In the Bull City, gone are the days when members of its working class could purchase modest bungalows for $50,000 to $100,000 and use equity from the home to put a kid through college or start a small business.

The housing crisis that took root well before the pandemic is happening while the city is in the midst of a near-unprecedented economic boom. The dynamic has created an ironic existential question: who gets to live in Durham?

Black people, whose ancestors helped make Durham one of the most unique and culturally acclaimed cities in the country, are leaving. Over the past decade, the U.S. Census shows that the city’s Black population has decreased, owing in part to gentrification and the displacement of low-income residents by more affluent newcomers.

In an effort to address African Americans’ displacement and growing exodus from Durham, city council last month approved two housing development proposals that will build more than 325 affordable housing units in the historic Bragtown community over the next two years. (The spelling of ‘Bragtown’ changed after the Bragtown Community Association voted to drop one ‘g’ as the community was formerly named after a Confederate general, Braxton Bragg).

“Bragtown faces an existential housing crisis that threatens many of its legacy residents’ ability to continue to afford living in the neighborhood,” according to an analysis from two affordable housing developers of the community’s housing crisis.

Longtime Bragtown residents last month told council members that the affordable housing plans are “monumental” and “historic” and should serve as a “blueprint’’ in neighborhoods throughout an increasingly unaffordable city.

The first development, known as Fairhaven Walk, calls for the Wisconsin-based Commonwealth Development Corporation of America to construct 192 multifamily, affordable housing units along the 300 block of Old Oxford Road.

The second project, a joint venture between Triangle-based companies Kelley Development and Bradley Housing Developers, will build Sandy Ridge Station, a housing complex that will provide 132 affordable units along the 800 and 900 blocks of Old Oxford Road.

The affordable housing developments were desperately needed yesterday. Kelley Development and Bradley Housing Developers, who did the affordable housing analysis of the Bragtown community, found that higher housing costs and low, stagnant household incomes, especially for African American seniors on fixed incomes, have had a predictable end result.

“Bragtown has begun to experience meaningful levels of economic dislocation,” according to the analysis. “Many are simply incapable of funding next month’s rent check, while others have fallen victim to predatory home buying and investment activity increasingly prevalent in the neighborhood.”

Vanessa Mason-Evans, president of the Bragtown Community Association, told the INDY this week that many of the community’s residents earn about $19,000 to $20,000 a year and are being pushed into rural communities after their new, white, wealthier neighbors build $300,000 and $400,000 homes next to modest bungalows where the residents have lived for generations.

Mason-Evans, whose roots in Bragtown date back to the emancipation of formerly enslaved people with the end of the Civil War, says that over the past two years, nearly 30 homes in the community that were formerly occupied by friends and neighbors with whom she grew up have become inhabited by someone else or are empty.

“So, our fight for Bragtown is to let the city and county know that people need help to stay in their places,” Mason-Evans says. “People are moving to Hillsborough, Burlington, Holly Springs, and even Reidsville. They’re moving to certain places where it’s cheaper. But even in those places the prices are going up. They’re moving in with family in order to not get put out on the street. And I’m seeing too many elders being pushed out because they can’t pay their taxes.”

The groundbreaking next year for the hundreds of affordable rental units doesn’t offer much by way of homeownership and building generational wealth in Bragtown, but it does provide a means of keeping longtime residents in the historically Black community.

According to executive summaries from Reginald Johnson, director of the city’s community development department, the developments will span eight separate parcels of land that cover about 14 acres.

Both developments along Old Oxford Road “will be deemed affordable to residents whose household income is 70 percent or less of Durham County’s Area Median Income (AMI),” Johnson explained in a summary to city manager Wanda Page. “Twenty-one percent of the units will be affordable to households with incomes at 30 percent AMI,” Johnson added.

The city council’s approval of the projects on June 21 required both developers to submit a 4 percent tax credit/bond application to North Carolina Housing Finance Agency during its rolling acceptance period between May 2 and September 30.

To fill the remaining funding gaps for the projects, the city made loan commitments totaling more than $8 million to the developers. The funds will come from Forever Home, Durham, the city’s $160 million program that is at the heart of a $95 million affordable housing bond voters overwhelmingly passed in 2019.

The city’s gap funding for the projects is vital.

Community development officials point to a finding by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that reports there “are over 12,000 renter households in Durham—most of them very low-income—paying more than 50 percent of their income for housing.” The issue is most acute in communities like Bragtown, where developers determined that while Durham’s “population growth continues to explode,” a significant number of new residents are attracted to places like Bragtown instead of “more suburban, homogenous, subdivision communities like Brier Creek.”

Indeed the community’s diversity, proximity to downtown, and relatively inexpensive housing has attracted a “broader home buyer market for effectively the first time in neighborhood history,” according to the developers.

“As house prices increased, most Bragtown residents received a higher rent payment instead of benefitting from an increase in the home’s equity,” the developers concluded.

