Durham County

Will zoning and construction fix Durham’s affordable housing shortage?

CalAtlantic homes under construction at Southpoint Trail in Durham. Durham city staff say that because this is a growing market, if Durham doesn’t build housing in general it will become even more unaffordable.
CalAtlantic homes under construction at Southpoint Trail in Durham. Durham city staff say that because this is a growing market, if Durham doesn’t build housing in general it will become even more unaffordable. bthomas@heraldsun.com

Housing for those who need it the most is the Durham City Council’s priority, not housing that’s affordable for the middle class – though they want that, too.

The council met Thursday just to talk about affordable-housing goals. The majority of the council is new – Mark-Anthony Middleton, DeDreana Freeman and Vernetta Alston were all elected in November, and Javiera Caballero was appointed in January.

Reginald Johnson and Karen Lado of the city’s Department of Community Development brought them up to speed.

Lado said building more housing in a growing market generally helps suppress housing costs by keeping the supply up. Making sure a portion of that is affordable slows down the increase in prices even more, she said.

If Durham doesn’t build more housing, she said, “we will become even more unaffordable than we already are.”

The council’s five-year housing plan aims to:

Preserve and expand affordable rental units and rental assistance, with a focus on households under 50 percent of the average median income (AMI).

Maintain affordability and protect very low-income households in neighborhoods experiencing significant housing cost increases.

Engage the larger Durham community to make affordable housing a citywide priority.

To be affordable, experts say housing should not exceed 30 percent of gross income.

In Durham in 2012, there were 19,500 low-income renters paying more than that. That’s 42 percent of all renters.

That same year, 7,800 low-income owners were paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing. That’s 15 percent of all owners. Both measures of “low income” were less than 80 percent of the average median income.

According to U.S. Census data, the median household income in Durham from 2012-16 was $54,000.

Mayor Steve Schewel noted the council approved townhome projects in recent meetings but often gets pressure from existing neighborhoods not to add density.

“There are fewer forces more powerful than a single-family neighborhood, half of whom are our friends, trying to stop neighborhoods around them,” Schewel said.

Freeman said it’s often “non-people of color” trying to stop new housing and that more housing that is affordable needs to be built.

Schewel said the people he hears from most are middle-class people who can’t afford to buy in places like Old West Durham and Northgate Park and want the city to help them.

The city’s housing plan does not target housing for them, but rather those most in need who are living in Durham Housing Authority properties. The city has finite resources, Schewel said.

Community Development’s presentation pointed out that the highest median home values are downtown and in Southwest Durham. The lowest are in East Durham.

The council did not take any action at its meeting, but talked in general about moving forward with policy goals.

For the 2018-19 fiscal year, the goals include:

Plan and first phase of financing in place to redevelop Durham Housing Authority downtown properties; 356 DHA units rehabilitated at three existing properties.

Over 230 rental and for sale units completed or in process (new and preserved).

Over 40 owner-occupied units repaired or rehabilitated.

New tools – housing trust fund, affordable housing incentives, revised Unified Development Ordinance.

New partnerships – city departments, GoTriangle, private and community organizations.

Just because the council isn’t spending its money on the middle class doesn’t mean it isn’t going to try to help.

Schewel that a way to address the “missing middle,” a phrase used to describe middle-class needs, is accessory dwelling units.

Planning Director Pat Young said that post-World War II zoning is a significant contributor to the housing problem today. Previous zoning protected the natural environment and managed community character, but at a very high cost, Young said. So the planning department is meeting with smaller developers to look at expanding housing choices like small homes and “micro units.” They’ll roll out a plan to the community in the spring, he said.

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