City could allocate more than a half-million dollars for 26 affordable homes

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 12.50.42 PMPhoto from Durham Habitat for Humanity website

The agenda for Tuesday night’s City Council meeting is thin (although Thursday’s work session is a doozy—bring trail mix and coffee), but two items related to affordable housing are worth applauding.

As many as 26 new affordable houses could be built and/or renovated in Northeast-Central and Southwest Central Durham if the Council approves $682,000 in funding to Habitat for Humanity.

The nonprofit is asking for $182,910 from the Dedicated Housing Funds to build at least five affordable, energy-efficient single-family houses in NECD, priced for first-time homebuyers and low-income households earning less than 60 percent of the area median income, or about $30,000 annually. The homes could be built on vacant lots; alternately, the nonprofit could buy houses and renovate them.

Habitat has requested another $500,000 in Dedicated Housing Funds, part of which is also earmarked for 10 new or rehabilitated homes in NECD.

Homeownership rates are low in NECD, where two-thirds to 90 percent of residents rent, according to data from the Durham Neighborhood Compass. Of those who do own homes, 40 percent to 60 percent spend more than a third of their monthly income on housing costs —mortgage, utilities, insurance. Meanwhile, median household incomes range from $16,926 a year to $27,500. Durham's median annual household income is $50,000.

Habitat would use the rest of the money for buying up to 11 vacant lots in Southwest-Central Durham. The nonprofit would then build new houses there, also targeted toward first-time homebuyers. These houses would be similar to previous Habitat projects in the West End and Lyon Park. 

SWCD also has a high rate of renters and homeownership costs, due in part to the condition of older houses that are expensive to maintain.


Trash, pollution, food stamps and more: A preview of Monday's Durham County Commission meeting


It’s a new year (and a leap one at that), which means it’s time to clean and freshen—our lakes, roadsides—and reuse—our buildings. And get to work or go hungry, say our esteemed state lawmakers, who apparently are self-proclaimed experts on job searches.

Durham County Commissioners meet for the first time this year on Monday at 9 a.m. at 200 E. Main St., with a full slate of important issues.

First, food: About 2,700 Durham County residents will be affected by a new state law that determines who gets food stamps and for how long. Commissioner Wendy Jacobs has asked for a presentation from the Department of Social Services about how it will deal with ensuring the county complies with the law and as important, that low-income people can buy food.

The program is known as ABAWD—Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents. It states that in order to qualify for food stamps for more than three months, people ages 18 to 49, who are able to work and don’t have a child under 18 on food stamps, must work, volunteer or enroll in a training program for no fewer than 20 hours a week. If those individuals don’t comply, their food stamps are cut off after three months.

Download Able Bodied Chart backup for AAF

There are exemptions: pregnant women, caregivers for an “incapacitated person,” chronically homeless, recipients of unemployment benefits, substance abusers whose illness is so severe they cannot work.

I understand that some people abuse the system, but this seems like another layer of bureaucracy that would be hard to track. It also fails to recognize that there are people, ex-offenders, for example, who would very much like to work, or even volunteer if it gave them a job skill. But employers and private agencies aren’t clamoring to put ex-offenders on their payrolls. (This is another reason to support the Ban the Box campaign.)

This impossible situation creates a feedback loop of poverty and incarceration that was a main focus of last fall's Durham City Council race. People get out of jail, some of them convicted of low-level marijuana charges, with no job prospects. With a conviction, it’s hard to find housing (and forget about public housing). It’s difficult to get federal financial aid for school. And now the state wants to further penalize these people by eliminating nutritional support.

How much in food stamp benefits are we talking about? An average of $30 a week. Yes, state lawmakers have created a new, cumbersome law for a picayune amount that will get you a bag of groceries at Food Lion.

This, in a state that for the past five years has ranked in the top 10 in percentage of food-insecure residents, according to a study by Feeding America.

I can tell you that most people do want to work. They want to earn money, contribute to their communities, be a part of something larger. If they’re not working, there is usually a good reason. This Washington Post story, chronicling suburban poverty and the lack of public transit, is an excellent glimpse into the logistical nightmare.

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100-year-old home in Old North Durham gets temporary reprieve from demolition

Like people, some houses wear their age well. Although they require regular maintenance, the homes are nonetheless declared by those who have poked and prodded them and shone flashlights in their nether parts, to “have good bones.”

But the bones of the century-old home at 204 E. Trinity Ave., are bad, bowed, broken. 

