Council approves talks with land trustees

Dec. 07, 2012 @ 06:45 PM

A 5-1 City Council vote has given the Community Development Department permission to negotiate with a nonprofit on an 11-unit rental supplement to the Rolling Hills/Southside redevelopment.
The vote green-lighted negotiations with Durham Community Land Trustees, which at the city’s request would renovate or replace nine existing homes along Piedmont Avenue.
Land trustees officials believe the project will cost $1.6 million, using a mix of state, city, grant and private financing.
The cost estimate provoked Thursday’s dissenting vote from Councilman Eugene Brown, who preferred a competing proposal from another nonprofit, called CASA, that proposed building 22 all-new units for a lower per-unit cost.
“The argument to me is new construction versus renovation,” Brown said, arguing that the land trustees’ plan to retain six of the existing structures would drive up costs. “It tilts highly for new construction: We get more units for less cost.”
But the rest of the council, save absent Councilman Howard Clement, opted to go with the land trustees proposal because it seemed likely that CASA would require twice as much city money.
The land trustees figure on needing a $645,000 city loan, which in effect would actually be a grant because officials waive repayment as long as the units stay affordable to low-income renters.
With more units, the CASA proposal would cost the city more because the state would chip in at most $500,000 no matter which nonprofit officials decided to work with, Community Development Assistant Director Larry Jarvis said.
That would mean needing to come up with about $1.2 million, which Councilman Steve Schewel noted is more than officials reckon is available from the mix of federal grants and local revenue they’ve earmarked for housing projects.
The other option, Jarvis said, is simply to back off, wait a couple years, and try again.
The land trustees are offering “a smaller project, but it’s one we can do in the short term” as work proceeds elsewhere in Rolling Hills and Southside, Jarvis said. “It becomes a matter of whether we want to move now and have activity, or mothball the property and sit on it for some period of time.”
Brown – a longtime skeptic of the entire Rolling Hills/Southside initiative – made it clear the cost of the land trustees proposal wasn’t his only complaint.
He wasn’t happy the City Council had decided in the spring to add rental units in Southside, an area officials and the Self-Help credit union had previously said should focus on owner-occupied homes.
Nor was he happy that city administrators kept the review of the proposals submitted by the land trustees, CASA and two other groups in-house, rather than asking private-sector builders for their opinion.
“Why was this so incestual?” he asked at one point.
Community Development Director Reginald Johnson responded by noting that the city administration across the board, not just on housing projects, reviews responses to “requests for proposals” in-house.
He acknowledged that the request-for-proposals process is more complicated than simply bidding out a project where city officials have decided up front what they want. When they ask for proposals, officials are in essence saying they want to hear a group’s ideas.
In this case, that generated four very different proposals. “If you look at [them], it’s like an apple, and a pear, an orange and a peach,” Johnson said. “They’re doing different things.”
Brown came back, however, to the renovation issue. He questioned whether the six homes the land trustees propose renovation are worth keeping.
“In the industry, we call them scape-offs,” said Brown, a real estate broker who said the units were best demolished.