Durham County wants affordable housing downtown. But how much?

Two blocks of Durham County-owned land at the 300 and 500 blocks of East Main Street will be redeveloped from surface parking to parking garages and apartments. Some of the apartments will be affordable housing.
Two blocks of Durham County-owned land at the 300 and 500 blocks of East Main Street will be redeveloped from surface parking to parking garages and apartments. Some of the apartments will be affordable housing. Google map

Two blocks of government-owned land in downtown Durham are likely to have affordable housing on them when they are redeveloped over the next few years. But exactly how many new apartments will be affordable is still a vote away from a decision.

Durham County owns two surface parking lots on the 300 and 500 blocks of East Main Street. They want to build parking garages for county employees on both sites, along with apartments and commercial space. The public has been able to check out two plans for the sites — one that has only market rate apartments on one block and market rate plus affordable housing on the other, along with a second plan that has affordable housing and market rate apartments on both sites. That plan will cost $4 million more.

Plans were designed and researched by the Development Finance Initiative of the UNC School of Government.

A majority of Durham County Commissioners said they support the plan that calls for affordable housing on both locations, but are waiting to vote at their Nov. 13 meeting, after public comments. They viewed the plans again and heard about financing during the commissioners’ work session on Monday.

Commissioners have already been told of some public support for that plan, known as Plan B. Affordable housing for these projects is considered apartments for those who make 80 percent or less area median income.

Eighty percent of area median income for Durham is $37,750 for one person, $43,150 for two people and $53,900 for a four-person household.

Both blocks are within walking distance from a planned light rail stop downtown, too.

Both Plan A and Plan B call for more than 1,500 parking spaces for county employees. Plan A proposes 492 apartments, with 180 of them designated affordable housing; while Plan B proposes 437 apartments, with 277 of them affordable housing.

Plan A has 56,000 square feet of commercial space, including a daycare. Plan B has 34,700 square feet of commercial space.

Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs said there is urgency around affordable housing downtown. She plans to vote for Plan B, the one with affordable housing on both sites.

“This is such an important project for our community, and we look at public property that we own and how it can be used to best benefit the community and advance our goals for community,” she said.

Commissioner Ellen Reckhow was ready to vote on it already, but Jacobs wanted to wait for the meeting next week. Votes usually aren’t taken during work sessions unless commissioners vote to suspend the rules. A majority of commissioners said Monday they support Plan B, with affordable housing on both blocks.

Reckhow said it’s important to keep in mind that when the county first looked at the properties, it was going to just build parking decks. Now the developments would be activating Main Street with commercial uses, she said, as well as building affordable housing. She said the private investment in the development will bring in more property taxes to the county, too, estimating $2 million in tax revenue over 10 years.

“This, in my opinion, in a very wise investment for the community. This is doing so many other things for our community beyond providing a place for people to park. It will greatly expand housing in downtown, affordable housing in downtown, and activating a part of Main Street that has a very institutional look and feel,” Reckhow said.

The parking lots are near the Durham County Human Services building, the new Durham Police Department headquarters, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, First Presbyterian Church and Oldham Towers and Liberty Street public housing neighborhoods. Oldham and Liberty are part of the Durham Housing Authority plan to eventually redevelop into mixed-income, mixed-use developments.

Commissioner Heidi Carter said she is also excited about the “substantial” social return on the investment in the community by supporting an affordable housing plan.

“It feels like a really earth-shaking decision in our community,” Carter said.

A comparison of the Plan A and Plan B proposals for the development of the 300 and 500 blocks of East Main Street, both owned by Durham County. Durham County/UNC School of Government

What’s next

Once the commissioners select a plan at their Nov. 13 meeting, the county and DFI will solicit developer plans starting in January and then pick one by late spring. If everything stays on schedule, the first of the projects could break ground in late 2020.

Residents who want to tell the commissioners what they think about the plans can speak at the meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 13 in Commissioners Chambers on the second floor of County Administration Building I, 200 E. Main St.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan
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