Mayoral candidates talk about Durham affordable housing and their own lives

Mayoral candidates discuss solutions to affordable housing at Ponysaurus Brewing

Five mayoral candidates, Farad Ali, Pierce Freelon, Shea Ramirez, Steve Schewel, and Rev. Sylvester Williams participated in a forum about affordable housing on Wednesday at Ponysaurus Brewing.
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Five mayoral candidates, Farad Ali, Pierce Freelon, Shea Ramirez, Steve Schewel, and Rev. Sylvester Williams participated in a forum about affordable housing on Wednesday at Ponysaurus Brewing.

As Durham’s downtown revitalization draws new development and new residents, being able to afford housing is an issue candidates for mayor have talked about in their campaigns and are asked about at forums.

Affordable housing was the topic at the latest candidate forum, held Wednesday night at Ponysaurus Brewing off East Main Street, an area of downtown that has been recently redeveloped.

Five of the six candidates took part in the forum. The sixth, Tracy Drinker, did not take part.

Mayoral candidate Farad Ali noted that the topic among candidates is about what they should do about affordable housing, not if they should do something. He thinks it’s an economic development issue and that the city needs to look at a holistic approach covering residents’ journey from homelessness to having their own home. Ali called for a bond referendum around affordable housing and a housing trust fund.

Council member Steve Schewel touts the work he’s already done for affordable housing. For Schewel, housing means public housing, new affordable housing and preserving affordable housing. His platform calls for supporting the redevelopment of aging Durham Housing Authority units for 6,000 residents. He also wants to continue support of housing nonprofits.

Mayoral candidate Farad Ali has called to “increase home ownership and affordable housing stock in all communities” as a priority.

At a labor-themed candidate forum held earlier this month at the Hayti Heritage Center, mayoral candidate Pierce Freelon said that “Durham is already unaffordable. This is gentrification y’all.”

At the same labor forum, candidate Shea Ramirez said, “Downtown’s nice, but what about the other areas?”

Freelon’s plan, which he also mentioned at the Ponysaurus forum, includes tiny houses as a path to affordable home ownership. He said poverty is the biggest issue facing Durham, which candidate Sylvester Williams also says is Durham’s biggest issue.

Ramirez said she’s been in Durham since 1991 and used to have a shoe store downtown when it “was a ghost town.” She now runs a talent/modeling agency in Northgate Mall, which is north of downtown next to Interstate 85.

Ali is CEO of The Institute, previously known at the North Carolina Institute for Minority Economic Development, which is on Parrish Street downtown. Parrish Street is the historic Black Wall Street.

Freelon opened Blackspace on West Main Street downtown last year. It’s an Afrofuturism makerspace.

At the labor forum, Freelon said, “as mayor I’d fight for living wage to be as common as apple pie.”

Freelon acknowledged his “own privilege” at this week’s forum, saying that his first childhood home was on Trinity Avenue. The forum question was how candidates view affordable housing through their own socio-economic backgrounds. His father is the architect Phil Freelon. Trinity Park is an affluent neighborhood near Duke University. Freelon attended both public and private schools in Durham.

He said as mayor he would work to make sure privileges he grew up with are standard for everyone.

Ramirez has described a living wage as what a person working one job, 40 hours a week, earns to sufficiently fund the necessities of life. She was raised by her grandparents and said she had a home, car and “all that good stuff.”

Ali said that neither of his parents went to college, but when his dad got a good job it changed the whole trajectory of his family. Ali said he’s focused on building jobs and the ability to achieve.

Williams says he is from East Durham and knows East Durham as a pastor, but also worked as a financial analyst.

The mayoral candidates didn’t agree on what constitutes affordable housing in Durham, citing different assessments. But they all agree it is needed.

Early voting in Durham’s nonpartisan municipal primary is going on until Oct. 7, and the primary is Oct. 10. The top two vote-getters in the mayoral race and three Durham City Council races will move on to compete in the general municipal election on Nov. 7.

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