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February 2016

January 2016

Durham CAN's public subsidy tour: a beginner's guide to tax incentives, diversity and affordable housing downtown


Photo by Gary Kueber; courtesy


This post has been corrected to reflect that the option on Fayette Place expires in August 2017, not this year.

It is only 1.2 miles from downtown Durham to the old Fayette Place, the former housing project at the gateway to the historic Hayti neighborhood. Last Saturday morning, about 40 people took a three-minute bus ride to see what many view only from the highway.

“It looks like an archaeological dig,” a man said.

“This is the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” added a woman, who was trying to photograph the desolation with her smartphone.

But a camera cannot capture the blightscape of the 19 acres at Fayetteville and Umstead streets, near the Durham Freeway. Encased by a chain-link fence, the property is scarred with dozens of concrete slab foundations and crumbling brick steps that once went to front doors and now lead to nowhere.

From the highway, the land looks like it has been flattened by a bomb. From the street, it is a constant and embarrassing reminder of the neglect in this predominantly African-American neighborhood.

“If this were in any other neighborhood, there’s no way it would have been allowed to lay like this,” said the Rev. William Lucas, pastor of nearby First Chronicles Community Church. The group had disembarked the bus at Grant and Merrick streets, an eerily isolated block embedded between the abandoned property and the freeway. “This area can go from one to 100 in a second,” Lucas said of the crime in the neighborhood. “It’s real serious here.”

The occasion for the bus ride to this and other prime real estate in and near downtown was the Durham CAN public subsidy tour. About 200 people gathered to learn about the evolution of downtown development, its opportunities for affordable housing, and the market forces and the public subsidies and tax incentives that shape its future.

That future, everyone agreed, should include a downtown made vibrant by racial and economic diversity.

Continue reading "Durham CAN's public subsidy tour: a beginner's guide to tax incentives, diversity and affordable housing downtown" »

Durham skyscraper construction is a go; traffic in some lanes could stop

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 11.38.27 AM
Photo from Austin Lawrence Partners

The Durham tower, 27 stories of glass and concrete that will redefine the downtown skyline (touché, Durham Clinical Research Institute!) is really happening. Yes, you’ve heard it before. No, this is not a drill.

On Feb. 15, construction workers will begin shoring up the hole and prepping the foundation, the first step in a 27-month process of building the skyscraper. When complete, the City Center will have ground-floor retail, 155,000 square feet of office space — 55,000 of it leased by Duke University. There will be 21 floors of residences and two levels of underground parking.

Last night at a neighborhood meeting held in the mid-century Modern offices of Austin Lawrence Partners at the SouthBank Building, ALP President Greg Hills told the 30 or so people assembled: “I’m not sure we thought this day would happen. The dirt hole that’s been there, I apologize if it inconvenienced or bothered anybody.”

Continue reading "Durham skyscraper construction is a go; traffic in some lanes could stop" »

Durham County Department of Public Health investigating death of jail inmate

Almost a week after the death of a Durham County jail inmate, the Durham County Public Health department is launching an independent investigation into the circumstances. The man's name is Matthew McCain, 29, according to the Inside-Outside Alliance, a social justice group that first publicly reported the death. The group's source was a fellow inmate of McCain's, who lived in Pod 3D.

McCain had been charged with assault on a female, assault with a deadly weapon, battery of an unborn child, communicating threats and domestic criminal trespass.

Although the Durham County Sheriff's Office had not yet publicly reported the inmate's death, the Inside-Outside Alliance notified the public and media on Jan. 21.

The county public health department contracts with a private health care corporation, Correct Care Solutions, for medical care. CCC is being sued for allegedly providing substandard care to Forsyth County jail inmate Jennifer McCormack, who died of a heart attack while in custody in 2014. Another suit has been filed in Shelby County, Tenn., on behalf of a mentally ill inmate who died in jail custody.

Other suits have been filed in Washington, D.C., and New Mexico. CCS  is based in Nashville, Tenn. It operates in 38 states and Australia.

