In a 6–1 vote Tuesday, Durham’s city council amended its unified development ordinance in hopes of undoing decades-old vestiges of discrimination that have prevented generations of African Americans from owning homes and amassing wealth.  

Even so, one council member who supported the measure, Mark-Anthony Middleton, is concerned that the vote could lead to “gentrification on steroids” in Durham’s urban core. 

The ordinance, known as Expanding Housing Choices, amends zoning rules in neighborhoods near downtown to allow for higher density, which city and county planners believe is key to stabilizing housing prices as the city grows

It’s a matter of supply and demand: As more people want to live near downtown, home values rise. By allowing private property owners to add more supply in areas that have been zoned for single-family housing since the 1960s—through things like duplexes, triplexes, and accessory dwelling units—the city hopes to keep prices in check, in tandem with the $95 million affordable housing bond the city has placed on the November ballot. 

As part of the EHC effort, planners want to offer developers density bonuses, enabling them to increase the size of their projects in exchange for setting aside units for lower-income residents. 

However, some residents have worried about these changes disrupting the character of their neighborhoods, which has delayed the adoption of the ordinance for several months. Similar conflicts are playing out all over the country, including in Raleigh, where the density-versus-neighborhood-preservation debate is central to the upcoming election. 

The Durham County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to consider the zoning changes at its meeting on September 23. 

DeDreana Freeman, the lone dissenting vote on the council, said the city’s ordinance did not go far enough. She also doubted whether the changes will have a meaningful impact, pointing to a 2005 plan to build three hundred units a year over a five-year period that only yielded about ninety-five units.

Freeman counseled planning director Pat Young to “be careful how you frame this,” as the plan focused on desirable neighborhoods, not struggling that had been gutted by redlining and urban renewal.  

“You missed the goal with the plan the last time. What’s the likelihood of missing this time with the plan, and how do you factor in all of that, so that we are not chasing our tails on affordability?” she asked Young. “We’re essentially selling this as a way to build affordability, and I’m still not seeing the connection.”

Freeman suggested that the council delay the vote. Had they agreed, it wouldn’t have been the first time the initiative got pushed back. 

In February, the city-county planning commission delayed moving forward on an earlier, more aggressive version of the project, when three-dozen residents of Trinity Park, Watts-Hillandale, and Tuscaloosa-Lakewood complained about the effect it would have on their neighborhoods. 

On Tuesday night, more than thirty people showed up at City Hall to voice their support or opposition to EHC during a nearly five-hour-long meeting. 

Supporters of the plan, which allows property owners to add up to three ADUs on each residential lot and duplexes throughout the city”s urban core, argued that it is one step forward in a multi-stage process to increase affordable housing options,” as Allison Shauger, a board member of Bike Durham who lives in Trinity Park, told the INDY. “And we feel that increases in affordable housing options go hand-in-hand with access to other transportation options.”

Opponents worried what they described as potential environmental impacts and unsightly “skinny” houses marring the cityscape, as well as the possibility of unintended consequences. They called for more time to study the plan and for the city to find a way to save historic homes from being torn down to make room for new construction. 

Mayor Steve Schewel responded to this request to exempt historic neighborhoods from EHC zoning by pointing out that “countless years of social injustice related to housing, employment, and educational opportunities” have led to decades of studies to identify the causes behind the discrimination.

“We must be cognizant of the systemic issues that helped perpetuate the fix we find ourselves in today,” he said. “The areas at greatest risk of gentrifying more rapidly and displacing long-term residents are largely communities that do not have this [historic] designation. The historic designation should not be exempt from EHC rules.”

Later, Schewel added, “The consensus, also clear, is that the production of more market-rate housing drives down the price of rents over time.”

In March, the planning commission created a powerpoint presentation that shows that Durham’s African American residents who lived in communities near downtown as far back the mid-1930s were locked out of home-buying opportunities by redlining.

The planners also reported that the city has a lagging housing stock that’s not keeping up with population or job growth. Since 2010, Durham’s population has grown by more than 40,000 people, to 310,045 as of last year. With the arrival of wealthier newcomers, the planners say, if homes are unavailable in higher-income neighborhoods, the new arrivals will “buy down the ladder,” resulting in fewer housing loans for lower-income residents.

The planning department also pointed to soaring home costs over the past five years. A new home that sold for $160,000 now sells for more than $245,000.

The trend is especially acute in those once-redlined black neighborhoods that ring downtown. Long-time residents are being displaced because they can no longer afford to live in their old neighborhoods; you can see the gentrification in the dumpsters and port-a-johns in the yards of homes under renovation or construction of new homes.

Young told the council that the glut of single-family housing surrounding downtown is a “vestige … a tool of historical, structural racism” that has fueled an “affordability crisis” for the city’s low and middle-income residents.

Prior to Tuesday’s vote, Middleton drew a parallel between EHC and the city’s so-called urban renewal project of the late sixties and early seventies that promised to “revitalize” African American communities but instead displaced thousands of black residents and hundreds of black-owned businesses in Hayti to make way for the Durham Freeway. 

Middleton told the INDY that EHC “resonated deeply” with him and he was “inclined to support it, but we know that the devil is in the details.” Without offering details, he voiced concern about how to compensate black communities where homeownership is next to nil.

“Firstly, single-family zoning is indeed a vestige of racism, but simply removing that vestige of racism without cutting a check for all the equity and all the generational wealth that was generated over decades is not going to solve the problem,” he said. “[EHC is] well-intentioned but the fact of these single-family home zonings was wealth being passed down to Johnny and Jane over and over again. Removing that without cutting a check is not addressing the issue.”

Middleton was also skeptical of how effective the EHC’s density bonuses would be at spurring affordable housing. 

“If that’s the only inducement, I want to be very careful that we don’t oversell it, particularly for poor black people, getting our hopes up, getting us all in our feelings, and then we do address growth, but what we do is put a bunch of rich people on top of one another,” he said. 

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at 

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