You might not be able to beat city hall, but members of the working-class Braggtown community this week made a persuasive case against proposed developments they say will destroy the neighborhood’s historic legacy—and uproot families who have lived in the community for decades—as a consequence of having to pay higher property taxes caused by gentrification.
After listening to formidable opposition from residents and supporters of the historically Black community in North Durham, members of the city’s planning commission on Tuesday night twice voted unanimously to knock down developers’ rezoning requests to build homes in their neighborhoods.
“I just thank Jesus,” Vanessa Mason-Evans, chair of the Braggtown Community Association told the INDY after Tuesday night’s vote. “This is a God moment for me and my community. Everything that has come together—God has orchestrated this quilt for my community. This won’t just me. It was lots of people.”
Those people included Braggtown residents, conservationists, members of the People’s Alliance, concerned residents who live in other parts of the city, and support from area non-profits like DataWorks and Trees Durham.
Hours before the vote, the INDY published a story that asserted the impact of gentrification in Durham today mirrors the broken promises of urban renewal program in the city more than 50 years ago that destroyed the historically Black Hayti District while displacing more than 4,000 families and 500 businesses.
“I have witnessed, and in my case lived in, the devastation that Black communities have suffered,” Constance Wright, co-chair of the Braggtown Community Association told the planning commissioners Tuesday night.
Wright is a 67-year-old retiree living on a fixed income. The lifelong Durham resident has owned a home in Braggtown’s Evergreen subdivision for the past 33 years. She told the commissioners that there have been 10, “and possibly more, predominantly Black communities that have been impacted or completely destroyed by urban renewal and gentrification.”
Wright said she had family members who lived in those communities, including the Fayetteville Street projects and her former North Durham home, that no longer exist because of the failed promises of urban renewal.
Now, Wright added, because of rising home costs and the increase in their property taxes, along with the lack of investment in the community, “developers have swarmed in like vultures, and they are destroying the legacy of Braggtown.”
“Because of the increased property taxes, many of the people in this area are losing, or about to lose their homes,” she said. “Rents are through the roof.”
Before Tuesday night’s vote, planning commission members said they fielded hundreds of emails and phone calls from residents who wanted them to reject the development proposals. The commissioners said the clincher was a Powerpoint presentation that pointed to the community’s start at the end of the slavery by freedmen and women who walked from the Stagville plantation ten miles away, where their forced labor made white men rich.
The formerly enslaved walked nearly 10 miles along the railroad tracks and settled in the then-heavily wooded area that became Braggtown, where they built houses, worked as farmers and sharecroppers. The area’s settlers were among the 3,000 formerly forced laborers who left Stagville, the state’s largest plantation. In addition to Braggtown, the freedmen created all-Black enclaves throughout the city, including Walltown, Pearsontown, Hayti, West End and the now-extinct Hickstown.
Mason-Evans previously told the INDY that community members are hoping to purchase homes at a minimum of $80,000 to $130,000, with a mortgage or rent payment of about $840. That’s in contrast to the developers’ proposed starting price in the high end of $100,000 to well over $200,000.
L’Tanya Durante with DataWorks was among nearly 10 community association members who participated in the Powerpoint presentation. Durante told the commissioners that gentrification is already having an impact in the community. In 2019, the median rate of property tax values in the community increased by slightly over 50 percent. That was nearly double the countywide increase of 26 percent. This year, half of the community’s homeowners are struggling to pay their increased property taxes, and that Braggtown’s homeowners accounted for 270 of the county’s 3,207 tax-delinquent properties.
Commissioner Cristian Santiago said he sympathized with the community, but even after receiving a “flurry” of emails from those who spoke against the project, his vote was still in the air until the community’s presentation Tuesday night made up his mind.
“These residents aren’t saying ‘no’ to the project,” Santiago said. “They just want to be part of it.”
Planning Commission Chair Brian Buzby took no uncertain stance.
“I will stand with Braggtown, and my vote will be a ‘no’ vote,” he said.
The Durham-based developers, Horvath Associates and TMT Associates, want to build nearly 900 single-family homes and townhouses over more than 100 acres of land along E. Carver Street and Old Oxford Road. The developers agreed to set designate 20 of the homes as affordable, and offered to donate tens of thousands of dollars to the city’s affordable housing fund. They also offered to make a one-time financial donation to Durham Public Schools, increase tree canopies in the proposed neighborhoods by 21 percent, and designate funds to the Braggtown Community Association in support of neighborhood projects.
Commissioner Akram Al-Turk said the proposed development, “needs more than three percent” of affordable housing units, and more than the 20 percent of tree covering to protect the health of community members and the impact of global warming.
A spokeswoman with Trees Durham who spoke at the hearing later pointed to an analysis by three Duke University graduate students. The study found communities need at least 30 percent tree covering to reduce health risks associated with hot temperatures, prevent flooding and reduce utility costs. The spokeswoman added that in historically Black neighborhoods like Braggtown, residents have higher incidences of chronic medical conditions but have “much, much less forest.”
Before Tuesday’s vote, the planning commissioners praised the community’s presentation.
Al-Turk said Braggtown’s presentation was one of the best he’s seen since he’s been on the planning commission, describing it as a “template” that its members should use when making future zoning decisions in Durham. Al-Turk encouraged the community association to share their presentation with other neighborhoods.
“Not just historically Black neighborhoods,” he added, “but throughout.”
Follow Durham Reporter Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.