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A closer look at Southern Durham Development's affordable housing promise

Alex Mitchell, president of Southern Durham Development, has announced a list of new committed elements for the 751 South assemblage, a proposed development in South Durham near the Chatham county line.  These new committed elements come on the eve of the continuation of the July 26th public hearing of their rezoning request.  The rezoning request would allow SDD to build up to 1300 housing units and 600,000 square feet of retail, a vast increase over the parcel's current zoning.

The full list of proposed concessions, first reported by Samiha Khanna at the Indy, includes several environmental commitments designed to allay opponent’s fears.  One concession novel to Durham, yet standard practice in many communities, is a promise of affordable housing.

Affordable housing is in significant shortage in every metropolitan area in the nation.  A 2000 study done by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that there is a nationwide shortage of over one million low income housing units, which are units affordable to those making between 50 and 80 percent of the median household income.

Housing is generally considered affordable when total housing costs do not exceed 30 percent of a household's income.  This 30 percent figure is recognized to include all housing costs, including mortgage, taxes, insurance, and utilities.  For a unit to be considered affordable to a 4-person household making 80% of Durham’s median household income (MHI), total monthly housing costs would need to be less than  $1,356 a month.  At 50% of the MHI, this figure drops to $848 a month.

SDD’s affordable housing proposal is still in its nascent stages of development.  Although a mix of owner-occupied and rental housing has been suggested by Mitchell, the exact mix of housing has not been decided upon.  Also, there have been no promise of permanent affordability in the owner-occupied housing units.  A few models exist to meet this need, with one notable model being the deed-restricted Durham Community Land Trustees.

Without knowing the exact verbiage of the housing commitment, it is difficult to evaluate SDD’s concession in context.  However, at its face, the affordable housing proposal for 751 South appears to meet (or, at least, approach) standard practices for affordable housing.  The Massachusetts Housing Partnership Fund, for example, suggests a 10% set-aside of affordable housing.  Sacramento’s inclusionary zoning ordinance requires developers to set aside 10% of units for affordable housing, while Madison, a city comparable in size and income to Durham, has a 15% set aside requirement.

One element of successful affordable housing initiatives that is lacking in SDD’s proposal, however, is a tiered income target.  In this model, half of affordable units can be set aside for families making below 50% of the MHI, while the other half are set aside for those making 51 to 80% of the MHI.

Some opponents point to the high cost of transportation between Durham's urban core and the proposed development as a factor limiting affordability.  Many groups, including the Smart Growth Network, recognize that travel costs to far-flung suburbs create a strain on low income households.  For this reason, the US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development are starting to re-define affordable housing to include transit costs.  Mitchell has discussed one public transit concession: bus shelters for future transit lines.  At this time, however, DATA and TTA have no plans for expanding service to this location; a future bus line would cost local governments $400,000 a year.

Because affordable housing commitments are novel to for-profit development in Durham, an enforcement mechanism currently does not exist.  Committed elements are typically enforced by City/County Planning staff, who analyze the commitments to determine the best enforcement mechanism.  Planning Director Steve Medlin has indicated that an enforcement mechanism cannot be proposed until the committed element is submitted and reviewed by staff.  Any enforcement mechanism developed, however, would likely have an annual review as a major component.

The late addition of committed elements is not entirely uncommon in Durham.  Development plan guidelines passed in 2006 recommended that all committed elements be submitted five working days before a governing board meeting.  However, discretion is given to the Planning Director to waive this requirement based upon staff’s ability to review the elements before the meeting of the governing board.

Southern Durham Development first met with planning staff on August 4th to discuss potential committed elements.  As of press time, however, no updated development plan that reflects these committed elements has been submitted.  Mitchell has indicated, however, that the announced concessions will be included on the committed elements section of their development application.

Update: SDD has now submitted their updated site plan, with the new committed elements, to the Planning Department.  For more, see the Indy.



Would love to see Alex Mitchell, or any other developer who tries to sell their profit making enterprise to the public with claims of how beneficial their project is, submit a plan for redeveloping some of the vacant or poorly used big box space in north and east Durham, where there are communities that really need this kind of investment.

In particular, the empty Wal-Mart on Roxboro, and the acres of asphalt at the intersection of Miami Blvd. and Holloway strike me as locations where mixed use, high density urban (re)development using total streets, smart growth, and whatever other buzz word of the day you choose would make real beneficial impact in the community, rather than just more sprawl with empty promises of "jobs."

I'd also really love to see some of the folks who are clamoring for approving this particular development start laying out a vision for redeveloping some of the areas in and around the urban core of Durham, rather than throwing around the divisive rhetoric that they've been using by accusing opponents of the project of being opposed to job creation, and putting trees above people.


Perhaps most people don't want to live where you want to put them, Barry. Who's going to pay for high-end housing in crime-infested parts of the city just because they are empty? The only way to get these areas up to some standard of livability is one house rehab at a time--which is already happening to a degree thanks to some brave, and possibly naive, entrepreneurs.


@ green lantern,
I don't think it necessarily has to be a one house at a time approach, although that approach certainly does work. The kind of large scale reinvestment in the community barry is talking about can be very effective. look at west village, american tobacco, golden belt, etc. they were all large scale investments that have really transformed their once blighted neighborhoods, and their scales were anything but one house at a time. a large scale rehab, if done right, can kick start a lot of additional reinvestment.


Then the developer needs to stop his BS and come out and say that he's building what he's building because it will make the most money, not that it's going to create jobs, be a "smart growth" community, and have affordable housing.

This isn't rocket science, and cities all over the country are figuring out ways to attract redevelopment in distressed areas. The highest priced housing in the country is always in urban areas with good connectivity, nearby shopping, and walkability. We've got plenty of places in Durham where that could, and should, happen.

Those little townhouses in the 600 block of East Main look to be doing OK, don't they? But the neighborhoods around the sea of asphalt that is the abandoned Wal-Mart on Roxboro, or the strip mall/fast food paradise that is Miami and Holloway, not so much. The type of development makes a huge difference in who wants to live in a place. It's less than 2 miles from Miami/Holloway to downtown. No reason why a good redevelopment project couldn't be successful, attractive, and profitable there. without tearing the community apart.


Part of the problem in Massachusetts has been that setting a percentage of houses as affordable while also building non-affordable housing raises the total number of homes, actually decreasing the overall percentage of affordable housing allowing the developers to utilize 40b intented for veterans returning from wars affordable housing to completely bypass local zoning laws. The standard practices don't work, hence the numerouse court batteled cases going on over the least 5 years or so. Essentially, afordable housing is a term thrown around that make little difference.

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