GetPropertyImagePhoto courtesy Durham County Tax Assessor

This how we got here: The 1,100-square-foot house at the corner of Roxboro Street, once graced with gables, slender columns and gingerbread detailing, embodies the classic tension between the idealism that nearly every historic home can be saved and the reality that some simply cannot.

Built in 1915, the Trinity Avenue house was neglected for at nearly 20 years of its life. As a result its front porch sags. Its back end must be propped up to remain upright. The foundation teeters. A fire burned through the roof, as if its head had been trepanned.

Despite these drawbacks, developer Stuart Cullinan had planned to renovate the home, which one of his companies purchased for $75,000 from Durham-based Community Reinvestment Partners in September.

Then the structural engineers investigated. They pronounced the house D.O.A. The front wall, perhaps, they told him, could be saved. In late November, Cullinan applied for, and received from the city, a demolition permit.

“The house is shot,” says Cullinan, president of Five Horizons Development in Raleigh. He also is the head of Tephra, LLC, the company that bought the house. “There is so little to be saved here.”

It is appropriate that the company is named Tephra, defined as “rock fragments and particles ejected by a volcanic eruption,” because that’s what Old North Durham residents did with their words when they heard that a demolition crew had arrived earlier this week.

Cullinan, as well as several Durham City Council members, were bombarded by emails and phone calls from citizens who wanted to forestall the demolition. Perhaps its condition is not as dire as it seems, they said. Perhaps the house could be moved to where it could be tended to.

“I’ve moved houses, but this one would pancake on itself,” Cullinan says. “I’m unsure if it would survive a move.”

Peter Skillern, executive director of Community Reinvestment Partners, says his nonprofit had also wanted to renovate the house. Among its many social justice projects, CRP works to increase the number and quality of affordable homes in the neighborhood of Geer and Roxboro streets. In 2011, CRP purchased three homes—202 E. Trinity, 204 E. Trinity and 1224 N. Roxboro— from BB&T Bank that had been in foreclosure.

“They were blighted,” Skillern says. “They had been used as the neighborhood bathroom.”

In addition because the three houses sat on the same lot, they did not conform to current zoning regulations. The homes couldn’t be renovated, financed or even rebuilt. CRP received a variance from the city that gave it more flexibility in rehabbing the houses.

With variance in hand, CRP demolish the abandoned, ramshackle home at 202 E. Trinity, which, Skillern says, “sat on the sidewalk.” It was so close to the road a driver had once plowed a car through the living room.

CRP sold both 204 E. Trinity and 1224 N. Roxboro St. to the Latino Community Credit Union, which turned the latter into affordable housing.

Then CRP eventually bought 204 E. Trinity back from the credit union, with hopes of renovating the house. But because of CRP’s numerous projects, that plan was delayed. Meanwhile, Cullinan offered to buy 204 and renovate it.

And then reality set in.

“I know I look like the bad guy,” he says, adding there was no other option.

Nonetheless, he agreed to delay the demolition to allow the Reuse Warehouse to salvage as much as it can, some wood flooring, part of a wall.

Cullinan says his company will build a new house, which will be for sale, that will “be as close of a match” as possible to the original architectural style that will better blend with the neighborhood.

“This is a natural tension about what’s important,” Skillern says. “What’s the best outcome?”

The Latino Credit Union wants affordable home ownership. Cullinan wants to turn a profit. And the historic preservation community wants to save the home, or at least the siding. Skillern wants to ensure the house is not substandard.

“It’s a classic tension in historic preservation,” he says. “Divestment happens as a result of poverty. Then when reinvestment happens neighborhoods can lose their character. It represents the shifting dynamics of the city.”

Downtown water line replacement project passes 80% completion mark, but disruption to continue into next summer

City of Durham staff updated downtown residents and business stakeholders last night on the ongoing replacement of water mains in the city center and nearby downtown areas.

It's been a necessary but controversial project, one that's brought a new wave to business owners inside the loop -- many of whom opened shop after memories of the downtown streetscape rebuild had faded. As Virginia Bridges noted in The Durham News a few weeks ago, several businesses complained to City Council about the level of noise from jackhammers and equipment, blocked streets, impact on peak hours, and the occasional instance of roads closed without work going on.

City water management staffer Bryant Green updated downtown's Partners Against Crime - District 5 (PAC5) group last night on a project he noted was now 80% complete, but which would continue to impact downtown off and on until summer 2016.