From the Durham County press release:

"The Durham County Department of Public Health (DCoDPH) was notified on Tuesday, January 19, 2016 of an inmate’s death and has launched an investigation. A designated Correct Care Solutions (CCS) DCoDPH contract monitor attended the Medical Audit Committee (MAC) meeting on January 19, 2016. CCS, Detention Facility, and Public Health staff were in attendance. CCS established the date of the Mortality Review. 

The decedent’s medical chart review will specifically assess and evaluate clinical care practices, compliance of these practices with current policies and procedures and any emergency nursing/medical responses and actions taken. The decedent’s sick call requests and medical grievances will be included in the review to ascertain the decedent’s requests (health care and health care concerns) and response to these requests by CCS and Detention Facility staff. The on-site CCS Medical Director and the Advanced Practice Provider(s) will be interviewed regarding any questions about prescribed medical care and treatment. 

The medical chart is reviewed independently by DCoDPH to determine if the nursing practice and care rendered for the decedent is in compliance with NC Board of Nursing standards/guidelines for nursing practice and the Detention Facility’s Medical Plan. The Detention Facility is accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care Standards (NCCHC); the Medical Plan and CCS staff practice must also comply with NCCHC standards.  

DCoDPH will work with Detention Facility staff to recreate the timeline to understand events prior to CCS nursing staff observations on January 19, 2016.  At the conclusion of the medical chart review and CCS staff interviews, a written summary of findings and recommendations will be submitted to the Public Health Director.  Follow up is conducted per the request of the Public Health Director. This investigation is conducted independently from any concurrent investigation(s)."

Heating does not meet standards, vermin, sagging foundations and other code violations in rentals near N.C. Central



On Feb. 2, property owner Joshua Jensen called BCR to say that the homes in question were in bad shape when he purchased them in the fall of 2014, and that he is fixing them up. BCR did call Jensen for comment before the story was posted on Jan. 25, but did not receive a return call until this week.

It is true that the previous owners had been cited; the chain of ownership was already noted in the pdf linked below. We did confirm that the houses at 305 and 307 Bell St. are being repaired. They have been painted. There is a new roof and new windows. The homes are unoccupied. 

Since Jensen has begun repairing the homes in the 18 months he has owned them, we have removed the old photos of the Bell Street houses — and his home, since the visual distinction between the two is no longer relevant.

This post also has been updated to include a comment from Cheryl Brown, daughter of Pattie Brown, who owns several properties in this neighborhood.

The drab beige shack at 305 Bell St., near C.C. Spaulding Elementary School, has possibilities. At 1,150 square feet, it could house a family — if it weren't sliced into a duplex. And if there were screens on the windows and doors. And if the walls were intact enough to keep out the vermin. And the floors didn't sag.

This house and hundreds more  — including one owned by Durham County Commissioner Michael Page — have been cited by city code enforcement inspectors for serious, and in some cases, life-threatening violations.

Affordable housing advocates have long noted that just because a rental is cheap that doesn't make it safe. Data from the city's Neighborhood Improvement Services department indicates that what could pass for "affordable" — although rental prices are not as widely available as home sale prices because there is no official database of them — are practically unlivable.

City Council last Thursday, Neighborhood Improvement Services Director Constance Stancil discussed code enforcement in the Southside neighborhood near North Carolina Central University. In 2013, the city began its Proactive Rental Inspection Program, which targeted areas with large numbers of rentals. Previously, the city had inspected properties when it received a complaint, but, as expected, tenants are often reluctant to do so for fear of being evicted. 

The city can sue and/or fine especially recalcitrant offenders, who also have due process through the Housing Appeals Board.


I asked NIS for inspection data, and I then pulled out the properties in South-Central Durham. I also gave the data to Durham cartographers and coders Tim Stallman and Kosta Harlan, who then developed a city-wide map of every violation for 2013 and 2014. (2015 is forthcoming, and I'll conduct the same analysis on other neighborhoods, so stay tuned.)


