Even before the pandemic, the Bull City—recently dubbed one of the happiest cities in America by Men’s Health—was grappling with the issues of gentrification, affordable housing, evictions, racial equity, and near out-of-control gun violence, with young Black men as both victims and perpetrators.

Looking forward, here are the issues that the majority of the Durham City Council—including Mayor Steve Schewel and Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson—told the INDY will be their top priorities for 2021. (Javiera Caballero, Mark-Anthony Middleton, and Charlie Reece could not be reached for comment.)

The year, they surmise, will be one of pandemic recovery.

Pierce Freelon just turned 37. The charismatic musician, youth arts advocate, and educator is the council’s newest and youngest member. He was sworn in on September 3 to fill the Ward 3 seat left vacant by Vernetta Alston, who resigned in April to join the state General Assembly.

Freelon says public safety tops his priority list this year.

Police reported 37 homicides last year. The city also reached a dismal plateau of more than 800 shootings, with children under the age of 18 on both sides of the gun violence. The gun deaths included 12-year-old Tyvien “Ty” McLean and 15-year-old Anthony Adams.

“Addressing [and] reducing violence in the Black community is my numner one priority,” Freelon wrote in an email to the INDY. “To quote KRS-One it’s: ‘number one, two, three, four, and five’ on my list.”

Freelon said part of the work includes supporting community-led initiatives such as We Are The Ones, which is addressing the root causes of violence in the city’s most embattled neighborhoods, where poverty is the most readily apparent crime.

The group’s strategies include supporting existing leadership in those communities, providing neighborhood-level support, and strengthening Black and Brown organizations.

Freelon noted that We Are The Ones was born out of a series of surveys conducted by the nonprofit Building Leaders for a Solid Tomorrow, (or BLAST), whose members spent the summer hosting socially distant “Safe Zone Fridays” in the city’s public housing communities.

“It looks like advocating for more youth programs such as BLAST,” Freelon said of strategies for addressing youth-fueled violence. “It looks like supporting our violence interruption and working with the community to dream up new solutions to create the ‘safe and non-threatening streets’ [that] Auntie Maya Angelou told us were possible.”

Johnson, the mayor pro tem, said one of her top priorities this year is keeping the city’s residents safe from COVID-19.

“This pandemic is still kicking,” she told the INDY.

Johnson noted that the pandemic has continued to worsen, with a potential spike on the way owing to folks traveling over the holidays. The council is working to manage the public health situation in concert with the county’s public health director, Rodney Jenkins, she said.

Johnson said that with the rollout of the vaccines, she expects to play a role as an ambassador, while helping to ensure that all residents have access and feel that it’s safe.

Johnson echoed the public safety concerns shared by Freelon and voiced support for the We Are The Ones initiative. She also said the uptick in gun violence and shootings locally and nationally are a consequence of the pandemic.

Johnson says the council is working on new models to curb gun violence, including the expansion of a Durham County public health initiative that deploys trained violence interrupters and outreach workers. They try to prevent shootings in the moment by mediating potentially deadly conflicts in neighborhoods and follow up to ensure that the beef is quashed and doesn’t reignite.

Johnson says council members have also received an audit of 911 calls that she’s looking forward to reviewing and analyzing, and that they are currently exploring a potential pilot program for “unarmed responses” to emergency situations that involve crisis intervention.

It’s part of the council’s continuing effort to “transform” policing in the community by moving away from involving law enforcement in non-violent crimes, she explained.

Racial equity is also a priority.

Johnson says the council has received “a ton of recommendations” from the city’s 17-member Racial Equity Task Force that submitted an unflinching and tough-minded—albeit visionary—60-page report last summer addressing the impact of systemic racism in the Bull City.

She notes that the council has already started work on implementing some of the recommendations and that she expects the city’s newly formed racial equity task force to expand the work.

“I’m really looking forward to implementing those recommendations,” Johnson said.

Finally, Johnson said affordable housing is always an issue for the city—and one that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic, with the wholesale loss of jobs for so many residents leading to a spike in homelessness.

She’s hoping that the city’s $95 million affordable housing bond—the largest in the state’s history—which was overwhelmingly approved by voters last year will help fund traditional agencies like the Durham Housing Authority. Johnson also said a portion of the funds may help “five or six” affordable housing construction developments undertaken by a handful of area nonprofit and for-profit organizations.

Johnson said she is disappointed that the most recent COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress did not include direct aid to cities, but that it does include a “significant amount” for housing subsidies. She’s hoping the city will be able to use those funds to help residents with rental assistance.

She says that assistance, coupled with the $300 in unemployment benefits (half of the $600 Americans receiving previously), “will hopefully keep some people in their homes.”

For Johnson, that’s of paramount concern in the depths of winter and amid a worsening pandemic.

“I’m worried about people being able to stay safe and stay in their homes,” she said. “One big priority is having a home to stay in. That’s true all the time, and it’s especially true with the pandemic.”

Councilwoman DeDreana Freeman offered a succinct, weighty summary of her 2021 priorities for the city.

“Continuing to build towards an equitable Durham [that’s] focused on social, environmental and economic justice,” Freeman wrote, adding that she wants “a more just Durham for all: where we are safe, healthy and growing sustainably.”

She could not be immediately reached to elaborate on how the council can work towards those objectives this year.

Mayor Schewel believes the city’s first priority this year “has clearly got to be to continue to guide our community safely through the pandemic,” he wrote in an email to the INDY. “This means supporting the vaccine roll-out as necessary, continuing to encourage Durham’s excellent compliance with masking and social distancing public health measures, and doing all the things necessary to keep our vulnerable populations safe.”

Schewel said the City must support small businesses—“especially our businesses owned by Black and Brown people and women”—in order to help them “survive the pandemic and get back on their feet.”

The mayor added that the City has been doing “the best we can without adequate federal support, and we will continue to do this so that we can save our businesses and get our unemployed residents back to work.”

Another crucial priority for recovering from the pandemic is “fighting to maintain the eviction moratorium and providing as much rental assistance as we can to our struggling residents,” Schewel said.

 “Again,” he added, “local resources alone cannot do the job. We need assistance from Washington badly.”

While pandemic recovery tops the mayor’s priorities for this year, he points to a bundle of other items on the City’s to-do list.

“We’ve got to continue the enormous, exciting momentum we have in affordable housing as more and more city-subsidized units are in design, being financed, breaking ground, or being occupied,” he said. “We’ve got to build on our successful negotiations with Duke Energy to expand the city’s alternative energy usage. We’ve got to continue and build on the work of the Racial Equity Task Force and push their recommendations forward. We’ve got to get the Community Health and Safety Task Force underway soon to reform the ways we keep our city safe.”

Schewel later added he had omitted the city’s fight against the rise in gun violence.

“Clearly, that is a huge priority too,” he said.

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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