Bell, commissioners debate anti-poverty strategy

Apr. 12, 2014 @ 06:42 PM

County Commissioners may be cooperating with Mayor Bill Bell’s neighborhood-level anti-poverty initiative, but that doesn’t mean they lack for questions about it.

That includes a key one, from Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, about whether its ultimate objective is the sort of neighborhood revitalization the mayor has touted in other years.

“One of the things we’re going to be dealing with, to the degree our efforts are successful, is that we may see the families [in the target area] moving away,” she said Friday during the second major strategy session the mayor has called to discuss the effort.

Because of that, even if the effort succeeds in boosting the fortunes of residents, the section of North-East Central Durham the mayor is targeting may not change all that much, she said.

“When you look at it 10 or 20 years from now, it may still be the starter neighborhood in our community,” Reckhow said, adding that safety issues are likely to be a major influence in whether families stay or leave.

As participants reacted to Reckhow’s point, it was clear they didn’t have a consensus on the matter.

City Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden thought the sort of turnover in residents Reckhow was talking about is natural.

She recalled living in the East Pettigrew Street area when she was in college and becoming eager to move elsewhere after someone broke into her home.

“People don’t want to stay there; they want more,” Cole-McFadden said. “The average person who lives there wants to move out.”

Bell, however, said he wants to create “a better quality of life” for residents and turn the target neighborhood into a place in which they might want to stay.

“The point is, if we don’t have house break-ins, people may not want to move,” he told Cole-McFadden.

And County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs went a step further, saying if officials “do their job,” the area would become one that people “may want to move in to.”

Reckhow was ready with a response to the exchange. “Then, of course, we’ll be accused of gentrification,” she said.

The area Bell wants to focus on is just east of downtown, near Eastway Elementary School.

It’s bounded on the north by Taylor Street, on the south by the Durham Freeway, on the west by Alston Avenue, North Holman Street and South Plum Street, and on the east by Gary Street, South Benjamine Street, South Hoover Road and Ellis Road.

Bell indicated that it’s shrunk since the initiative’s kickoff meeting in March, now omitting the few blocks around Eastway itself where the median household income is about $31,423.

Median incomes in the area that remains are about half to 60 percent of that, low enough to help make it one of the most “distressed” urban areas in the state.

Reckhow indicated that she’d like to see the target area expanded, to correspond with the neighborhoods the East Durham Children’s Initiative works with.

Bell was cool to the suggestion, saying at least one previous anti-poverty initiative in North-East Central Durham fell short years ago for attacking “too large a piece” and lacking a “data-driven” approach.

Another commissioner, Fred Foster, urged participants to focus on achievable goals.

“I want all of us to be thinking about what is success, so that this is not a 10-year project,” Foster said, adding that a drawn-out program would fuel frustration instead of hope among residents.

The mayor again differed, saying as he did last month that he doesn’t see any quick fix.

“This will be a long-range process,” Bell said. “I won’t be around when it’s completed.”

Bell said he’s counting on six committees -- focusing on education, finance, health, housing, jobs and public safety -- to shape the overall strategy. Each will be co-chaired by two elected officials.

The city’s Neighborhood Improvement Services Department, meanwhile, plans a series of meeting with residents in May to gather their views on what local leaders need to address.

The anti-poverty initiative was the centerpiece in February of Bell’s annual “state of the city” speech. County Commissioners Michael Page responded last month by pledging cooperation from county officials.