Durham leaders closed the door on Henry McKoy’s Hayti Reborn, a vision of an affordable housing, business, and educational complex on a 20-acre parcel of land in the shadow of downtown that would give marginalized residents more voice in how the community is developed.
That door closed in Durham, but then, the sky opened up for McKoy, the departing director of NC Central University’s entrepreneurial program.
This week, McKoy stepped aside from his leadership role with the revitalization program and his faculty position at NC Central to accept a presidential appointment from the White House as part of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure and climate team.
As the INDY previously reported, officials with the Durham Housing Authority (DHA) said McKoy was not qualified to develop the long-fallow 20-acre Fayette Place in the historically Black Hayti District south of downtown. DHA didn’t even invite McKoy’s Hayti Reborn team in for an interview.
But there’s a vast chasm of difference in how Biden officials view the qualification tools McKoy brings to the development table. On Tuesday, McKoy began oversight of a nearly $10 billion budget with 1,200 employees when he started as the inaugural director of the Office of State and Community Energy Programs, a newly created division in the U.S. Department of Energy.
Fayette Place’s 20 acres notwithstanding, as part of a new White House initiative, about 40 percent of that $10 billion allocated to the newly created federal division headed by McKoy will target communities that are historically disadvantaged, marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution—in other words, underfunded neighborhoods all over the country just like the Hayti District.
“Go figure it,” McKoy told the INDY last week when asked about local affordable housing leaders’ perception of his qualifications versus his new role in assisting with the development of places like Fayette Place all over the country.
In a press release, McKoy, a Fayetteville native, said the Biden administration’s goals are closely aligned with the goals of Hayti Reborn.
“The work that I will be doing nationally is what I had hoped that I could point to Durham for, as a model,’’ McKoy said in the press release. “Unfortunately we are not there yet. But I am hopeful that we can get there. I have always felt that Durham has the potential to be a model equitable city for racial and economic equity.”
More than a half century has passed since a dramatically misnamed federal urban renewal effort during the 1960s and early 1970s destroyed 4,000 homes and 500 businesses in the neighborhood to make room for construction of Highway 147.
Last year, during the nation’s inaugural Juneteenth celebration, McKoy’s hybrid housing-commercial-education complex vision for the Fayetteville Street corridor deeply resonated with stakeholders in the neighborhood who are concerned about the growing specter of gentrification, issues of equity, and whether the community will retain its historical character.
This year, the plans were shot down rather unceremoniously when DHA’s chief executive officer Anthony Scott, in an early March email to McKoy, told him that Hayti Reborn was among the four finalists to develop Fayette Place. But the Black-led developer had received “the lowest aggregate score, by a substantial margin, among the four respondents.”
Scott added that the Hayti Reborn team “did not demonstrate a sufficient level of experience in relation to the objectives” mandated in the DHA’s request for development proposals.
DHA officials instead announced in January that the agency had chosen two developers—Durham Development Partners and the Atlanta-based Integral Group, LLC—for the $470 million construction of residential units across three downtown locations: Fayette Place in the Hayti District, Forest Hills Heights, and the county-owned land surrounding the current DHA offices.
One month later, Hayti Reborn officials responded by filing a protest letter that said DHA’s approach to redevelop Hayti will only reinforce the gentrification already taking place throughout the district.
“The developers [chosen by DHA] aren’t even from Durham,” McKoy said in June while speaking to an audience attending a short-film festival at the Hayti Heritage Center.
McKoy told the INDY that Biden officials first reached out to him in January to “gauge his interest in joining the administration.”
He says his interest in the appointment was bolstered when “shortly thereafter, the fight between the DHA and Hayti Reborn began over the highest and best use of Fayette Place and the right of community members to have their voices heard before final decisions were made on the land.”
McKoy, in the press release, added that at the heart of the community’s fight are concerns that redevelopment in the community “doesn’t displace its residents and ensures their needs are at the core of all development plans.”
Indeed, for some observers, in much the same manner that “urban renewal” became a euphemism for “urban removal,” “gentrification” is just another way of saying “displacement.”
McKoy added that the federal division he’s charged with directing came out of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill Congress passed in November. McKoy will work alongside the nation’s leading climate scientists and Department of Energy officials and staffers to ensure the funds are distributed equitably across states and communities nationally to invest in projects that build the nation’s infrastructure, address climate change, and create well-paying jobs.
In the press release, McKoy notes that part of his responsibility will be “to ensure that a diverse and inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem across the United States is positioned to benefit from these programs, not just now, but well into the future.”
McKoy stated that the presidential appointment by law requires him to live in the nation’s capital during the appointment. His office will be based in the U.S. Department of Energy headquarters.
McKoy told the INDY he will still maintain close contact with the Bull City. “My family will still be here,” he says.
As for the perceived gaping leadership void in Hayti Reborn as a result of his departure, McKoy says “the community is well positioned to keep the work going on” and will continue “the fight to realize equitable development in the Hayti community … via Hayti Reborn, with a particular focus on continuing the struggle over the future of the 20-acre Fayette Place parcel.”
McKoy told the INDY that, at last count, more than 500 people have become involved in the fight to have more community involvement and say in Hayti’s revitalization.
McKoy says historic Hayti residents have been meeting on a monthly basis for more than two years on their own without his presence.
“I feel very confident that the people here are positioned to remain vigilant,” he says. “Even though I won’t be the center of attention, my goal has always been to use my position to bring other people’s stories to bear. It’s not about Henry McKoy.”
Longtime Hayti residents say the fight is far from over.
“The leadership and footprints of Dr. Henry McKoy have exalted the heart’s desire of the Hayti community and citizens of Durham to save and restore the last remnants of an historic district in Durham,” Anita Scott Neville, a longtime Durham resident and facilitator of the Hayti Reborn Community Council, stated in the press release. “This activism in Durham will neither wane nor cease; rather we will continue to fight the good fight that Dr. McKoy set in motion.”
McKoy reiterates that Hayti Reborn is not “just about me or a solo act.”
“There remains incredible leadership to continue the fight for dignity and justice here in Durham,” he says. “Anyone who thinks differently is just plain wrong. Many times it has been the fight in the community that has inspired me, not the other way around.”
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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com.