North-East Central Durham target of poverty fight

Mar. 19, 2014 @ 06:50 PM

Mayor Bill Bell wants to focus the neighborhood-level anti-poverty initiative he called for in his annual state-of-the-city address on a portion of North-East Central Durham where half the households make less than $22,585 a year.

The mayor explained the reasoning behind that choice to community leaders on Wednesday, during an early morning meeting at the Durham Rescue Mission.

“I’m trying to do something that’s really data-driven,” he said later.

The target area covers a space that reaches, northwest to southeast, from East End Park past Durham Tech.

It already has received a substantial amount of public investment in recent years.

Projects there funded in whole or in part with public dollars include Eastway Elementary School, the city’s Eastway Village housing complex, part of the Durham Housing Authority’s Hope VI redevelopment, the Holton Career and Resource Center and the incentives-backed private renovation of the former Y.E. Smith School.

But a recent analysis commissioned by the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition still listed the area among the 162 most economically “distressed” census tracts in the state.

The analysts behind the work, from UNC’s Center for Regional and Urban Studies, consider an area distressed if its unemployment rate is 50 percent higher than the state’s, its per-capita income is at least a third lower than the state’s and its poverty rate half again the state’s.

The section of North-East Central Durham the mayor is targeting is home to about 3,466 people. It has a 61.4 percent poverty rate, annual incomes there averaging $10,005 per person.

It isn’t the economically worst-off part of Durham, however. That distinction goes to the Rolling Hills/Southside area, where city-hired developers are in the midst of building new low-cost apartments and single-family homes.

There, two-thirds of households live below the poverty line.

But it’s been home to only about 1,331 people. Bell prefers focusing the new initiative on North-East Central because more people live there.

A neighborhood-level approach is one of the key features of the anti-poverty initiative that the mayor called for last month.

Another is that Bell wants all of Durham’s key governmental, education, business and nonprofit institutions to play a part.

Wednesday’s meeting drew more 100 people to the rescue mission, including City Council members, County Commissioners, Sheriff Mike Andrews, school board members and Duke University officials. N.C. Central University Chancellor Debra Saunders-White attended, as did housing authority CEO Dallas Parks and Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce President Casey Steinbacher.

“It was a complete cross-section of folks,” City Manager Tom Bonfield said.

Bell asked participants to organize themselves into task forces to gather information about any shortcomings in education, health care, employment, housing and public safety in the target area.

“He wants them to meet on what resources can be directed there or emphasis can be directed there and come back in a three- to four-week period with some recommendations for going forward,” Bonfield said.

The approach should bring more resources to bear on the problem “because we’re going to be more collaborative,” said Minnie Forte-Brown, a school board member who said that Durham Public Schools could use help from local universities when it comes to meeting the mentoring, social work and mental-health needs of its students.

Bell said the geographic focus of the initiative could be narrowed even further, with participants identifying particular streets to work with.

The target area isn’t economically homogeneous, as the estimated median household income of its northern reaches, around Eastway Village, is about $31,423.

But in its central portion, along the East Main Street corridor west of Alston Avenue, the estimated median household income drops to $16,391. To the south, along Angier Avenue and East Pettigrew Street, it’s $18,563.

“You aren’t going to be able to do this overnight,” Bell added. “It’s a long-term project.”