Opinion

Why can’t we live together? – Jesse James DeConto

When I bought my house in Walltown eight years ago, I had to give up my spot on the waiting list for a subsidized home with the Community Home Trust, formerly Orange Community Housing and Land Trust.

I was working full time for McClatchy Newspapers out of the old Chapel Hill News office on Franklin Street, what is now Topo Distillery. As a reporter, I had covered the development of the eco-friendly condos at Greenbridge, just down the block from my office. Some of those condos were on the market for nine figures, and with a Home Trust subsidy, I could live there for about $150,000. As a single father making about $35,000 a year, the program was tailor-made for someone like me.

Access to cutting-edge energy systems like solar or geothermal are usually unattainable for working-class people, so I was pretty excited. Still, as convenient as those condos would have been to my office, I had found my life shifting to Durham. Most of my friends were here, my future spouse, and Durham offered its own kind of subsidy – that is, the homes were simply cheaper. I mean, I did literally receive a special $30,000 second-mortgage at 2 percent interest through the city’s Neighborhood Incentive Program for buying in a lower-income neighborhood. But most of the “subsidy” came from simply living in Durham. My house cost $176,000 and would easily have sold for more than twice that in Chapel Hill or Carrboro.

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Jesse James DeConto

All of this frames how I look at the City Council’s discussion on the Durham Station affordable housing project near the Regional Transit Center and American Tobacco District. The council has been trying to decide how best to generate extra revenue there at Willard and Jackson streets, whether through market-rate apartments or office and retail space or various combinations of the three. In any proposed configuration, the project would include 80 apartments where tenants earning under $43,980 would pay no more than 30 percent of their monthly income toward their housing.

Speaking in favor of market-rate housing for the project, Mayor Bill Bell raised an argument that was almost a truism when I covered affordable-housing developments from Chapel Hill to Portsmouth, N.H., to rural Ohio – subsidized housing carries a stigma, and you want those units mixed among market-rate units because socio-economic diversity will counter that stigma and ensure that different kinds of people live as neighbors. Beautiful notion, right?

But council members Charlie Reece, Jillian Johnson and Steve Schewel told Indyweek they want to cut out the market-rate housing, as sticking only with the commercial add-ons will cost the city at least $1.6 million less in cash investment, in part because leaving out the market-rate housing will give the project better access to low-income housing tax credits from the state of North Carolina.

I understand Mayor Bell’s concern, and I respect it. But my wishful thinking is that Durham is Durham because we don’t have time for stigmas about where people live or what they can afford. I’ve mentioned this before, but when I moved to the Triangle in 2004, I read and heard from real-estate people steering me toward places like Chapel Hill or Cary because of Durham’s “stigma.” Well, a lot of us since then have ignored the “stigma” to call Durham home.

Sure, this city has more poverty and homelessness than other places I’ve lived, and daily we have to face the uncomfortable questions around whether giving to panhandlers on the street is helping or hurting. Sure, Durham has more crime than other places I’d lived, but often what our laws label as “crime” is the result of our political and economic systems offering too few other viable options for human beings just trying to survive. We can either isolate ourselves in gated communities – real or metaphorical – or try to show up, be present and become part of different kinds of systems. Sure, Durham’s rapid gentrification can bring racial conflict to the fore, forcing people like me to grapple with white privilege, when it would be far easier not to, thank you very much. Even more than 10 years ago, I heard from people who’d left Durham because they didn’t want to deal with these sometimes heated conversations.

There’s considerable overlap between Durham’s “stigma” – growing obsolete by the second – and the stigma of “the projects,” like where my Dad grew up in Somerville, Mass. It’s about poverty, it’s about crime, and we have to admit these stigmas have had racial overtones.

We live in a nation where your Martin Shkrelis and Hugh Hefners make more money than teachers or social workers. That is to say, what kind of home you can afford is a terrible measure of the value you bring to our community. A few of my friends have bought in the Southside revitalization neighborhood, and that’s also subsidized housing. They work for nonprofits and schools, helping released prisoners to get on their feet or kids to cope with autism. I want to raise my hand as a resident of subsidized housing, because most of you wouldn’t know anything about the Neighborhood Incentive Program (which is no longer offered) unless you happened to qualify as a first-time homebuyer about six to 10 years ago. It’s good to have people with different incomes living near one another, but the best way to do that is for all of us to reject the stigma altogether.

Jesse James DeConto is a musician and writer in Durham. Contact him at jesse@jessejamesdeconto.com.

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