Bragtown residents trace the community’s origins to the end of the Civil War, when newly emancipated men and women left the Stagville plantation—the largest forced labor camp in the state—some 10 miles away and settled in North Durham. Bragtown residents say it is the oldest African American community in the state.

Constance Wright is a former cochair of the Bragtown Community Association and retired lifelong Durham resident who has owned a home in Bragtown for nearly 35 years. She told the city council that her community has been “historically overlooked” when it comes to investments that will improve the overall quality of life for its residents.

“With today’s boom [economy] and financial increases in the cost of living, many residents of Bragtown will not be able to afford to continue living in a community they have considered home for years without gap funding assistance for Fairhaven Walk and Sandy Ridge Station.”

Lorisa Seibel, director of the Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program with the nonprofit Reinvestment Partners, told council members about the nearly 80 evictions that were set to take place over a two-day period at the downtown courthouse.

“But we really, really need affordable housing,” Seibel said. “That’s what’s going to make [a] big difference in Durham. We just can’t keep putting people out. We’ve got to have more affordable housing so that families, especially families with children—but everyone—[has] stable affordable housing.”

Bragtown resident Donna Frederick retired last year after owning and operating the now-closed Playhouse Toy Store on Ninth Street for more than a dozen years. She has lived in her dark brick home in the Colonial Village subdivision for nearly 20 years. She told the council that the two projects could be game changers for Bragtown and the entire city.

“These two projects that came before you are very, very important and we have had multiple, multiple meetings with these developers, one-on-one and in groups. So we’re all on the same page,” Frederick said. “This could be a monumental decision with presenting affordable housing to Durham, especially Bragtown.”

Mason-Evans said that she hopes the plan will become a blueprint for Black communities across the city as an example of “how communities should be working with developers who are not just making it more expensive, where people have to move out of Durham, and move into county areas where there’s no hospitals, clinics, or grocery stores.”

Now, with the trend of refurbishing and flipping of old homes for $300,000 or more, longtime residents worry about losing their homes because of exponential increases in property taxes.

Two years ago, John Killeen, director of the nonprofit DataWorks, found that in 2010, residents could afford nearly 70 percent of homes for sale in Bragtown. In 2018, only 47 percent of residents were able to afford a home in the community. Killeen noted that the costlier homes have led to higher taxes and the threat of displacement.

“As of April 2020, Bragtown was the location of 270 of the 3,207 tax-delinquent properties in [Durham] County,” he said. He also pointed out that Bragtown residences make up more than 8 percent of the county’s total tax-delinquent properties.

The public first learned about the community’s affordable housing crisis in 2020, when the Bragtown Community Association petitioned the city’s planning commission to preserve its neighborhoods. Community leaders were up in arms with a developer who wanted to build 900 new homes along Danube Lane, with 20 affordable housing units.

“At first they said they would build 10 affordable homes. Then they said 20,” Mason-Evans says. “Ten was a slap in the face.”

Members of the city’s planning commission twice voted unanimously to knock down developers’ rezoning requests to build homes in their neighborhoods. Several months later, Kelley Development in Durham purchased more than 100 acres of land in Bragtown to begin the Sandy Ridge Station project and Sandy Villa, a 66-unit senior housing complex.

Ted Heilbron, lead developer for the project, told the INDY that after spending just a couple of minutes in the community and speaking with the residents, he realized there was a huge need for affordable housing in Bragtown.

“What we learned is that it’s impossible to spend any time there and not get a sense of the community,” Heilbron says. “The legacy residents who have lived there for 50 and 60 years are most at-risk.”

Heilbron says the project is a joint venture with Kelley Development and Bradley Housing that has ongoing affordable housing projects in Wilmington, Rocky Mount, and Garner.

“The goal from the outset of the project was to build market-rate, quality housing at prices affordable for Bragtown residents,” Heilbron explains. “The previous developer wanted to build 10 to 20 affordable units that the [Bragtown Community Association] pushed back on. Frankly, that’s worse than offering none at all.”

Heilbron says the current project started with the premise of building 200 affordable units on two separate locations for the family complex and seniors. Sandy Ridge, whose construction will begin early next year, will feature elevators, a swimming pool, and “no 900 square feet two-bedroom apartments” and will accept housing choice vouchers.

Twenty-eight of the 132 units have been earmarked for residents who earn 30 percent of Durham’s AMI, meaning a one-bedroom apartment will rent for $450 a month, a two-bedroom for $550, and a three-bedroom for $650.

For residents who earn 40 percent of the AMI, a one-bedroom will rent for $640, a two-bedroom for $770, and a three-bedroom for $880.

“The balance of the units will be 60 percent AMI with some at 70 percent,” Heilbron says.

Mason-Evans told the city council that the construction of over 325 affordable housing units would be “historic.”

“Not just for Bragtown,” Mason-Evans said, “but for Durham.” 

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