During a discussion at a Raleigh City Council work session yesterday about the disposition of city-owned lots for affordable rental housing, District A Council member Patrick Buffkin recalled one of the council’s very first meetings in December of 2019. 

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel spoke to the council members about the merits of financing affordable housing units by mixing incomes in new housing developments to cover the operating costs of keeping some units affordable, Buffkin said.

Then, Buffkin made comments about places “that house only poor people” that have come off to some listeners as being insensitive. 

“Another benefit of having mixed incomes in these developments is you build a more healthy community,” Buffkin said towards the end of the meeting. “What Mayor Schewel said when he talked to us was, ‘Don’t build projects that house only poor people.’ These are places that are devoid of hope. There are very few role models for the children that live there and a much better way for the community is to have this mix of incomes, people from different backgrounds, people from different means helping each other to learn how to live together.”

Buffkin added that he thinks mixed-income developments “really are the best solution for Raleigh.”

“It works financially, it works for the community as well, so I think that’s a good model to pursue,” he said. 

This afternoon, Nicole Bennett, an urban planner, member of Raleigh’s Planning Commission, and longtime resident of the city, called out comments in a statement to the mayor and council that she also posted on social media.

“These statements are not only offensive and hurtful, they perpetuate the narrative that poor people lack morals and values,” Bennett wrote. “That is simply not true. Poor people lack financial resources. Period.”

Bennett added that while she is aware of problems associated with concentrating low-income people in developments such as the “old-style public housing developments (or ‘projects’),” she says it is not the people that are the problem.

“The problem is the environment,” she wrote. “The problem, oftentimes, is the people who live in these communities are cast aside and forgotten about. The developments weren’t built to encourage community. They were built to cage human beings who were deemed savages and undeserving by policies designed to marginalize poor people, especially poor people of color.”

Further down in the letter, Bennett wrote that it is “concerning and hurtful to hear a Councilor disparage hard working, poor people – many who are in the position they’re in because of a system that’s rigged against them.”

“To imply that simply adding people with higher incomes will somehow help their moral character is offensive and reinforces many of the racist undertones upon which many of our policies, programs, and procedures are centered,” Bennett wrote. 

In a response to the INDY‘s request for comment on Wednesday, Council member Buffkin said his comments at the meeting are being taken out of context and that they were “not an attack on poor people but a criticism of the failed housing policies that segregated poor people in substandard housing.”

“My record of service to the community demonstrates that I am a champion for equity and supporting economic opportunity for people who are struggling to find opportunity,” Buffkin wrote in an email. “My colleagues on Council and my constituents in District A know my heart and they know that I am not racist and, in fact, I am an anti-racist. This is ‘gotchya politics,’ and it saddens me that instead of focusing on the work of building a stronger community for everyone in Raleigh some have chosen to distort my comments in an attempt to score political points.”

He added that his work on council has “always been about building bridges, promoting racial harmony, and making Raleigh a welcoming place for persons of all races, religions, and sexual orientation.”

Council member David Cox, who is generally at odds with most of the other members of the council, also addressed Buffkin’s comments on social media. 

“It is a myth that must stop that poor people (and perhaps people of color) are not to be trusted and are poor role models,” Cox wrote on his Facebook page. “This absolutely must stop and it is indefensible and disappointing to hear such opinions being expressed from our governing board.”

You can watch the meeting here; video of Buffkin’s comments begin at around 1:12:50. Read Nicole Bennett’s letter to the Mayor and Council below.

Letter to City Council_N Bennett_060921 by Jane Porter on Scribd

This is a developing story. Check back for updates. 

Follow Editor-in-Chief Jane Porter on Twitter or send an email to jporter@indyweek.com

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