This pdf lists the address, landlord, landlord address and the violations for 142 properties in the NCCU neighborhood. 

Download Code_enforcement_near-NCCU

Jenson has not returned a call seeking comment about his properties; nor have a half-dozen other landlords we contacted. However, Durham County Commissioner Michael Page explained the situation at 118 Nelson St., which is a block from NCCU. This is the list of violations at that address:

Entrances exits and heating facilities do not meet standards.
Gutters and downspouts in disrepair, junk and debris, extermination. 
Electric wiring, device, appliance or fixture does not meet standards.
Painting, exterior unprotected, paint, interior/exterior peeling, walls, interior contains loose materials.
Bottom garage apartment needs weatherstripping
Unit in garage area is in need of repair, not properly draining and has exposed wires.
Rear dwelling heating unit, rear dwelling storm door needs to be repaired.

Page told BCR that in 2006 when he bought the home, which was built in 1950, "it was old and I had to do repairs."  The tenants did not complain, he said, but a neighbor did — about tall grass. When NIS visited the property to investigate the yard situation, code enforcement decided to schedule an inspection for the home. Page said he didn't know about the degree of dilapidation, adding "I'm not a housing expert."

Page declined to say how much he charges for rent, stating "my mortgage payments are personal."


118 Nelson St., owned by Michael Page


702 Basil Drive, home of Michael Page

Cheryl Brown, daughter of Pattie Brown, who owns several cited properties in the neighborhood, says the violations have been corrected. "It's hard being a landlord," she says, especially with tenants who damage the property. Brown says she thinks the enforcement policy is applied unfairly. "There are businesses that are not cited," she says. "I just want the law to be enforced equitably."

A note about the data: These inspections are for 2014; the full 2015 reports are still being processed. BCR also has inspection reports from 2013, the first year PRIP went into effect. However, the violation data did not offer a lot of detail, listing instead "miscellaneous violations." So we did not include those.

Also, the table notes cases where the properties were sold after inspection. The new owners may (or may not) have fixed the homes. When we receive the 2015 reports, we can compare old ownership to new ownership.

Some terminology: Closed, non-voluntary, means the violations have been corrected but they required some level of intervention from the city because the landlord did not fully cooperate.
Open means the case is still under investigation.
Open, judicial means legal action is pending.

What the colors mean: Gold equals out-of-town ownership. Green means the property was inspected in 2013 and was cited for miscellaneous violations. In other words, these are the known repeat offenders.

When available, we inserted a photo of the rental home, taken from the Durham County property records website and the landlord's home, culled from various county tax websites.


Scrutinizing our schools: Parting thoughts on why this matters, and an opportunity for optimism?

This is the last in a six-part series scrutinizing performance, spending and priorities in Durham Public Schools.

We’ve seen this week a set of data that’s hard to stomach.

Despite an extremely generous comparative level of local funding -- and total spending levels that are, on a per-pupil basis, at the top of those in peer counties -- Durham students’ academic performance lags other North Carolina counties, by numerous measures.

We’d argue that this is no less than an enormous risk factor for the future success and well-being of the community.

Look at all the attention paid in recent years to finding ways to saving Durham’s “disconnected youth,” the tranche of Durham’s youngest residents who are not connected to schools, jobs, civic structures, and the like -- and, therefore, those most likely to find connection in gangs or other antisocial outcome:

Or look at the names, faces and ages of those who have been arrested in so many of the shootings and murders plaguing our community in recent months: almost all were young men, often accused of crimes at an age where one would hope they would be in school, not the detention center.  

Continue reading "Scrutinizing our schools: Parting thoughts on why this matters, and an opportunity for optimism?" »

Carolina Theatre's Nocek resigns, effective immediately

So we're not saying that this was because of the big-ticket sales tax snafu that The Durham News broke late last year.

But, it's sure gotta be at the top of the speculation list given the timing -- i.e., soon after the announcement, and on a snowy Friday afternoon to boot.

