Selina Mack remembers a time when the area around the intersection of Kent and West Chapel Hill streets in the West End neighborhood was mostly vacant. She remembers a time when houses were falling into disrepair and the neighborhood’s crime rate was much higher.
In her office at Durham Community Land Trustees (DCLT), where she is executive director, Mack has pictures of the neighborhood from the 1980s and 1990s — artifacts of a time when the neighborhood had plenty of boarded-up buildings and dilapidated houses.
“In the mid-1990s, it was pretty rundown,” Mack said of the housing stock. “There was a lot of substandard housing, and there was a lot of disinvestment in both residential and commercial real estate. A lot of people were leaving.
“If you asked people from Durham then, they would say I would’ve never lived in the West End.”
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Now, the area is flourishing, with new homes going up and new businesses rehabbing previously empty spaces. The progress has been partially due to the work DCLT, as well as Self-Help Credit Union and Habitat for Humanity, has done with affordable housing and partially because of Durham’s thriving downtown.
The West End neighborhoods — generally considered the trio of Burch Avenue, West End and Lyon Park — are a group of historically blue-collar and African-American-majority neighborhoods located between downtown and Duke University. It has become a prime area in recent years, where prices keep rising, creating one of the most diverse residential areas in the city.
The average price per square foot has rocketed up in the last few years.
From 2014 to 2016, the price per square foot for a home in the West End soared to $165 per square foot, up 58.7 percent from $104, according to data provided by Urban Durham Realty. And over the past decade, prices have more than doubled from $72 per square foot in 2007 — a 129 percent increase.
“Any vacant lot is being bought up, and houses are selling within days of going on the market,” Mack said.
“They are being redeveloped and sold for $300,000, $400,00 and even $500,000 — and you know, in the neighborhood now, you might have a $400,000 house sitting next to an $80,000 house. The cost of housing is kind of unbelievable.”
Because of its location, sandwiched between burgeoning downtown and Duke University, the West End neighborhoods were always bound to be attractive to outside home buyers and investors, said Adrian Brown, a broker with the Durham-based real estate firm Inhabit Real Estate.
“To get anything under $300,000 is virtually impossible,” said Brown. “... The competition is obscene for anything.”
The growing value of property in the neighborhoods is making the work DCLT has done in the West End more resonant, Mack said. DCLT, as well as Self-Help Credit Union and Habitat for Humanity, has worked since the 1990s to stabilize the neighborhood by purchasing property and making housing affordable.
DCLT, which uses a land-trust model, has around 200 units of affordable housing in the three neighborhoods, mainly in the West End and Lyon Park. Self-Help has also created around 150 units of affordable housing since 2005, according to Dan Levine, assistant director for real estate at Self-Help.
But due to rising prices, that affordable housing stock isn’t likely to increase much more.
“We have maxed out the affordable housing. I am not saying it won't happen occasionally, but it won’t happen on a large scale,” Mack said, noting Self-Help still has the ability to add more.
Recently, DCLT’s own strategy has begun to reflect the economic reality of the area. The organization has decided to make its first forays into North-East Central Durham — a neighborhood where it thinks it will have more of an effect because prices haven’t risen there as much as others.
Prices have gone up in nearly every neighborhood around town due to two factors: scarcity and out-of-state investment, said Brown, the real estate broker.
“We have about two months of inventory on the market and then we also get buyers coming in from out of state,” he said while mentioning he recently showed a home to two men from San Francisco.
“Some of these homes would be a million dollars in San Francisco,” he said. “[Out-of-state buyers] can blow local people out of the water with cash.”
He also said that the West End has become more attractive due to its walkability, especially with the Durham Co-op Market centrally located in the neighborhood.
KENT CORNER SUCCESS
The Durham Co-op Market wasn’t expected to be as successful as it has been. It took several years to get off the ground, first being proposed circa 2009, and it was projected to lose money for its first seven years.
Despite its own conservative predictions, the store is booming as it approaches its second anniversary of opening on April 11.
At its 2015 grand opening, the Co-op gained its 2,000th owner (people who buy a share of the company). Now it has around 3,500 members (a 75 percent increase from the grand opening), nearly 50 employees and is expected to reach profitability this year.
Its success, and that of the Self-Help funded Kent Corner development that has become the business hub of the neighborhood, is a double-edged sword for the neighborhood, Leila Wolfrum, the Co-op’s general manager said.
“If you try and find an apartment around here, you'll often find a description that says within walking distance of the Co-op,” she said. “We know people are using this store as an attractant to people moving into the neighborhood. And whenever someone moves in that also represents someone potentially moving out. I would be lying if I was unwilling to admit that.”
She added that you could describe the Co-op as “placemaking and revitalizing” and “gentrifying and destabilizing” all at once.
“We are very conscious of both sides of that coin,” she said.
Across the street from the Co-op, two former gas stations will soon be converted into the home of Local Yogurt, a locally owned yogurt shop, and a new restaurant concept from the owners of Nosh, who also live in the West End.
Local Yogurt owner Leah Bergman said the Co-op deserves a lot of credit for driving up business interest on the street.
“Of course, you have to give them 100 percent of the credit, in my mind,” she said. “None of this would be getting this attention. You really have to take your hat off to them.”
For its part, the Co-op has initiated several programs and policies to make it equitable for all shoppers. It does $3 dinners once a week, which have proven to be popular; provides an affordable brand of food staples and a discount to people using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); and it hires predominantly from the neighborhood.
“This is one of the most diverse areas in Durham,” Wolfrum said. “If you draw a one-mile square circle around the building you get every possible demographic spectrum. That's something we have worked very hard to maintain. We want to serve as much of this community as we can.”
Mack said the Co-op has made the neighborhood a more sociable community. It’s not uncommon to see many people pushing strollers and walking dogs in the evening.
“I think it's been a positive change to the neighborhood,” she said with a caveat. “Because there is a fairly decent stock of affordable housing, I think it has been good for the West End.
“Good communities are not just for high-income people, so there has to be an equitable mix.”