Durham County

Durham Mayor Schewel: trees, housing and what’ll ‘make the most difference of all’

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel
Durham Mayor Steve Schewel

In an hour-long speech, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel laid out a plan of “shared prosperity” for the city he now leads, from planting more trees to providing more affordable housing.

Schewel’s first State of the City Address was a recap of city accomplishments as well as a to-do list.

Echoing his words at his swearing-in, Schewel talked Monday night about Durham being a “progressive beacon for the South and the nation.”

"We are a welcoming city. We are a diverse city. We are a prosperous city determined that our prosperity will be shared,” Schewel said. He laid out an agenda of a green, welcoming city that thrives on diversity and difference, defends the vulnerable, makes racial and economic justice priorities and embraces nonviolence.

Here are highlights:


TreesDurham, a new nonprofit, will work with the city and Keep Durham Beautiful to replenish the city’s tree canopy. Schewel wants business partners to pay for the work and the people of Durham to do the planting. Durham needs to plant 60,000 trees over the next 20 years, he said.

“I believe deeply that trees, like streets and water mains, are a critical public asset, he said. “Trees are the foundation of a beautiful, healthy neighborhood.”

The city will also start municipal composting with a pilot program that will compost 3,000 tons of food waste and 5,000 tons of yard waste, he said.

Racial equity

Schewel said a Racial Equity Task Force will get going within a month.

When City Council member Jillian Johnson became mayor pro tem in December, she said a Racial Equity Task Force would be one of her priorities and could look at how city policies correct or cause inequities, on everything from tree canopies to new projects.

Johnson will chair the task force.

“The city is already moving on a lot of racial equity work,” Johnson said then. “There has already been work, but I’d like to see it consolidated and expanded.”

“Black lives matter,” Schewel said in his speech, “and we must work every day to make sure they matter here in Durham.”

Schewel is white. Four of the six council members are African-American.

Durham history

A Durham public monuments commission, which Schewel called a City-County Committee on Confederate Monuments and Memorials, is in the works.

Former Durham City Council member Eddie Davis, who was just named the city’s public historian. submitted

Schewel said Confederate monuments across the South must come down. “They are a public glorification of the defenders of slavery, and we cannot let that stand,” he said. The joint commission of city and county residents will begin meeting in May.

Durham will celebrate its 150th anniversary on April 10, 2019. Schewel named former City Council member Eddie Davis, a retired educator, as the city’s public historian. Davis will give the council monthly short history lessons leading up to the anniversary, and speak to community groups about Durham history.


Twenty people move to Durham every day, Schewel said.

“People want to move here because we have a wonderful quality of life, something we should all be very proud of. What’s more, Durham is unusual because we are among the top 10 cities in the nation in attracting whites, blacks and Asians alike. That’s an incredible tribute to our embrace of all people. But all that in-migration is driving gentrification with tremendous speed and power. I want to say clearly that we cannot stop those market forces,” he said.

Schewel said that Durham can make a difference with a strong affordable housing program.

Affordable housing

Schewel touted affordable housing projects already underway, like subsidizing 140 rental units at Lofts at Southside and using city land for the Jackson-Pettigrew Street affordable housing project. But he said the city’s most critical goal is to support the Durham Housing Authority’s redevelopment efforts.

Schewel also said Phail Wynn, vice president for Durham and Regional Affairs at Duke University, is working with financial institutions, nonprofit developers and city staff on a public-private partnership to support an affordable housing trust fund in Durham. The mayor hopes for a $15 million fund with the city contributing 10 percent in risk capital and the rest coming from low or zero-interest loan funds from Duke and the private sector.

Refugees and immigrants

Schewel praised two Durham congregations that have been providing sanctuary to two immigrants in the country illegally: Jose Chicas at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church and the School for Conversion; and Samuel Oliver-Bruno at CityWell United Methodist Church.

“While ICE agents have the legal authority to enter a church to apprehend someone, to date ICE has not invaded the sanctity of a church to make an arrest,” Schewel said. “And so these two church congregations, in an act of commitment and courage, have chosen to offer sanctuary to these two good men.”

Durham Public Schools and shared prosperity

Schewel urged everyone to find a way to advocate and serve, so that Durham’s shared prosperity can be a reality. And he also called on young people raising families in Durham.

“I once again challenge you to do the thing that’s going to make the most difference of all in the long run. Our kids need to go to school together. Send your kids to Durham Public Schools and get involved in our schools and fight for them,” he said.

Before being elected to the City Council, Schewel served on the Durham Public Schools Board of Education.

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