We don't know any more than has been in the funnies about the tax issue (though I'm still curious how this squared up, IIRC, with the state changing taxability of theater tickets, museum admits, college meal plans and a range of other adjustments.) And we'd be remiss if we didn't give a tip-of-the-hat for Nocek's role in revitalizing both a facility and its programming, both much more vibrant since his tenure.

Update: Per the H-S, it was the taxes.

The theatre’s board of directors “felt new leadership was needed to restore confidence and get us back on track,” said Ellen Reckhow, who represents the Board of County Commissioners on the theater board. “Unfortunately, the board was not aware of the challenging financial situation until fairly recently,” Reckhow said.

The theater’s board of directors named businessman and philanthropist Dan Berman interim president and CEO. Berman served as board chair for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and is a board member and finance chair of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.


From local architect and Carolina Theatre board prez Scott Harmon:

Dear Theatre Supporter,

As chairman of the Board of Trustees of Carolina Theatre of Durham, Inc., I am writing you today to inform you that Bob Nocek has stepped down as our president and CEO. His resignation is effective immediately.

Under Bob’s leadership, the Carolina Theatre has played a key role in the renaissance of downtown Durham. We are grateful for his service and wish him well in his new pursuits.

Continue reading "Carolina Theatre's Nocek resigns, effective immediately" »

"Patient has dementia," assault on a female, cruelty to animals and other reasons people are denied gun permits


Reflecting the gun violence in Durham in the past year — 198 people were shot, 33 of the 45 homicides in 2015 and 2016 were committed with a firearm — BCR wondered, “Where do all these guns come from?”

Well, we can’t tell you that because “trace data reports,” as they’re known, are not public record. These reports show the provenance of the gun: where it was bought and sold, if it had been reported stolen, the type of gun, serial number, manufacturer, etc..

Obviously, this is valuable information for police, but it would also be helpful for the public. We could then know, for example, if the guns are flowing in from out-of-county, out-of-state, if they’re legally owned or stolen, etc. We could know if a particular gun shop tends to sell firearms that end up killing someone.

But no, federal law prohibits disclosure of this info, and locally, trace data reports are considered part of the investigation, and thus not subject to open records laws, unless a judge orders them to be released.

Thwarted by the law, BCR wondered, what local gun data can we get?

Continue reading ""Patient has dementia," assault on a female, cruelty to animals and other reasons people are denied gun permits" »

Scrutinizing our schools: How does DPS allocate classroom and school resources?

This is the fifth in a six-part series of articles scrutinizing Durham Public Schools performance and financial priorities. Today: a closer look at teacher allocation and school leadership services, and a wrap-up to our series. Later today: we'll wrap up our scrutiny with some closing thoughts.

Over the last two days, we’ve seen that DPS’s position of financial strength seems unbalanced in its uses within the system.

For instance, comparatively little of the district’s extra spending on instructional programs goes to the use of regular classrooms, with alternative/special population programs and administrative costs taking a much greater cut. And, DPS’s administrative costs well outrank the three school systems closest to DPS in size.

Today’s we’re going to drill in further to an analysis of classroom and school-level instructional resources -- since most people seem to agree that teachers and principals are the most essential and consequential individuals in a school system, it’s crucial to understand where DPS is resourced at the individual school level.

In the context of the student achievement crisis discussed in the first post in this series, today we’ll explore the following questions:

  • Does DPS prioritize classroom teachers?
  • Do high-needs schools in DPS have more teachers?
  • Is teacher and principal compensation sufficient to attract and retain high quality educators and school leaders?

Although many external factors affect student learning, an adequately staffed force of high-quality professional teachers supported by strong school-based leaders is the foundation a school system needs to provide a sound education for all students.

In some ways, particularly around socioeconomic allocation of resources, DPS seems relatively well balanced.

Yet some of DPS’s other decisions -- on elementary vs. secondary school teaching resources, allocation of per-pupil local teacher funding at some high schools, and principal/assistant principal supplemental funding and staffing levels -- defy as easy an explanation and are worth further scrutiny.

