Durham County Commissioners on Tuesday formally threw their support  behind a plan to build nearly three hundred units of affordable housing on two Main Street parking lots owned by the county.

The plan significantly increases the amount of affordable housing in downtown Durham and near downtown stops of the Durham-Orange Light Rail Line. Board Chair Wendy Jacobs says the vote marks the first time the county has taken “direct action” to support affordable housing.

Commissioners were presented with two concepts to redevelop parking lots on the 300 and 500 blocks of East Main Street, with varying amounts of market rate and affordable housing.

Commissioners unanimously voted for the option with the most affordable units, but less commercial space and parking. That option also had the support of affordable housing advocates, like The Coalition for Affordable Housing (CAHT) and Transit and Durham CAN, and the majority of people surveyed during a public input process. The board’s chambers were packed with option B supporters. Representatives of CAHT, Durham CAN and the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America spoke in favor of it.

The plan includes 437 residential units, 277 of which would be affordable to households earning 30 to 80 percent of the area median income; 34,700-square-feet of commercial space; and as many as 1,933 parking spaces across the two properties. 

(Thirty percent of the area median income is about $22,000 for a family of four. Eighty percent is about $58,000).

“This really does feel like a landmark decision on the part of the county,” said Commissioner Heidi Carter, who described it as the county’s “first foray” into affordable housing. Carter said option B is the “smarter use” of the approximately $8.5 million the county will put into the affordable housing units themselves, plus about $5 million for corresponding parking spots.

Commissioners underscored the importance of transit, namely the Durham-Orange Light Rail line, to Durham’s affordable housing goals and strategy. Residents of the two Main Street sites will be walking distance from a planned stop, and in turn could access major job centers, like Duke and UNC, without a car. 

“This is the legacy we are creating now for the future of Durham,” Jacobs said.

Commissioner James Hill said housing for working people is “disappearing” in Durham and this is “a small step this commission can do to hep folk not only have affordable housing but have affordable housing downtown.”

Next, the county will write a solicitation for private development partners and the criteria by which it will select one or more development partners. Construction will likely happen in phases because county employees and the public use both parking lots, and is likely two years off. Both concepts were crafted by the University of North Carolina School of Government’s Development Finance Initiative.

The county aims to get the solicitation out in January, with an April deadline for developers to apply, and partner selection in summer 2019.

Also on the affordable housing front, commissioners approved via consent agenda a policy amendment to convey surplus property to the city of Durham. The move is being made in order to spur the creation of more affordable housing.

Under the revised policy, county-owned properties that neither the county nor Durham Public Schools intend to make use of will be routed to the city’s Community Development department, which “has a well-established program for developing affordable housing in partnership with non-profit organizations,” county staff wrote in a memo.

If Community Development doesn’t want the properties, other city departments are next in line, followed by nonprofit affordable housing developers, and then ultimately the public via an upset bid process.

The policy defines “affordable housing” as rental or ownership property available to people who earn 80 percent of the area median income or less.

The county’s Real Estate Office would “identify all real property acquired through tax foreclosure, received as a gift or donation, or as a deed-in-lieu of foreclosure” that the county does not need. The city would then review that list, and evaluate whether each property can be used for affordable housing. Conveyances would need board approval.

During a work session earlier this month Jane Korest, Open Space and Real Estate Manager for the county, told commissioners that staff had already sent the city a list of twenty-five parcels. At the time, the city expressed “informal interest” in seven, rejected six, and was still reviewing twelve.

There are a few caveats in the policy.

Among them: The city can’t sell a parcel for more than the actual cost to acquire and provide infrastructure to create affordable housing. The city must also require any developers to begin construction within five years of acquiring the property.

Staff advised against mandating how long properties should remain affordable, or putting in place  a clause for undeveloped properties to revert back to county ownership. The former was seen as something the city should handle case-by-case, and the latter as a deterrent for developers.