Affordable housing and mass transit, both in short supply in Durham, are on today’s City Council agenda, specifically the Erwin Square Project. Council meets at 1 p.m.

If Council approves a rezoning, which could happen Monday night, Erwin Square would be built to capacity, the 9.8-acre project could have 322 residential units, 168,000 square feet of office, 192,000 square feet of commercial and 45,000 square feet of “public and civic use.”

To give you a sense of the non-residential space, that’s about twice the square-footage of the average Target store.

But it’s those 322 residential units, situated right on the proposed light rail line, that concern affordable housing advocates. Many will attend the meeting today to underscore the need to preserve and create affordable housing within a half-mile of transit lines. City Council and County Commissioners both passed resolutions supporting that idea, setting a goal of 15 percent of housing units. However, state law prohibits local governments from requiring developers to set aside affordable units. (Let the free market work!) [pdf-2]

According to a city staff analysis, 71.5 percent of all housing units with a half-mile of the Erwin Square site are affordable, meaning people making 60 percent of the area media income—about $30,000 a year—could live there and still pay for amenities like oh, water and electricity.


However, staff noted, and it’s an important point, that only 11 percent of the affordable units are subsidized by the Durham Housing Authority or similar agencies, “and the development is likely to put upward pressure on rents and land prices.”

That’s the zinger. Without controls in place to ensure the existing affordable housing stays affordable, then watch that 71.5 percent figure fall. (Let the free market work—again!)

The staff analysis also says that “Staff will monitor housing affordability conditions over time and bring forward tools and techniques that if endorsed by council.” That’s not particularly heartwarming. By that time it will be too late, and dangling a few freebie parking spaces in front of developers won’t be enough.

It’s an auspicious time for this discussion, because Triangle Transit has been holding public meetings this week about the new 17.3-mile light rail project in Durham and Orange Counties. The final one is tonight from 4-7 p.m. at the Hayti Heritage Center, Lakewood Avenue and Fayetteville Street, in Durham.


And I’m writing this blog from Portland, Oregon, right now, which has a mass transit system—light rail, bus and street car—that negates the need for a car. I haven’t been in one for days. Now, Portland is no haven of affordability; saying it’s cheaper than San Francisco is nothing to boast about.

But I am looking forward to the day when I can ride light-rail from Durham to Chapel Hill, or, if Wake County ever gets on board, the airport. I just hope I can afford to live in my city.

Two more quick notes about today’s meeting: The memorials policy is on the agenda today, which outlines when city staff can remove roadside altars, ghost bikes, crosses, etc.

And the public comment period will feature citizen Elois Johnson, who will address Council “regarding installing signs to fine citizens for dog-pooh and the noise from inflated commercial bounce houses.”

Put the dog poo in the bounce houses and voila! Problem solved.