When Kelly Washatka visited Durham in 2017, she realized it was the kind of place where she could “scrape by as an artist.”

At the time, she was completing a 20-week internship at Paperhand Puppet Intervention—the annual pageant that uses giant hand-painted puppets to tell stories about community building and environmental activism—and found herself entranced by Durham’s culture, community, and affordability.

Three years later, while living in Houston and scanning Durham rental listings, Washatka discovered a two-bedroom unit in a duplex on Geer Street that was priced at $950 a month. She signed the lease and made the move.

Now a full-fledged puppeteer at Paperhand, Washatka has spent recent weeks performing in this summer’s production, The Meanwhile Clock and Other Impossible Dances, which, per the show’s site, revolves around one main question: When time is running out, we stop to wonder, “Where do I belong?”

In a poignant case of art imitating life, Washatka—who recently learned that she will likely be displaced from her Durham home in coming months—is asking herself the same thing.

Washatka is one of more than two dozen residents in her Old North Durham neighborhood whose rental units have been purchased by a developer who hopes to tear them down.

Since buying several parcels of land on Gurley, Geer, and Roxboro Streets for $3.25 million last December, local developer Matthew Lee and a handful of investors under the limited liability company Geer TH Owner have submitted plans to replace the site’s 25 existing affordable rental units—four duplexes, a single-family home, and a 16-unit apartment complex—with 33 townhomes.

The development is still undergoing the approval process but will almost certainly be cleared by the end of the year. (In an email to the INDY, the Durham City-County Planning Department writes that the development’s site plan will likely take several more months to be approved, adding that the department is legally required to approve the plan if it meets city requirements. Lee did not respond to the INDY’s request for comment.)

The developer has not yet revealed whether the townhomes will be occupied by owners, renters, or a mix of both, but one bit of the project’s application hints at the former.

The proposed project is utilizing Durham’s affordable housing density bonus—a provision of the city’s zoning code that enables developers to increase the size of their projects in exchange for providing housing for low-income residents—which means that five of the townhomes are required to remain affordable for a minimum of 30 years.

While the bonus can be used for both rental and for-sale properties, Durham’s Community Development Department confirmed with the INDY that this particular developer has applied for the latter—the five units will be reserved for buyers with a household income up to 80 percent AMI, around $61,000 a year for two people—which suggests that the other 28 units will also be for sale to buyers. (Similar townhomes in the area have sold for upward of $600,000.)

Even with the density bonus discount, it’s unlikely that any existing tenants will be able to afford the new townhomes, according to Lucia Constantine, a Gurley Street homeowner who has spent the past month distributing copies of the site map to her neighbors and encouraging them to contact the developer with their concerns.

“In many ways, the way that the street is set up is already an example of good planning,” says Constantine, a member of the city’s Affordable Housing Implementation Committee with a degree in urban planning. “I’m angry that our current zoning effectively allows someone to come in, buy the whole block, and then tear it down.”

While the development is set to slightly increase the area’s housing density, Constantine says, it will destroy some of the last naturally occurring affordable housing near downtown Durham.

A 10-minute walk from the Main Library, the units at risk of demolition house a close-knit community of young parents, retired city employees, artists, and construction workers, almost all of whom pay less than $1,000 in rent each month and at least one of whom is a Section 8 holder. One family has lived in their rental unit for 12 years.

When I knock on the door of one Gurley Street duplex, a wide-eyed six-year-old boy answers before running into a back room. He reappears with his mother, an administrative assistant named Isabel Gomez who moved into the unit with her family earlier this year.

“I like the neighborhood. Nobody messes with you here,” says Gomez, who is also eight months pregnant. “My son can play outside and I don’t have to worry about ‘Oh, no, the neighbors’ or ‘Oh, no, the cars.’”

Her son, Ishmael, recently got off the waitlist for Global Scholars Academy, a K-12 charter school located down the street. Gomez can now walk Ishmael to school—“No wasting gas!” he chimes in excitedly—but if her family is displaced, Gomez isn’t sure whether she’d be able to find housing close enough for Ishmael to continue attending Global Scholars. She wouldn’t even know where to look, she says.

