In his second State of the City address, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel looked ahead to the Bull City’s 150th year and asked, “How are we going to make the city we love a city for all?”
Schewel laid out strategies already underway to ensure that Durham remains a welcoming, vibrant, and affordable city and announced new ones—including a proposed $95 million bond referendum to build and preserve thousands of units of affordable housing over the next five years.
During the wide-ranging speech—the text version is about eight thousand words long—Schewel described efforts to make residents, including undocumented immigrants, feel safer; encourage more parents to send their kids to public school; support justice-involved people; and combat homelessness and evictions. He recognized city employees and underscored the importance of building the Durham-Orange Light Rail line and more types of housing accessible to more people.
“We are a welcoming city, a diverse city, and a prosperous city determined that our prosperity be shared, a city challenged to truly live up to our creed, to our belief that we can be a progressive beacon for the South and the nation,” Schewel said, echoing a vision he laid out in his first State of the City address.
On Monday evening, Schewel put more specifics to the vision he articulated last year, calling for Durham residents to live into Durham’s progressive values by supporting the affordable housing bond, public education, and second chances for justice-involved people. Here’s a (non-exhaustive) summary of the address:
The biggest news of the night came on the affordable housing front.
Schewel says he will ask his colleagues on the council to place on the November ballot a $95 million bond issue “to fund affordable housing and change the future of our city forever.” He also announced the city will be launching an affordable housing loan fund – to let nonprofit developers borrow money to purchase property quickly – this spring after about a year of work.
“If we do the affordable housing work we are doing now, funded at the same level, we will not significantly alter the future of downtown as the province of upper-middle-class white people while people of color are pushed to the margins, farther and farther from good jobs and the public transit to get them to those jobs,” Schewel said.
With current local and federal dollars, Schewel says the $95 million—if approved by voters—would build more than eighteen hundred new, affordable rental units, mostly downtown; preserve another eight hundred affordable units; move at least seventeen hundred homeless households into permanent housing; create at least 190 homeownership opportunities for low-income households; fund eviction attorneys, emergency rental assistance, property tax assistance, and home repairs for more than eighteen hundred low-income households; and help the Durham Housing Authority redevelop its downtown properties into mixed-income developments.
Last week, DHA CEO Anthony Scott unveiled a $566 million plan to build twenty-five hundred units of affordable and market-rate housing downtown.
Also part of the five-year-plan: creating an incentive program to encourage landlords to rent to people with federal housing assistance vouchers, doubling support for small, multifamily projects by local nonprofits, creating a citywide down-payment assistance program for low-income people, and improving Durham’s homeless services intake system.
This is in addition to current projects – including eighty-two affordable units next to Durham Station, potentially fifty-six more next door, and more to come at the old durham Police Department site – as well as supporting the work of affordable housing providers like CASA, Durham Community Land Trustees, and Habitat for Humanity.
“We will act on a scale that few, if any, other cities in this country are doing, certainly no other cities of our size,” Schewel said. “But this isn’t just about the scale. It is also about where the housing will be. We will create an inclusive downtown in Durham, a racially diverse downtown, the impossible dream for growing American cities. We will choose the future that is worthy of a city that wants to live up to its claim to be a progressive beacon for the South and the nation.”
The city is also working to revise zoning codes to allow more types of housing—“if done well, it can help ensure that we don’t make our housing crisis worse,” Schewel said.
(This might not be easy: Two affluent neighborhoods near downtown—Trinity Park and Watts-Hillandale—are pushing back against the city’s plans to change zoning rules to add density.)
Schewel asked city residents to support and campaign for the bond referendum, which he says would leverage at least $445 million in spending by other private and public entities. According to Schewel, the $95 million can be funded with a 2.25-cent property-tax hike—about $56 more per year for a $250,000 home. Currently, city residents pay 57.86 cents per $100 of property, plus the county rate of 77 cents per $100.
“We have to decide if we as a community really want to do something about gentrification and affordable housing, or if we’re just going to complain about it. Are we going to talk about racial equity a lot but ignore it when it comes to the biggest equity challenge our city faces?” he asked.
After affordable housing, Schewel said he spends most of his time on light rail, which faces a critical juncture as GoTriangle seeks $1.2 billion in federal funding. As part of that application process, GoTriangle still needs cooperative agreements with Duke University and two railroad companies by the end of this month. Schewel warned that without those agreements, the project will “die a sudden death.” He urged leaders of each organization to get on board.
