Describing America’s legacy of racism as “our great national sin,” Durham Mayor Steve Schewel asked city council members on Monday to join a coalition petitioning Congress to enact reparations “for all black American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States” to close racial wealth and income gaps.

“That wealth gap, more than $10 trillion nationally, is the most powerful indicator of the full effects of racial injustice in the United States,” Schewel said in a remarkable State of the City address at City Hall, where he shared a vision of city policy that connects racial equity, climate change, poverty, housing, and public transit.

He also called on Durham to “be a welcoming city for all people.” Schewel announced his support for council member Javiera Caballero’s proposal to fund a legal team to represent residents involved in immigration court proceedings. “There are more than 500 such people here in Durham, most of them without legal representation. If we are serious about being a welcoming city to all people, we can prove it by our commitment to this vital work.”

Schewel began his hour-long speech by highlighting two “genuine public emergencies” that have hit the city in recent months. 

The first, on April 10—Durham’s 150th birthday—was the gas explosion in downtown that killed two people, injured many more, and left more than $100 million in property damage in its wake.

The second is the ongoing crisis at McDougald Terrace, where, beginning on January 3, more than 280 families were evacuated because of elevated levels of carbon monoxide in their homes. 

Schewel said the city “is challenged by a moral emergency” posed by its public housing communities. “For 40 years,” he continued, the city has failed McDougald Terrace residents in particular. The mayor laid the blame at the feet of the federal government, which, he said, is “not even providing enough money for the most basic repairs.”

“What we do to end this crisis for our neighbors, how we respond beyond the crisis to their needs, will define us as a community and as a city,” he said.

He announced that the city’s Affordable Housing Fund is “up and running” and has committed $2.8 million to enable affordable housing developers to purchase properties. So far, the fund has purchased more that 100 units earmarked for “permanent affordability.” The mayor said that, following the bond voters approved in November, the city will spend $160 million in affordable housing initiatives over the next five years, “and the pace of this work will soon accelerate.”

Soon, he continued, the council will establish an Affordable Housing Implementation Committee “to ensure we are keeping our promises on housing construction, job training, and the inclusion of minority and women contractors,” as well as public access to an easy-to-use website that will allow residents to monitor the progress of each project.

Schewel also proposed a “Green New Durham” to address the climate crisis. “Right here in Durham climate change means that more homes are flooding and more people are taking trips to the hospital from heatstroke and dehydration,” he said.

The mayor said the city council will develop an action plan by the end of this year. Its goal is to reduce energy consumption in city buildings by relying on solar power for 80 percent of renewable energy sources by 2030, and ultimately reach 100 percent renewable energy sourcing by 2050.

“These are bold goals, and we need a sense of urgency to reach them,” Schewel said. “This is, indeed, an existential crisis, and we must treat it as such.”

Schewel said the city is negotiating a franchise agreement with Duke Energy to support solar production in Durham and across the state.

Four of the largest utility-scale solar development companies in the state are based in Durham, Schewel added, and they “have successfully installed hundreds of megawatts of solar power across the country. … The solutions are here now. We simply need the state legislature and Duke Energy to liberate those solutions.”

Schewel also described the loss of light rail last year as a “severe blow” to the city’s climate efforts. He said he continues to support a regional transit system to alleviate gridlock, but he believes the city’s first priority “must be to serve the thousands of daily riders on Durham’s local bus system.”

The mayor said the county transit plan calls for funding that enables buses to arrive every 15 minutes along important routes, more bus shelters and benches, and boarding areas large enough for wheelchairs and strollers. The city’s transportation department is also proposing improvements along routes with the highest ridership: Fayetteville and Holloway Streets and Chapel Hill Road, which together have more than 8,500 boardings each day.

“Even under the most optimistic scenarios, we will not see regional transportation on the ground in Durham for at least 10 years. I am totally committed to that work,” Schewel said. “But while we are doing that work, racial equity and economic fairness demand that we use a portion of our county transit fund now and every year to continue to improve our local bus service. We know that the commuter rail line between Durham and Raleigh will serve a much whiter and wealthier population than the GoDurham buses serve. We must prioritize our bus system and the people that ride it.”

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at

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