Greene sympathized with the concerns businesses and residents had raised, and shared both some of the rationale for project decisions along with steps the City was taking to minimize impact where possible. Still, in replacing infrastructure that was more than a century old, surprises abound and some disruption is inevitable, according to Greene.

"Unfortunately, with a lot of these [closure] decisions we can't pick... something that adversely impacts only a small number of people," Greene said.

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City affordable housing report suggests different experiences, opportunities, risk for low-income vs. very-low-income Durhamites

At tomorrow's City Council work session, Karen Lado from Enterprise Community Partners will share a housing profile report developed as part of her company's contracted work to help Durham with its strategy on affordable housing.

This first step in Enterprise's work gives intriguing details and data about the state of Durham's demographics -- and demographic change -- along with the nature of Durham's affordable housing stock.

We'll summarize some of its key findings here, though I'd very much encourage readers to dive through themselves, as it's a fascinating read. (The document is available on the City of Durham's web site.)

A note of caution: this is my first-pass interpretation based on what's in the report, and doesn't benefit from the consultant's presentation, which will take place at work session tomorrow. (The errors of the interpretation lie with me, et cetera.) With that said, the report raises some intriguing findings about the need for and supply of affordable housing.


Population Change in Durham

Between 2000 and 2013, the study period in the report, the City's population grew by 26%, outpacing both the overall County growth rate (19%) and the state's (20%). This jives both with recent findings that Durham is one of the fastest-growing US cities, and that most of the community's growth is happening in the urbanized, incorporated city limits.

Of the nearly 75,000 households in the City in 2000, the data suggest 52.2% of them had incomes greater than 80% of the area median income (AMI), the threshold for determining whether a household is low-income or not. By 2013, that number rises to 57.7%, with households in this group seeing the greatest 2000-2013 change (46%).

Durham also saw a rise in households with very low incomes (30-50% of AMI), at 39% growth. The number of extremely low income households shrunk by 2%, while low income households (50-80% of AMI) grew 18%.

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County reveals old Courthouse's proposed new look, retail; HPC weighs in this week

I'll be the first to admit it: I've often been underwhelmed, like many of you perhaps, at the County's idea of urban development.

While the County got a great recession-era price on the new Courthouse, for instance, its entry plaza is a barren wasteland at stark contrast with well-activated, engaging urban spaces elsewhere in downtown. And heck, when the project was under discussion, it took a ton of community grousing from this site and hundreds of other folks to preserve even the glimmer of a street-level retail future for the new Courthouse's parking deck.

Similarly, the Human Services building on East Main has managed to be uncharmingly similar to the old Sears department store there that once housed the functions. Sure, there's glass and windows, but it's still a big-box-on-the-block, with all its attractive green space on the inside and no street-level retail to engage East Main -- to say nothing about the big ol' parking lot next door. (Witness the resulting scrutiny over a planned Durham Police HQ just to the east of here.)

It's for these reasons, then, that I feel more than a glimmer of optimism about the proposed refresh of the 1978-era County Courthouse, on the northwest corner of Roxboro and Main.


Compare this to the structure we've known and un-loved for so long:


The old structure -- said by Jim Wise and others to have been outgrown almost as soon as it opened, and brought to obsolescence less than forty years later by the jail-blocking tower -- is proposed to become administrative office space.

And we'll give the County credit for thinking imaginatively on a couple of fronts. The new proposal calls for a recladding of the structure that modernizes its look significantly, though there likely will be some appropriate scrutiny on the cost and ROI of this effort.

And just as importantly, the plans call for retail space along the entire south side of the building, activating the Main Street corridor.

Durham's Historic Preservation Commission gets a crack at the plans on Tuesday. Let's delve a bit more into what this looks like and what it means.

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Developers unveil site plan, more details on controversial Publix center for north Durham

A crowd of more than one hundred packed the Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church's sanctuary on North Roxboro on Thursday night to hear the latest from the development team proposing a Publix-anchored shopping center at the corner of Guess Road and Latta Road in north Durham.


The logistics contrast from this fall's last go-round on this subject couldn't be starker: a crowded, uncomfortable elementary school cafeteria where speakers couldn't be heard and unruliness reigned at times, versus the pews-and-pulpit auditorium with PowerPoint, amplified audio, and (Publix-provided, natch) refreshments.

