A privately initiated proposal to change Durham’s zoning ordinance has lost the support of one of its own applicants, Habitat for Humanity of Durham, who last Tuesday requested that its name “be removed from all documents regarding this process and application” in a letter addressed to Durham’s city council and board of county commissioners.

It’s a major hit for the proposal—Simplifying Codes for more Affordable Development, or “SCAD”—whose proponents have frequently cited Durham Habitat’s cosign as a credence that SCAD will deliver on its promise to broaden affordable housing opportunities. 

As the INDY previously reported, SCAD has drawn heavy criticism in the ten months since it was submitted for approval by Durham Habitat and Raleigh developer Jim Anthony, with local leaders and community members arguing that the proposal would relax regulatory compliances in a manner that worsens gentrification and displacement.

For SCAD’s proponents, who say the proposal’s sweeping changes would open doors for local developers who are currently thwarted from creating affordable housing, Durham Habitat’s involvement—as both an applicant and an advisor to the team of writers Anthony hired to compose and revise SCAD—has been a key talking point, until now.

“Providing affordable housing in decent communities should be a matter of conscience and action for all,” wrote Carleena V. Deonanan, the chair of Durham Habitat’s board of directors, in the March 7 letter to Durham’s city council and board of county commissioners. “Our support for the SCAD proposal was given in that spirit and belief. The Board of Directors is committed to gathering more information about the text amendments, reevaluating our partnerships, and carefully consider the overall community impact.”

Durham Habitat will still be named on the SCAD application, though its change of heart will be indicated in the proposal’s final form, according to an email INDY Week obtained via a public record request.

“We cannot remove Habitat from the application itself as we do not have authority to modify someone’s application,” Durham planning director Sara Young wrote to the nonprofit on March 7. “Instead we will remove mention of Habitat from the staff memo and add the letter you provided as an attachment since the application is attached as well. That should make it clear what has occurred.”

Habitat did not immediately respond to the INDY’s request for comment on the impetus behind its withdrawal of support.

The letter was sent just 13 days before SCAD was scheduled to go to the city council for a vote. Two days later, though, on March 9, the council agreed to postpone SCAD’s public hearing, originally scheduled for March 20, during its work session. The new public hearing will likely take place sometime in May.

Mayor Elaine O’Neal and council members Monique Holsey-Hyman and DeDreana Freeman said they need more time to comprehend and deliberate the proposal, noting its length and complexity. 

“This is unprecedented,” O’Neal said. “We’ve really not had this type of text amendment, omnibus, given to us like this. Once again, I go back to: let us make sure we understand what is being asked of us.”

O’Neal also said the public hearing should be scheduled on a date that has ample time for “residents to come forward, as well as the development community.”

The work session’s public comment period included statements from five InterNeighborhood Council (INC) representatives who have spent the past month formulating an in-depth report on SCAD. The representatives highlighted some of their concerns around the proposal—namely, SCAD’s creation of a program that would offer incentives for developers to create affordable housing while only requiring the housing to remain affordable for five years—and requested that the council “restore some balance to this process” by affording the INC an hour “to go through this proposed ordinance and explain our concerns” to the council at a later date.

Freeman supported the idea.

“It does raise serious concerns that we’re not hearing from such a vibrant organization in our community that is fully volunteer,” Freeman said, noting that the INC represents more than 30 communities in the city and county. “If they’ve created a subcommittee, and they’ve had that many meetings and created a report, it feels unjust [if we’re not] hearing out what they want to share.”

Council members Mark-Anthony Middleton and Leonardo Williams said they were willing to reschedule the public hearing but pushed back on the INC’s request, raising concerns around the precedent it would set to give one community group “special access” to the council.

“I think it’s important that if we’re gonna change the public hearing, it’s because we as councilors need more time and bandwidth to educate ourselves and to digest this voluminous amendment,” Middleton said. “… [not] because one particular organization said ‘we want an hour.’”

The mayor and council members did not acknowledge Durham Habitat’s withdrawal of support at the work session, despite presumably receiving the organization’s letter two days prior.

Read Habitat’s letter below.

Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to lgeller@indyweek.com.Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.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.