Gomez is one of the last tenants who—at least to Gomez’s knowledge—is still on an annual lease, according to Constantine. (Gomez’s lease expires in November.) Most renters remember receiving a letter from the property manager in July that notified them of the development’s filing and informed them that their rental agreements had been changed to month-to-month. If the development is approved, the letter said, tenants will be notified of their displacement six months in advance. (That’s not a guarantee; the city of Durham does not have the legal authority to implement notification requirements for residents at risk of displacement, according to Community Development Department director Reginald Johnson.)

Gomez doesn’t remember receiving a letter—all of her information has come from Constantine—but says she recently went to the property management office to ask for an update.

“They told me, ‘Well, we don’t know what’s going on over there,’” she says.

Another tenant—who preferred that we don’t use his real name, so we’re calling him Arthur—had a similar experience.

Several weeks ago, Arthur called the property manager about a fixture in his unit that needed a repair. Toward the end of the call, he says, the property manager asked if anyone had told him that his building was going to be torn down and replaced by townhomes.

Constantine had, so he said yes.

“She told me, ‘Don’t listen to that. That’s a lie.’ So I didn’t pay too much attention to that, but now I’m getting somebody else telling me the same thing,” Arthur says. “I know it’s gonna happen. That’s why I’m hustling and bustling trying to find me somewhere to go before it’s too late.”

Wilson Property Management did not reply to a request for comment. A number of tenants declined interview requests from the INDY for fear of retaliation from property management.

“How long will Durham stay the place that drew me to it in the first place?” Washatka says. “I’ll find the next foothold, but it feels very much like being at the mercy of the system. There’s no interest in the world for just defending individuals’ rights.”

While there are a few local grassroots organizations that work to help tenants advocate for themselves, their hands are full at the moment, according to Constantine; Bull City Tenants United has advised that she brings tenants together for a meeting, but the group doesn’t have any workers available to take on the case, she says.

So far, Constantine has been unsuccessful at getting tenants to organize.

“There is a fairly defeatist feeling among us all,” Washatka says. “It’s just like, yeah, we knew Durham was booming—what did we expect? What power do we have to combat that?”

In short: not much.

The city does not offer formal opportunities for tenants to provide input on administrative site plans, and there is “no sufficient recourse” for tenants facing displacement when a landlord is exercising their legal right not to renew leases, says Karen Lado, assistant director of the Community Development Department.

That said, the city is using “every tool at its disposal” to maximize affordable housing, according to Lado. The city only has enough subsidy funding to purchase and maintain a tiny fraction of its naturally occurring affordable housing, she says.

“So then you say, ‘Okay, that’s what we can do with our direct money,’” Lado says. “The next step becomes, what can we do with our zoning code?”

This is where the density bonus comes in. The planning and community development departments make an effort to articulate the importance of affordable housing to developers, Lado says, laying out the different ways they can contribute: applying for the density bonus, say, or contributing funding to the city’s affordable housing fund.

“[We try] to use every lever you have in the face of a flood of capital into our market,” Lado says. “But we can’t make them do anything.”

Only seven developers have applied for the bonus since 2015, she says, and none of their projects have been completed yet.

Nate Baker, an urban planner who serves on Durham’s planning commission, says the city could be doing more to create affordable housing. (Earlier this year, Baker applied to fill the at-large city council seat left vacant by Charlie Reece, emphasizing the city’s need for new zoning regulations. The council ultimately chose Monique Holsey-Hyman, an NCCU professor with a background in social work.)

“If we use zoning, we could protect some of these buildings from at least the economic incentive to tear them down by saying something like, ‘You can only have a multifamily building on this site,’” Baker says. “That automatically rules out the whole teardown-for-townhouses thing. And we could say, ‘It’s got to be within these dimensions on the parcel.’ That would rule out resizing the dimensions on the parcel and reusing the shape of the site.”

There are tons of state and federal laws that disempower tenants, he says—the North Carolina legislature has banned rent control, for instance—and zoning is one of the few ways that our local government can prevent renters from displacement.

“We’re trying to build a house with a hairbrush,” he says. “Our tools are extremely limited, but we have to do something.” 

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Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to lgeller@indyweek.com.