Durham’s Growth & Preservation

Published by info@preservationdurham.org on

by Bob Ashley (PD Board Member)

A couple of weeks ago, our innovative and astute executive director spoke at the Durham County Library.

“Durham must find a way to use historic preservation as an economic development tool that includes all community members and mitigates the effects of displacement for local businesses and residents as growth continues throughout the county,” my newspaper, The Herald-Sun, quoted Ben Filippo as saying.

“Now, what we’re watching is a totally new Durham unfolding before our eyes. We’re watching a Durham in which housing rates are going up at a dramatic clip,” he said. “We’re seeing the price of housing stock in some of our neighborhoods, particularly in neighborhoods central to the downtown area, going up by astronomical levels.”

Coincidentally, I’d written in my role as The Herald-Sun’s editor a column that I think addresses some of the same issues, albeit from a (not so different) perspective. And that has to do with what, appropriately, is an increasingly critical part of our Preservation Durham message – our role in preserving Durham’s rich diversity building on our past–a preview of where the nation is headed.

Here’s what I wrote in a column entitled (OK we say headlined): Durham on the cusp of aggressively addressing affordable housing.

A story on the front page of The New York Times Monday held a cautionary tale for our region, albeit not one of which we are unaware. “When Cities Spurn Growth, Equality Suffers,” read the headline. The story led with an anecdote about Boulder, Colorado, a city revered for its hipness. A Boulder resident named Steve Pomerance was quoted as worrying about the increasing traffic and taller buildings.

“These days, you can find a Steve Pomerance in cities across the country – people who moved somewhere before it exploded and now worry that growth is killing the place they love,” wrote The Times’ Conor Dougherty. “But a growing body of economic literature suggests that anti-growth sentiment, when multiplied across countless unheralded local development battles, is a major factor in creating a stagnant and less equal American economy.”

I don’t think we’re at daggers drawn here in Durham between growth and no- or slow-growth forces. Our debate remains more nuanced and cautious. But we clearly are struggling increasingly with aspects of that debate, perhaps no more so than in our growing and justified alarm about affordable housing.

Here’s the good news.

We could be on the cusp of dealing with that issue in a forceful and intentional way that spares us stratifying our city in a way that expands enclaves of the elite, or at least the substantially affluent, from a substantial segment of the workforce we employ.

The penny for housing added to our local property is a key ingredient. But so too is the leadership of key political figures like Mayor Bill Bell.

Perhaps no one has been more thoughtful, articulate and proselytizing than Councilman Steve Schewel. In a white paper he distributed last year, in a talk to Durham Rotary a few weeks ago and in countless other forums – including our joint talk with a Duke research class I wrote about recently – he has delivered a couple of very key messages.

One speaks to the issues raised by The Times story pretty directly. “Neither the strategy I am proposing here nor any other will stop the market forces at work in Durham’s housing market,” Schewel says. “As young people pour into Durham in search of a great city in which to live, work and play, the demand for housing is rising and so is the price. Many people in this young generation want to live close to downtown so they can walk or bike to their jobs or to our wonderful restaurants, to DPAC or to the ballpark.

“These same young people who are looking for affordable places to live downtown are driving up the price of housing in those near-downtown neighborhoods. Even as they are concerned about the effects of gentrification, they are the agents of this gentrification. This is a fact. So the market forces are huge and inescapable. We can’t stop them.” We can’t stop the market forces, he says, but “we can mitigate their effects in a significant way.”

Key strategies, he says, involve redeveloping Durham Housing Authority properties, ending homelessness, making large tracks of downtown publicly owned land available for affordable housing, being aggressive in seeking tax credit projects and maintaining existing affordable housing.

There’s a lot more to say about Schewel’s strategies, and I’ll touch on them more shortly.