Durham sees steep decline in boarded-up houses

Repairman Joe Brougham uses a battery powered hand drill to screw in a custom-fit sheet of thick clear plastic over the front living room window of a home at 911 S. Alston Ave. in 2015.
Repairman Joe Brougham uses a battery powered hand drill to screw in a custom-fit sheet of thick clear plastic over the front living room window of a home at 911 S. Alston Ave. in 2015.

Five years ago, the house at 212 S. Driver St. in the East Durham neighborhood was vacant. Its white paint was peeling, its windows shuttered with plywood.

A few years later the windows of that same house were brand new with red trim. The siding was painted sky blue.

The house is one of the hundreds that has gone from boarded up and violating the housing code to back on the city’s hot real estate market.

Since 2011, the number has fallen more than 95 percent, going from 502 boarded-up houses in 2011 to just 24 at the end of last November.

A boarded home at 212 S. Driver St. pictured in 2010. The number of boarded houses in Durham has dropped more than 95 percent since 2011. MARK SCHULTZ - MARK SCHULTZ -

A picture of a home on 212 S. Driver St. in 2015. A few years earlier, the house had sat vacant and its windows were covered with plywood. Durham County Property Records

The city defines a boarded house as a structure that has a number of windows and doors “secured with plywood, oriented strand board or similar products to prohibit access.”

Faith Gardner, Durham’s housing code administrator, attributes the large drop to two factors: more pro-active enforcement of the housing code and a robust housing market.

“I think what (the numbers) mean is that our housing market is robust and healthy,” Gardner said. “It looks like to me we are utilizing our older housing stock – and that, along with a combination of the city's enforcement action and a good real estate market, has left us with improved looking neighborhoods.”

It’s something that the city has tracked since 2009 through its Neighborhood Improvement Services department. NIS only tracks the number of boarded homes in census tracts that are considered low and moderate income, of which there are 26 in Durham.

Low-income census tracts are areas where the annualized family income of the households is below 50 percent of the median income for the county in which it is located. Moderate-income tracts have household income between 50 percent and 80 percent of the median income for the county. Most of these tracts are located close to the urban center of the city, especially in the neighborhoods in East Durham, the West End and around North Carolina Central University.

Since 2011, the number of boarded-up homes in Durham has fallen by more than 95 percent, going from 502 boarded-up houses in 2011 to just 24 at the end of last November.

Median household income for Durham County was $54,093 in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Higher-income neighborhoods are not included in the data because houses usually don’t sit vacant very long before being sold or occupied again in those areas.

The city says it tracks the number of boarded houses because it believes they correlate to poorer living conditions and crime.

“Houses that are boarded have shown to decrease the quality of life in a neighborhood,” Gardner said. “It also has been shown that boarded houses can attract criminal activity. … If a (boarded) house like that is broken into it invites squatters or illegal drug activity in general when a house is left with no care.”

The Rev. Johannes Gumbo, senior pastor at Shepherd’s House United Methodist Church in East Durham, said crime has gotten a “little bit better,” as the neighborhood’s housing stock has improved.

The homes around his church on Driver Street look nicer and fewer are vacant. “Particularly there, I think people are buying those houses and fixing them up,” the Zimbabwe-born pastor said.

But, he believes the improving housing stock and increasing investment activity is a sign that the neighborhood, which has historically been the home of renters, is in the process of changing.

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Pastor Johannes Nyanda Gumbo outside the Shepherd's House United Methodist Church on North Driver Street. Bernard Thomas

Gumbo added that in the past few years, the number of congregants coming to the church asking for help with rent or shelter has grown.

“Yes, there are improvements in the houses, but not really for lives of people that have lived here,” he said. “It’s now the rich person who owns it and fixes it nice.”

When is a house no longer considered boarded

A house is no longer considered boarded by the city when it reaches one of the following three solutions:

▪ Repairs are made to the home by the owner.

▪ The city applies a clear plastic polycarbonate to the windows and doors, a solution that officials believes is more aesthetically pleasing and more secure.

▪ The structure is demolished if repairs to the house would cost more than 50 percent of the value of the structure.

Coming to one of those solutions often requires a monthslong process between the city and the owner of the property, which can end up with the city legally taking over any repair work.

In recent years, the city’s preferred solution to fixing boarded structures has been to swap opaque plywood with clear polycarbonate.

The city has been applying polycarbonate since 2015, Gardner said,

because it is not as noticeable from the street as plywood and “won’t break from a hit from a baseball bat.”

But affixing polycarbonate to vacant homes has only accounted for a portion of the drop in boarded structures. So far, the city has installed the plastic to 98 houses in Durham – and that number doesn’t indicate if any of those installations have since been removed.

The polycarbonate costs more than plywood (around $100 per window on average), and is paid for out of NIS’s neighborhood stabilization fund. The owner’s of the property are also billed for the repair work and the city will take a lien out on properties.

It is unclear how much of the decrease in boarded-up houses is due to them being demolished, rather than repaired. For its part, the city said it has demolished a total of 51 structures since 2011.

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes