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Durham's Walltown residents ask: How can we save this neighborhood from change?

Residents of Walltown, a historically black neighborhood north of Duke's East Campus, met at St. John Baptist Church on May 21 to discuss how to save the character of their neighborhood.
Residents of Walltown, a historically black neighborhood north of Duke's East Campus, met at St. John Baptist Church on May 21 to discuss how to save the character of their neighborhood. The Herald-Sun

Shirley Street stood up and showed the letters to the crowd gathered Monday evening at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in the Walltown neighborhood. They all asked the same thing: Can I buy your home in cash?

She said she receives a new letter nearly every week — and she plans to respond to every single one that the home she has lived in for decades isn’t for sale.

Mary Blue, a 74-year-old widow who lives across the street from the church, says she can barely afford the property tax on her small home, foregoing improvements on her home and trips to the mall. She also gets the letters asking to buy her home, where she plugs drafts in the winter with towels to stay warm.

“My home looks like a shack” compared to these newer homes, Blue said.

Another resident said she gets the letters, too, though she quickly points out that her white neighbors do not get them.

Others said the newer residents, among them oncologists and college students, aren’t part of the community at all.

In a sign that the city's central neighborhoods might be getting more protectionist, another Durham neighborhood is turning to the city for help. This time it is Walltown, a historically black and blue-collar neighborhood north of Duke’s East Campus that has experienced surging home prices, much like the rest of the city's urban neighborhoods.

It’s a neighborhood that has historically been the home of Duke University service employees, but it’s caught the attention of students and well-to-do newcomers, similarly to what has happened in the Northside neighborhood in Chapel Hill.

Surrounded by the Trinity Park neighborhood, Duke University’s East Campus and within walking distance to popular stores and restaurants on Ninth Street, Walltown’s location has made it desirable to new residents and investors alike. It’s not uncommon now to find a new $500,000 home next to one that was appraised for $120,000.

Some houses on Onslow Street in Durham's Walltown neighborhood. The neighborhood's location has made it an attractive area for real estate investors. Zachery Eanes The Herald-Sun

In reaction, its residents are considering asking for regulations like the City Council recently approved for Old West Durham — zoning standards that make it harder to build large homes.

“The large houses they are putting up are taking away from the character of our community,” said Audrey Mitchell, president of the Walltown Community Association. “If your little house is sitting here and then you’ve got this big monstrosity beside you it’s causing your property tax to increase and a lot of people cannot afford that anymore and some people have been … asked to move from their rental property because they sold it and they tore it down.”

From 2010 to 2016, the median home value in census tract 3.01, which encompasses the Walltown neighborhood, has gone from $134,600 to $164,400, a 22.1 percent increase, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

But some residents say that in the past few years, outside investment into building new homes has ramped up, along with the letters from real estate investors looking to flip the small homes in Walltown.

The Rev. Robert Daniels, who has been the minster at St. John since the mid-1980s, added that already many members of his church have had to move to other parts of the city, especially renters, who were most vulnerable to investment flowing into the neighborhood.

“It’s peanut money [what they offer]. It’s insulting,” said Street, who has lived in the neighborhood for 43 years. “They cannot have my house — this is where I live.”

Even if she accepted the low offer in cash, where could she afford to move, Street asked the crowd.

"Nowhere" the rest of the group replied.

Judging by the 40 or so people gathered on Monday night, the neighborhood is anxious about its future, which is why the Walltown Community Association asked for officials from the City-County Planning Department and residents from Old West Durham to explain the process of installing a neighborhood protection overlay.

The neighborhood protection overlay is meant to create rules that any new construction must follow, like square footage and height restrictions. Old West Durham's new rules make it harder to build larger homes and reduce the investment incentives to knocking down an older home. Proponents called it necessary to fight rampant change, while opponents decried it as hampering property rights.

In the end, it was a long arduous process that caused some contentious meetings and listserv name calling, and it’s unclear so far what effect it will have on home prices. It took Old West Durham two years to gather signatures, debate new rules and have them approved by council. On top of that, the yearly deadline to apply for consideration is in June.

The crowd groaned at the length of the process and the looming deadline that would likely push their efforts back another year. Several older residents added that they needed relief from their tax bills now and wondered why the city wasn't helping them like it is in places like Southside, North East Central Durham and Southwest Central Durham.

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Others were worried that Duke's impending redevelopment of the former Macy's department store at nearby Northgate Mall could spur more development in the area.

"We got to work together to get this going," said Mitchell, the neighborhood association president. Several residents immediately volunteered to work on starting up the neighborhood overlay process.

The meeting eventually ended with a prayer.

“Durham is a place that is rapidly changing, and the poor are being left behind,” Daniels said. “We are really going to have to pray and put some feet behind our prayers … and work together.”

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes
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