Immigration and Law Enforcement
Immigration enforcement—and the ways in which it has visited Durham—was also a focus of Schewel’s speech.
Schewel kicked off his remarks by telling the story of how his great-grandparents came to America as refugees from Lithuania and were welcomed. He contrasted this against recent ICE raids that snatched up about two hundred people across North Carolina, including in Durham, and the November arrest of Samuel Oliver-Bruno, one of two immigrants who had been taking sanctuary from ICE in Durham churches at the time of last year’s State of the City address. Last, week Schewel wrote an open letter condemning the recent ICE raids in North Carolina and got seven other mayors to sign on.
“In Durham, we do not build walls between nations or peoples,” he said, before saying in Spanish that all people are wanted and welcomed with open arms and hearts in Durham, regardless of their immigration status.
Schewel commended new Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead for his decision not to honor ICE detainer requests without a judicial warrant or court order, and Durham Police Chief C.J. Davis for certifying more U-visas—a special visa for immigrant crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement. During the speech, he announced the police department would certify a U-visa application for any undocumented resident who has assisted with a crime in Durham since 2011; Currently, it’s the Durham Police Department’s policy to certify applications related to crimes less than four years old.
“Whatever message you are getting from Washington, D.C., in Durham, I want you to feel the welcoming embrace of a big-hearted city,” he said.
Schewel described declining crime and increasing trust in law enforcement.
All Durham police officers now get annual racial equity, domestic violence, and de-escalation training, he said, and beginning this fall, they will also receive crisis intervention training, which nearly half of officers already have.
Schewel said 244 people were shot in Durham in 2017. In 2018, that number fell to 204.
“Frankly, it’s highly unlikely that we can repeat these amazing results in 2019. But the trend in Durham is clear. Trust is up, and crime is down,” he said, before recognizing individual officers who went “above and beyond.”
Beyond supporting the housing bond, Schewel said that “one of the most important things Durham residents can do for our shared future is send our children to school together in our public schools.” To that end, school board, county commission, and city council members—including Schewel—are offering to meet with parents who are deciding whether to send their kids to a Durham public school.
Schewel also provided an update on the city’s inaugural participatory budgeting initiative, in which residents in each of the city’s three wards will get to decide how to spend $800,000. City staff and budget delegates are reviewing the 550 ideas submitted by the public and crafting about fifty full project proposals.
Durham residents and students thirteen or older can vote on projects beginning in May. Ideas still in the running include bus shelters, crosswalks, tiny homes, and park improvements, Schewel said.
While Schewel said he thinks the city’s “work in direct democracy will lead the nation,” Durham’s efforts to expand opportunities for people who have criminal records is already “the best work of anybody.” He implored local employers to hire justice-involved people, and landlords to rent to them.
He highlighted the work of a new Durham Expungement and Restoration program, funded by the city, which is providing free help with expunctions and license restoration. Already, more than fifty thousand old traffic charges have been dismissed, and DEAR is working to waive fines and fees tied to fifteen thousand old tickets.
“This is transformative change for thousands of our neighbors,” Schewel said. “ … Everyone who is benefiting from the DEAR program has paid a very steep price. They have lost their license for at least two years or they have served time in prison. To be a city of second chances, there must be an expiration date on what it means to hold someone accountable.”
The DEAR program spun off from the Durham Innovation Team, which also started a new Welcome Home program that sends care packages—complete with a signed letter from the mayor—to people returning to Durham from prison, as well as peer support. During the speech, Schewel recognized the first participant in the program.
Schewel also announced that new district attorney Satana Deberry has recommended “an ambitious new pretrial release policy” to Chief Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson, who, along with the chief district court judge, writes Durham’s bond schedule.
“The policy takes wealth out of the equation and focuses on what truly matters in deciding who goes home and who is jailed pending trial: danger to our community and risk of flight,” Schewel said. “I wholeheartedly support this measure, and I hope you will as well.” (He didn’t offer any other details).
Schewel closed his remarks with a song, sung by immigrant women textile workers who led a strike in 1912, singing “for it is bread we fight for, bread and roses, bread and roses.”
If you missed the event, text and video of the speech will be available on the mayor’s website Tuesday.