Opinion

Durham County vote a momentous, strategic investment in a more diverse downtown

Wendy Jacobs is the chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners.
Wendy Jacobs is the chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners.

The Durham County Board of County Commissioners meeting on Tuesday night was a momentous occasion. Our board members, staff and residents who had packed the chambers could feel the importance of the moment as we voted; for the first time in Durham County’s history, Durham County Government is taking direct action to address the affordable housing crisis in Durham.

Using a new tool available to county governments, we are pursuing a private-public partnership that will transform two surface parking lots in downtown Durham into vibrant mixed-use developments that will include parking decks, retail space, housing and most importantly, 277 units of affordable housing. And all of this just a short walk from the planned Dillard Street Light Rail Station.

While this is a huge milestone event for Durham County Government, it is also consistent with Durham County’s ongoing investment in the revitalization of downtown Durham and our community. Over the past 15 years, in partnership with the city, Durham County has invested in major downtown redevelopment projects — from DPAC and American Tobacco to 21C, the Durham Hotel, the Unscripted and the Convention Center to Chesterfield and the Durham Innovation District.

When the Main Library is complete, we will have invested more than $300 million renovating or building signature downtown county buildings including our Courthouse, Human Services Complex and newly renovated Admin II building. We care deeply about the future of downtown Durham, about creating a thriving vibrant diverse downtown Durham. And that means a downtown Durham that is accessible by multiple modes of transportation and includes affordable housing.

These 277 units of affordable housing will be home to people who can use their section 8 housing vouchers, people who are working in our restaurants and hotels and our first responders, librarians and social workers. Permanent affordable housing will help us create a downtown Durham for all.

We can’t talk about affordable housing without talking about transit. They go hand in hand. We know that too many people in Durham are cost burdened-meaning they spend more than 40 percent of their income on housing and transportation. And we can’t talk about affordable housing and transportation unless we talk about jobs, because people need to have good paying jobs so they can afford their housing and other needs.

This is why the Durham-Orange Light Rail project is so critical to our community’s strategy around building more affordable housing, decreasing our 24 percent child poverty rate and impacting the social determinants of health. Right now, 30 percent of all existing permanent affordable housing, including two-thirds of all Durham Housing Authority property, is within walking distance of a light rail stop. Every planned or in-progress city and county affordable-housing project is near a light-rail station as well as most of the sites planned for redevelopment and expansion by the Housing Authority. Our new Affordable Housing Density Bonus will most likely only be used when developers are interested in investing around our light-rail stations.

The Durham Orange Light Rail project is not just about reducing traffic congestion and providing transportation options. It is also about managing the growth and economic development that is happening right now and will continue in the decades ahead in a way that helps us address our problems, improve the lives of all people in our community and make Durham an even greater place to live- at every single rail station.

Just imagine how transformational our county affordable-housing projects at 300 and 500 East Main Street will be for people! Imagine the new world of opportunities now a short walk away at the Dillard Street light rail station. Some residents may not own cars, some may choose to leave theirs parked in the garage. Getting some exercise walking to the train. Riding the train for the same amount of fare as a bus, but leaving the traffic behind as the travel time to work is always the same on the rail line. Less stress. More time with family and friends. Better health outcomes.

For these residents, besides what is available downtown, there are jobs to be found around each of the 18 additional light rail stations, including our county’s biggest employer Duke University and Medical Center with more than 35,000 employees or the VA, NCCU and UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC Hospitals. There are classes at one of our great universities and easily accessible health care at three medical centers along the way.

This is the vision that we have for our community. 277 affordable housing units today. So much more to come. The Durham Orange Light Rail project will help us achieve the equity and opportunity we are striving for. Affordable housing, Transit. Jobs. Education. Health care. This is the legacy we are creating now and for the future of Durham.

Wendy Jacobs is the chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners.

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