Similarly, while the developers were often on the defensive in the first meeting, in this session the agenda (there was an agenda) was tight, the presentation carefully crafted, and unanswered questions that raised hostility the first time were sometimes -- though crucially, not always -- answered in this second go-round.

Most crucially, residents got to see the developer's projections on the impact their Latta Road improvements would have on the congested road's traffic flow. It was an argument, backed by simulation data, that seemed to get murmurs of assent from the crowd, but follow up questions from two residents asking for before-and-after vehicular volume counts were pointedly left open.

The developer also put forth a working site plan and likely renderings for the commercial district, along with examples of single-family detached homes that Durham-based homebuilder Cimarron Homes is proposing for the site. 

There were again clear opponents in the audience -- though this time, met by what appeared to be, based on who was applauding, an equal number of proponents. 

Proponents noted their complaints over the lack of retail (or the poor quality of current retail) in north Durham, the corporate track record and store experience of Publix, and the positive impact to traffic flow from the road improvements planned.

Opponents shared their love for the quasi-rural nature of the northernmost city limits, concern on adding more retail where strip centers exist down the Guess and Roxboro corridors, and a reminder to residents that City legislative action is still needed and the project isn't a done deal.

All of which has a Durham Planning Commission and City Council hearing window targeted to summer 2016 looming as the project moves forward.

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I Walk the Line: Ninth Street, a beer, a book and a train

Man asleep 2                                  Near the train tracks along Ninth Street   Photo by Lisa Sorg


Candace Mixon, her dog, Jelly, and Matthew Lynch were spending a perfect fall afternoon sipping beers at a picnic table outside Sam’s Quik Shop. (To clarify, Jelly was not drinking.) They looked young and metropolitan, like people who might know  which end of the regional day pass to stick in the card slot.

It turned out they were ardent public transit fans, and using our own code, we traded observations on buses and trains in the way that regulars and commuters do.

“The 400 and the 405 used to take forever, an hour just to get to Chapel Hill.”
“It’s better now that they don’t go to New Hope Commons.”
“I take the bus to Cary.”
“Is that the 100 to the 300?”
“I sometimes take the Amtrak to Raleigh. And I used to commute to Greensboro on it.”

And so on. It’s not that they or I oppose cars—we each own one—but driving has become a drag.

Read more about plans for an elevated train and the Ninth Street station.

I Walk the Line: Protecting affordability near Buchanan Boulevard

Murray 2

Old warehouse, now part of the Duke Transportation lot, Buchanan Boulevard  Photo by Lisa Sorg


Note: The public comment period on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement ends Oct. 13. You can comment via .

 Near Brightleaf Square, an eerie stretch of West Pettigrew Street parallels an active rail line. Part of the “street” is gravel, and more closely resembles a cowpath. It then crosses Gregson, and curves past the remains of an old, brick house, its lot strewn with trash. Beneath some leaves, I find a woman’s bracelet.



Pettigrew Street dead-ends at the Duke University transportation center and impound lot, site of the future Buchanan Boulevard station. For now, though, buses await their scheduled maintenance, garbage trucks nap between routes and discarded parking lot booths transform into terrariums as vines climb inside them. Cars, having violated Duke’s strict parking rules, have been jailed until their owners bail them out.

Read more about this neighborhood and its potential affordability challenges.


On bungalows' history, urban density, and neighborhood change

Given all the hand-wringing going on about pocket neighborhoods and the disruption that's feared they may cause in further gentrifying Durham urban areas, the Atlantic Monthly's story "How Tasteless Suburbs Become Beloved Urban Neighborhoods" is a must-read.

In it, Daniel Hertz makes a compelling argument in reminding us that, for instance:

  • The 1,600 sq. ft. bungalows now praised as right-sized housing versus the "McMansions" feared to replace them, actually themselves dwarfed the housing stock that came before;
  • These housing units, arriving during the conspicuous-consumption era of the 1920s, were in fact far out of reach from the average resident in a community;
  • Zoning laws passed at the same time were pitched as a way to preserve these newly-created single-family home neighborhoods, keeping out multi-family and other arrivals that might impact the property values of the new homeowners in these neighborhoods.

Most importantly, though, Hertz nails a point I've been fretting about in the recent debates on Durham change: the same people who are most worried about the Durham-character-and-neighborhood impact caused by the addition of thousands of units of new apartments, pocket neighborhoods, condo developments, and increases in density, are the same people by and large who are worried about the rate of price increases and low-affordability in Durham neighborhoods.

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