In February, in an expansive State of the City address, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel laid out an ambitious, wide-ranging vision for a “prosperous city,” touching on criminal-justice reform, immigrant rights, and light rail (which ignominiously died soon thereafter), among other things.
But the highlight of the speech—and the biggest news of the night—was Schewel’s proposal for a $95 million bond to fund the city’s affordable-housing plans.
If passed, it would be the largest housing bond in North Carolina history, by far. And though Schewel didn’t say it, it would also be his legacy project—the thing that would define his tenure in office, for better or worse.
“If we do the affordable-housing work we are doing now, funded at the same level, we will not significantly alter the future of downtown as the province of upper-middle-class white people while people of color are pushed to the margins, farther and farther from good jobs and the public transit to get them to those jobs,” said Schewel, who founded and first published what was then called The Independent Weekly in 1983.
The bond, he continued, would fill a funding gap in the city’s five-year housing plan and build and preserve more than 2,500 affordable units; move at least 1,700 homeless households into permanent housing; create at least 190 homeownership opportunities for low-income households; and help the Durham Housing Authority, which had recently announced plans for 2,500 new affordable and market-rate units, redevelop its downtown properties.
This was part of a multipronged attack on the gentrification and displacement that have eaten away at working-class communities as newcomers poured in. Another piece was Expanded Housing Choices, an effort to boost the housing supply by increasing density in single-family neighborhoods near downtown.
The bond went on the November ballot, but no one knew what to expect. There was no polling—not by candidates or interest groups or news organizations. Durham is a reliably liberal city, but the bond still required a tax increase. More important, it required the city’s voters—many of whom remembered the destruction of Hayti and the broken promises of urban renewal—to trust their government.
Schewel, a worrier by nature, wasn’t concerned about his own re-election. But he was nervous about the bond. He thought it would probably pass—maybe with 55 percent, not a lot of wiggle room. But there was no way to be sure. At community forums, the loudest voices were vociferously against it, accusing city leaders of renovating outdated public housing as a pretense for moving poor people out and making way for more shiny condos. They could promise that this wasn’t the case, that federal law didn’t allow them to do that even if they wanted to, but who knew if that message was getting through?
So Schewel spent the fall on the stump, meeting with anyone who would listen. This was the city’s defining issue, he told them. The bond was the only thing that would keep Durham from turning into a “Disney version of itself”—a playground for rich white people, its black heritage slowly erased, its communities of color pushed to the hinterlands.
Council member Charlie Reece was more confident. He told the mayor that the bond would get upward of 80 percent of the vote. As it turns out, he was very nearly right.
On November 5, 76 percent of the 34,000 Durham voters who came to the polls backed the measure. The bond had majority support in all of the county’s precincts. It was a resounding show of support, which Schewel says he found “so gratifying.”
Now things will get more difficult.
For city officials, the hardest part will be managing the logistics, which are legion. There are construction bids to solicit, an implementation-oversight committee to appoint, individual projects to evaluate and vote on, nonprofit partners to work with, municipal bonds to purchase, and, bit by bit, taxes to raise. It won’t all happen at once: It will take time to secure the bonds and get the money out of the door, and more time for construction to get underway. And at each step, there’s the potential for something to go sideways—for money to be misspent, for a project to go over budget or be delayed, even, perhaps, for a scandal to emerge.
Durham has generally been viewed as a well-managed city, but it takes only one misstep for perceptions to change. And much remains outside the city’s control—the timing and ultimate price tag of DHA renovations, for instance, depend on fickle state tax credits.
With this many moving parts, Schewel acknowledges, “There are going to be bumps in the road.”
For Schewel, however, the biggest challenge might be managing expectations. The bond won’t change state laws that prevent the city from requiring developers to include affordable housing in their projects or controlling rents. Nor will it halt market forces: It won’t stop people from moving to Durham, looking for housing downtown, driving up housing costs, and causing displacement and gentrification.
If the bond succeeds, it will mitigate those things. Politically, of course, that sort of counterfactual can make for a difficult argument; even in a progressive city, people tend to be skeptical that the government is spending their money well.
“We can’t stop the bleeding, but we can put a tourniquet on it,” Schewel says. “The market forces are what they are. Displacement will continue. But we can make a big difference.”
The city will also have to contend with African American residents afraid of the city’s intentions—and that a sordid history might repeat itself.
“The trust issue is so powerful,” Schewel says. “There’s just very significant distrust in the black community of anything that seems like urban renewal. We have to do it differently. We have to do it right. We have to prove it.”
In February, Schewel will give another State of the City address, detailing how the city will proceed and asking residents for their trust and patience. This won’t be easy, he’ll say. It won’t happen overnight.
But Schewel believes Durham has the opportunity to do something special—to begin to wrap its arms around a seemingly untenable problem that cities all over the country haven’t been able to figure out.
Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at email@example.com.
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