In the annual State of the County address Monday night, Durham County Board of Commissioners chair Brenda Howerton foregrounded the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic and laid out a plan to expand funding to transit, broadband, and crime reduction initiatives.
For the first time in three years, the address was delivered in person.
“While the pandemic has brought challenges, it has also released a newfound success and sense of collaboration and innovation,” Howerton said.
She applauded the resilience of the community and noted the county economy’s recovery to pre-pandemic levels.
“Durham County is attracting new businesses and expanding existing ones,” Howerton said, pointing to companies like Smart Wires, Beam Therapeutic, and Google Cloud Hub.
Howerton went on to discuss how the 2021 budget allowed for the formation of several new initiatives—the Long-Term Homeowner Grant Program, the City-County Racial Equity Commission, and the Safety and Wellness Task Force—as well as the hiring of a Refugee and Immigrant Affairs Strategist.
Looking ahead to this year’s budget, Howerton said the board is prioritizing an expansion of transit investments and displayed an accompanying visual of the Triangle Bike Study’s recommended 17-mile shared-use path, which connects Raleigh, Cary, Morrisville, Research Triangle Park, Durham, and Chapel Hill.
She also said the board hopes to allocate more money to supporting crime reduction and intervention initiatives.
Due to the county’s recent uptick in gun violence, Howerton said the board has reinstated the former Crime Cabinet to “develop new ideas that can be implemented to significantly reduce the impact of violent crime.” She added that Mayor Elaine O’Neal has called on citizens to volunteer five hours a week to help those experiencing violent crime in their neighborhoods.
Howerton also mentioned that the pandemic has illuminated the need for broadband expansion; the new budget will aim to increase broadband in rural areas to improve education and increase telehealth availability.
“While this list is not all our priorities, I feel it represents our current goals moving forward,” Howerton concluded.
The public hearing for the 2022-23 budget will be held on May 23.
After the address, the board proclaimed April 2022 as Fair Housing Month in Durham County and called local realtor Pete Eisenmann to the stand.
Eisenmann serves as co-chair of the Durham Regional Association of Realtors’ Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which was formed in 2020 to advocate for equal housing opportunities.
He said his interest in preventing housing discrimination came after the Durham association called the murder of George Floyd an “untimely death.”
“I absolutely blistered them with an email, I told them they were self-righteous racist bigots and I was embarrassed to be part of this profession,” Eisnemann said.
He challenged them to create a committee that would retrain their realtors, he said.
“I’m a 60 year old white man. I’m the hand grenade that goes in the room, because I can go anywhere in the white boy’s club. I’m welcome. Look at me,” Eisenmann continued, spreading his arms. “I sit in the middle of the room, I pull the plug, and they are in trouble.”
Citing data that the vast majority of appraisers are white men—and that Black households are undervalued by $48,000, on average—Commissioner Nimasheena Burns asked Eisenmann if the committee has plans to increase diversity among the association’s appraisers.
“There’s an initiative from the federal level; the new director of HUD is particularly interested in making [appraisals] non-personal,” Eisenmann replied. “We know discrimination takes place with people’s names, with people’s color, with people’s location.”
Eisenmann said he foresees the federal initiative bleeding down to the local level.
Eismann added that the committee recently released a diversity pledge and toolkit, which local brokers are required to sign—or not sign—as a commitment to both promote inclusion and provide clients with a document that outlines steps they can take if they experience harassment or discrimination. The committee has also invited an Elon professor who teaches Critical Race Theory to instruct the association on inclusive practices later this year.
Eisenmann wrapped up his remarks by stating that when he was growing up in Levittown, Pennsylvania in the ‘60s, the government would only guarantee federal loans to homebuilders if the deed stated that the house would not be sold to a Black person.
“It is systematic, it is institutional, and it is—excuse me, it’s just a white boy’s club and it’s been that way for years,” Eisenmann said. “I can’t wait to see it burn to the ground.”
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