound to me like there is some kind of insider decision-making going on about who gets to live in what neighborhood and who gets pushed out.  It seems that someone has in mind a "certain quality of people" that are acceptable for Durham's nice downtown.  Others need not apply.  If there is no property available for affordable housing downtown, the doughnut hole, then the next step, and we see it happening already, will be no affordable housing in the doughnut ring around downtown.

Moderate- to low-income people get pushed farther and farther away from the neighborhoods with rich heritage.  Will the last remnant of Hayti be a museum surrounded by residents who know and care nothing about the struggle and achievement of families who built a prosperous community when all odds were against them?  Will Walltown go the way of Brookstown, Hickstown, and Crest Street, to be a faint memory of a lost past?  Cities change, and neighborhoods change.  That is inevitable.  But will people of various economic levels have access to the historic neighborhoods of Durham?  Or will the profiteering incentive lead to closing off the central city from people of moderate to low income?

Enter the wise exhortation of James.  James saw a problem in some churches of his time.  He saw that people became overly impressed by the wealth or affluence of some who came to their churches.  They catered to them.  They escorted them to the best seats.  They fawned over them.  But when people whose clothes were plain or even a bit worn came into the church, they directed them to the side or the back, or even suggested they stand by the wall sit on the floor.  The text says they were showing favoritism, based on the apparent affluence of those who came to their churches.

James reminded them of the Lord whom they serve.  He reminded them of the way of Jesus, who was himself from a working class home, born under bad conditions, sympathetic with beggars, outcasts, prostitutes, and others who found themselves on hard times.  His co-workers had mostly made their livings fishing and other hard work.  James, probably from the same family as Jesus, knew what it was to be looked down on by those who thought they were better.  He reminded them that the social dynamic of poverty was exploitation, and that the wealthy gained their affluence often through paying low wages or otherwise mistreating their workers.

James knew showing favoritism was not the way that Jesus had taught and planned for his followers to live.  "Love your neighbor as yourself" was Jesus' motto.  His life and ways had shown he meant every neighbor--Samaritan and Jew, blind and sighted, man and woman, worker and manager.  If it came to a question of injustice, Jesus took the side of the oppressed and stood up to the oppressor.  James said this to remind the churches that Jesus had come to reinstate, to kick-start, God's plan for this world as a good society, "There should be no one in need among you."

So when leaders in our city say that downtown is only for millennials, we wonder which millennials do they mean?  What about millennials who become teachers?  Don't some millennials become firefighters and police officers?  I think that some millennials are nurses, city staffers, cooks, and mechanics.  Aren't they welcome downtown?  Of course, I don't think anyone intends to have only one age group in the neighborhood.  Will there be room for all economic levels, age groups, and other segments of society, or are we back to drawing red lines on our maps to indicate who we will let live in which districts?

Now I understand that James is writing to the churches, and that Durham is not a church.  I also recognize that municipalities may not do everything the way churches do.  Yes, I am familiar with the distinction between church and state.  But I also want to say that the faith of the church is that Jesus came into the world to recall Israel, and all others who would come to join in, to build the kind of beloved community that God made this world to be.  While I would not think it appropriate to ask the city to enforce everything the church believes in, I do think there are many points at which our purposes of building a flourishing community may coincide.  Not cordoning off portions of the community by wealth and class and ethnicity and race and age and family size is one of the goals that the church and the city may have in common.

One theologian said that there are times when the social agenda of the church may appropriately blend with the social agenda of the communities with which the church shares space and time.  He said it is kind of like a "spiritual osmosis."  An idea like "no more shacks" that drove the Christian community of Koinonia Farms in Americus, Georgia, to create the housing model of Habitat for Humanity over time became widely accepted by people who had no connection to Christian churches.  Church or not, most people see that this plan works, and volunteers come from all creeds and no creed to build Habitat houses together.  Making room for affordable housing in the central city, near transit stations, in the doughnut hole and all the surrounding rings of the city is a similarly worthwhile goal.  People don't want to be displaced.  They want to be able to find housing near their jobs, near their schools, near the places they like to go for fellowship, friends, and food.  At all income levels, people want to share in the good things of life.

Durham must not have a housing policy which says to the wealthy and affluent, "Please, as our favorites, take the best places in which we have invested heavily, creating them just for people of your kind," and then turns to the moderate- and low-income citizen and says, "You, who are not our favorites, are on your own, and you'll have to go away from all the good things our city has invested in, because they are for someone else."  I think James's wise exhortation speaks to this issue of urban development.  Let's keep the best, that is all, of Durham available to all of it's citizens, and not show favoritism.

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