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In one week, 200 low-income residents will be evicted from their Lincoln Apartments homes. None of the city's recent initiatives will immediately help them.

Durham's affordable housing crisis 

Graffiti marks the halls of many buildings in the Lincoln Apartments complex.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Graffiti marks the halls of many buildings in the Lincoln Apartments complex.

In one week, approximately 200 low-income residents—including children, families, the elderly and the disabled—will be evicted from their homes where some of them have lived for more than a quarter-century.

The property owner, the nonprofit Lincoln Hospital Foundation, says it can no longer afford the utilities and upkeep on the dozen or so buildings on the two-acre tract in Southeast-Central Durham.

While Durham County Social Services and other agencies are trying to assist the residents, there are simply too few safe and affordable housing options for too many poor people. Government funding and grants for nonprofits are scarce; the private market doesn't build housing for the extremely low-income people. And no slots are available in public housing.The waiting list to move into one of the Durham Housing Authority's 1,850 units is 1,200 deep. The Section 8 voucher program is closed with a waiting list of 2,300, according to DHA figures.

"This current crisis really points out that we have a shortage of affordable units. It's a big challenge to find places to live that are decent for families," says Terry Allebaugh, executive director of Housing for New Hope. The nonprofit owns 90 units for low-income and homeless people. All of them are full.

"What does it mean that we're this vulnerable?" Allebaugh asks.

Many Lincoln Apartments residents are the working poor: Those who earn slightly above minimum wage at Walmart. A Bojangles employee. A part-time nursing assistant who supports her family of four on $9 an hour.

"Where are they going to go? These are working people who still can't afford to rent a decent place," says City Councilman Steve Schewel, who is the council liaison to the Durham Housing Authority. "If Lincoln were fixed up, it would have to charge higher rents to make it financially viable."

You can drive around Durham and see plenty of rooms, apartments and houses for rent. But the cheapest places are usually dilapidated and substandard; on the private market, you often get what you pay for—and $350 will buy you, at best, three rooms in a flophouse.

"It's a landlord's market," says Carly Ruff, policy and outreach coordinator for the N.C. Housing Coalition. "And when the private market provides housing for very low-income people, it's often substandard."

Durham's dearth of affordable housing is typical of most U.S. cities, where the demand has also increased. When the housing bubble burst, many homeowners lost their houses to foreclosure.

That, and the reluctance of even moderate-income households to buy a home, has created a competitive rental market, Ruff says.

Nonprofits such as Housing for New Hope, CASA and Durham CAARE can make only a dent in filling the need for decent homes. As the Lincoln Hospital Foundation learned, without subsidies it is practically impossible for private developers to build and maintain low-income housing, especially for households that earn less than $15,000 a year. The Lincoln Foundation did not receive government funds; it privately operated the complex. Rents ranged from $350 to $500 a month. Many of those apartments were run-down, roach-infested or riddled with mold.

Durham housing advocate Lanier Blum says, "There is no way anybody, a nonprofit or a for-profit, can run a rental business with rents that low." Blum is on the board of Durham Community Land Trustees, a nonprofit that rents and sells affordable housing. (DCLT currently has several rental properties for people who meet income guidelines; two-bedroom units run from $550 to $635, which is below fair-market rates.) However, she is not speaking on behalf of the group.

"The numbers don't add up," she adds. "You have to pay for utilities, garbage pick-up, maintenance."

Nationwide, an estimated one in four renter households earns less than 30 percent of an area's annual median income, according to figures from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

In Durham, that equates to just under $15,000 a year; in Raleigh and Chapel Hill, it's roughly $15,750. Yet even the average renter in North Carolina comes up $79 short for a two-bedroom apartment at fair-market prices, according to the coalition.

Moreover, national data shows that people are spending more than a third of their income on rent. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recommends households spend no more than 30 percent of their annual income on housing, including utilities.

In addition, budget cuts have slashed federal, state and local funding for nonprofits and housing authorities. State dollars are at the whim of the General Assembly, whose Republican majority is intent on cutting, not adding, money.

"You have to piece it together with 10 to 15 funding sources, all with different rules and timetables," Allebaugh of Housing for New Hope says.

Nationally, more apartments and homes are being converted to serve higher-income tenants or they have fallen into disrepair.

In Durham, many housing advocates have criticized the controversial Rolling Hills development on the southern edge of downtown because it diverts federal funding and grants from low-income housing programs.

Rolling Hills is a mixed-income project of 80 affordable and 42 market-rate homes. The city has sunk millions of dollars into the project, which has failed twice. Now, it has put another $4 million into the demolition of existing streets and infrastructure and extended a $5.5 million no-interest loan to the developer.

"Instead of the city spending $100,000 a unit for people who already live in decent homes, it should have spent it on affordable housing," says Blum, a longtime critic of the project. "That's the choice the city is making. Instead of affordable housing, they're supporting urban renewal."

Durham Mayor Bill Bell has publicly defended the project, noting that it not only provides low-income housing but also is expected to spur redevelopment of the Southside.

Earlier this summer, City Council did pass a one-cent property tax increase for Pennies for Housing. The program is expected to generate $2.3 million next year for low-income housing and social services for the homeless. Over five years, the city plans to embark on an ambitious $57 million program for these initiatives.

In June, the city included in its budget $1 million over five years for rapid rehousing, a program to subsidize permanent rentals to homeless people. And earlier this month, the Durham Housing Authority received a $300,000 federal planning grant, the first step in expanding and renovating housing in Southeast-Central Durham. The large area includes the McDougald Terrace public housing community and the Lincoln Apartments neighborhood.

It would be hard to find a more pointed example of Durham's affordable housing crisis than the situation at Lincoln Apartments. None of the city's recent initiatives will immediately help the residents. And despite recent positive developments, several factors—including funding shortages and a failure to adequately plan for the needs of Durham's low-income residents—have colluded to play out in the lives of 200 people.

"We make a tremendous effort and it's not nearly enough," Schewel says. "And what's happening with Lincoln is symptomatic of that."

This article appeared in print with the headline "With no direction home."

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