Opinion

Expunging ghost of Fayette Place

mschultz@newsobserver,com

For nearly a decade, the ghost of the Fayette Place public housing community has haunted the edge of downtown Durham.

Now, after a year of dogged effort by an advocacy group, community residents, the Durham Housing Authority and several Durham officials, the site -- an eyesore and a reminder of past mismanagement and dubious decisions -- may be on the cusp of new life. Monday night, at meeting hosted by Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods (Durham CAN), five City Council members agreed to support repurchasing the project, probably with a loan or grant to the Durham Housing Authority.

Under terms of the 2007 sale to Philadelphia-based Campus Apartments, the authority this year has the right to repurchase the property if it were not developed. And it most certainly has not been. The Aug. 6 deadline for exercising that option is rapidly approaching.

When it bought the site in 2007, Campus Apartments touted plans to build student housing for N. C. Central University, which was facing a housing shortage as its enrollment grew. But after the firm demolished the existing buildings, nothing else ever happened, the plans derailed by the Great Recession and perhaps just evaporated interest on the developer’s part.

The 2007 sale itself speaks to the troubled history of the project. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development forced the authority to sell the site — actually owned by a wholly owned DHA subsidiary, Development Ventures — to repay improperly spent housing subsidies. At the time, the authority came under criticism for selling to Campus Apartments despite a 50-percent higher bid from another developer, engaged at the time in the American Tobacco development and city plans for rehabbing nearby Rolling Hills and Southside neighborhoods.

City support is crucial for the repurchase. The housing authority, strapped for funds and facing the need for costly renovations at many of its aging complexes, does not have the capacity on its own.

City Councilman Steve Schewel, who has been a vigorous proponent of expanding affordable housing in the community, has long seen the site as a potential asset in that quest. “It’s a key property,” he told The Herald-Sun in a report on the site last August. “It is right in the transit corridor. It’s a key entryway to N. C. Central and it’s downtown. I do think it’s a very important piece of property and I think it’s a great spot for affordable housing.”

It’s important that the city step up, as it seems likely to, to bring the site back into public ownership, and we hope that ushers in an expedited effort to replace the eerie concrete slabs and the “steps to nowhere” with badly needed affordable housing.

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