Continue reading "Scrutinizing our schools: How does DPS allocate classroom and school resources?" »

Scrutinizing our schools: Little of DPS' surplus spending goes to regular classrooms -- so where is it spent?

This is the fourth in a six-part series of articles scrutinizing Durham Public Schools performance and financial priorities. Today: a deeper dive into how Durham's spending compares with three close peers. Tomorrow: a closer look at teacher allocation and school leadership services, and a wrap-up to our series.

As we saw yesterday, Durham Public Schools (DPS) spends more per pupil than any of the other large urban districts in the state. Out of all 115 NC school districts, only Asheville, Chapel-Hill/Carrboro, and Dare County contribute more local dollars (per pupil) to public education.

Yet DPS’ leadership in spending isn’t matched by high or even acceptable performance outcomes, relative to large districts, peer districts, or low-SES/high-need districts.

This paradox presents the linchpin of the troubling data we’re trying to understand in looking at DPS:

  • With such a striking lag in performance, and such a glaring difference in white vs. minority performance, how can DPS be meeting its requirement to provide an equal educational opportunity for all?
  • And, if Durham is outspending its peers for poor results, where are we “spending in the wrong ways,” or where could taxpayer dollars go to create better outcomes?

In today’s installment of the series, we’re going to drill in further to the spending question to try to explain the significant gap in spending between DPS and its most similar North Carolina peer districts -- Cabarrus, Johnston, and Gaston.

While 77% of Durham’s spending surplus versus those three systems does go to what the NC DPI calls “instructional” services, comparatively little -- only about one in every four dollars in this category -- goes to regular classroom instruction.

Nearly the same one in four dollars goes towards spending on in-school resources like principals, non-instructional school support staff, and other functions. And, the remainder goes to exceptional children and alternative instructional programs -- two areas where DPS spends much more than its peers, despite having almost identically-sized EC student populations.

And as to administrative spending?  The hard truth is, if DPS cut its spending in these central office functions to the average level of its three peers, it could fully fund universal Pre-K -- or alternatively, could recapture every dollar “lost” to charter schools.

Remember that rabbit hole? It gets murkier, and a bit more disorienting, the deeper we get.

Continue reading "Scrutinizing our schools: Little of DPS' surplus spending goes to regular classrooms -- so where is it spent?" »

Scrutinizing our schools: How does Durham's school spending compare to other districts?

This is the third in a six-part series of articles scrutinizing Durham Public Schools performance and financial priorities. Today:comparing DPS spending against other districts. Coming up tomorrow: a deeper dive into how Durham's spending compares with three close peers.

As we noted yesterday, Durham Public Schools trails many to most other North Carolina school systems in numerous standardized measures of performance almost any way we slice things -- by looking at the largest/most urbanized districts, or all systems, or isolated for demographic or income characteristics.

There’s another comparison that’s worth looking at: how much does Durham spend on its public schools, relative to our peers?  After all, given Durham’s bleeding-blue reputation and reality, it’s hard to imagine our community not being willing to pay any asked price for better schools.

The curious reality, though, is Durham’s last-place finish contrasts with the district spending significantly more local augmentation funding than any of its peers.

To me, the data that we’ll discuss over the next couple of days is hard to explain. (We’ve been trying to make sense of it ourselves.)  And it puts some of DPS’ challenges in a different, and important, context that we don’t always see.

For instance, many Durhamites have raised equity concerns over the amount of resources that leave public schools for charters.

And we concur that it’s a big figure, equating to more than $500 per pupil in 2014-15.

Yet DPS’ central administrative/system overhead costs far surpass the three NC large, urban districts closest to it in student population.  In fact, the difference in spending in this one category, per pupil, is greater than what Durham Public Schools loses per pupil to charters.

Ponder that for a moment. And then, welcome to the rabbit hole as we try to explain these numbers.

Continue reading "Scrutinizing our schools: How does Durham's school spending compare to other districts?" »