Police HQ the best, last hope for affordable housing on west side of downtown Durham

Wib Gulley is a former mayor of Durham.
Wib Gulley is a former mayor of Durham.

Perhaps no part of Durham has changed more dramatically in recent years than the west side of downtown (roughly defined as being between Buchanan, Mangum, Trinity, and the N.C. 147 (The Durham Freeway). High-rise buildings now fill our skyline, fueled in part by major cultural facilities and public investments.

Amid this development a downtown residential neighborhood has emerged. It is estimated that by the end of 2018 there will be about 3,000 dwelling units.

Alongside these changes is a growing concern for providing safe, affordable places for all of Durham’s residents. While currently blessed with economic prosperity, the city has seen a surge in property values that has driven housing costs to new highs. This disturbing trend is perhaps most evident on the west side of downtown.

Four years ago the Durham City Council adopted the policy goal of having at least 15 percent of all housing near transit stations be affordable. By this measure, in the neighborhood of Durham Station there should be around 450 affordable units. But today there are only 177, with the possible addition of 82 more at Jackson Street.

This means we have a shortfall of around 200 affordable units, with few prospects of more in the future.

The opportunity

The only hope for significant new affordable housing in west downtown lies in using public land and incentives to create it. The 4.4-acre site of the current Police Headquarters offers one of our last, best chances.

For this reason, the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit believes the city should reserve approximately one acre of the police site for development of at least 80 units of affordable housing, similar to what is proposed for Jackson Street. It is an opportunity that we should not let slip away.

But wait …

Some might ask if the city should sell the property for as much money as possible and use the proceeds for other public purposes? This ignores the fact that the police site is the last major parcel in west downtown that is publicly owned. Using a portion of it is key to providing significant new affordable housing in this neighborhood. Without reserving a part of this land for this purpose, how will Durham meet our responsibility for affordable housing in this neighborhood?

Others might propose that we sell the whole site and use the funds to develop affordable housing in other parts of Durham where it will be less expensive and yield more units. This approach would fail our community in several ways. One, it will always be less expensive to build affordable housing if you do it in lower-income neighborhoods. But the major mistake of the last 70 years of U.S. housing policy has been to concentrate affordable units in lower-income neighborhoods. The only public policy that makes sense morally or practically is one that asks every neighborhood to include its share of a community’s affordable housing. Two, assuming the availability of shared public parking and transit, the main factor making affordable housing more expensive in downtown is the cost of the land. But the good news for the west downtown neighborhood is that the city already owns a parcel that could provide a significant number of new affordable units. Three, using a portion of the land at the Police site for affordable housing must be done while providing affordable housing in other parts of Durham. It is not as choice between one or the other — our city can, and should, do both.

Finally some might say we will never have the financial resources for an affordable housing project here. Yes, providing good affordable units is expensive and can be complicated, but there is no reason to think Durham cannot do this. Yes, the availability of federal tax credits is limited, but Durham should always have several affordable housing projects in its pipeline to meet the annual deadlines and compete well for the federal credit. Further, the city is just beginning to develop and use financial resources to meet our goals, including a housing trust fund, a city and/or county affordable housing bond issue, private grants and incentives, and low and no-interest loans.

Who can really say what is or is not possible going forward? The only thing we can say with certainty is that reserving a portion of the police site is one of the last, best chances we have for adding significant affordable housing to what has become Durham’s most expensive neighborhood. This land can and should be reserved in coming years as our financial capabilities develop.

Wib Gulley, former Durham mayor and state senator, is now active with Durham's Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit.

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