The moment when you realize your entire city is unaffordable | Durham County | Indy Week
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The moment when you realize your entire city is unaffordable 

It's been clear over the many Council meetings that durham Mayor Bill Bell is frustrated about the lack of affordable housing, particularly downtown. Condos and apartments are being built—or in the pipeline—throughout the center of the city, Durham Central Park, West Village and most recently at the old Hendrick dealership off Dillard Street. Yet not a single unit is affordable for the average public school teacher, firefighter, police officer, waiter or parking attendant. The Ninth Street District is no better; a new three-bedroom over there goes for, gulp, $3,000 a month. 

"That's unacceptable to me as the mayor of this city," he said last week. "If I get a little high on this, it's because it's important."

Karen Lado is the vice president of Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit that works with cities to create affordable housing plans, particularly near transit. Based in Maryland, the group has also raised or invested $16 billion in affordable housing in the U.S.

The city is expected to spend $77,000 to hire Enterprise as a technical consultant for two phases of work in helping Durham develop and launch an affordable housing plan. This is a particularly important time for Durham, as the city plans to create and preserve affordable housing near the proposed light-rail line.

Lado, who lives in Durham, gave a presentation to City Council last week detailing the nonprofit's plan for Durham, which will take about six months to complete.

After the meeting, Lado and I spoke about the larger challenges in creating and preserving affordable housing.

click to enlarge Karen Lado - PHOTO COURTESY OF ENTERPRISE COMMUNITY PARTNERS
  • Photo courtesy of Enterprise Community Partners
  • Karen Lado

INDY: Compared with the many cities you've worked with, what does Durham have in common? What are the differences?

KL: A lot of places tended to be bigger than Durham—Denver, Seattle, Portland. But like Durham, they're all growing cities in areas considered to be high-quality places to live. And there is rapid growth in the affordability problem. It's that moment when you look around and the entire city has become unaffordable.

But Durham is more proactive and has a greater sense of the problem, and is doing so much earlier.

What are the forces behind the affordability gap?

A city's growth and people's changing lifestyle preferences. People are waiting longer to have families, so there are fewer households with children. People are choosing to live a more urban lifestyle. There is a lot of interest in downtown and central neighborhoods.

In some cases, it's not that the rents are so high but that wages are stagnant.

That is an important question: Is it a housing problem or an income problem? Affordable housing subsidizes the fact that we we're not paying living wages. The homeless, people with disabilities, the very low-income are just part of the affordable housing challenge. The big one is working people, retired people who can't afford to live in their neighborhoods and can't afford to move.

At the City Council meeting, you mentioned that in developing an affordable housing plan, the city needs to decide whom it wants to serve and where it wants to serve them. How does the city answer that question?

We need to ask, 'What does housing connect people to? Housing is the single-highest cost and transportation is second. Low-income people tend to spend 60 percent of their gross income on those two combined. Cars are expensive. You need to get to work, school. You need to get groceries.

How do we put housing where the transit connections are? Or put connections where the housing is?

In the bigger discussion of light rail, we can think more robustly about transit and housing connections. Since it's a line, not a system, we also need to think about high- frequency bus corridors and put housing close to those. Give people a package.

At that same meeting Mayor Bill Bell was adamant that we not have "enclaves of affordable housing"—meaning housing projects, the warehousing of the working-class and poor. How do we avoid that?

You can take a portion of the building to be affordable and the rest can be market. Or there can be a range of affordability in the same building—very low-income to 60 percent of the average median income ($28,000 for a single person in Durham; $32,000 for a family of two and $36,000 and $40,000 for a three- and four-person household, respectively). And that building can be downtown next to buildings serving the affluent. What you're getting is a range of income in the geography, not just the building.

How do you keep housing affordable over the long term?

In rentals, even if the conditions of a tax credit keep the housing affordable for 15, 30 or 99 years, the challenge is that at some point the building needs to be reinvested in, maintained. Where does the money come from? If the market is going gangbusters, then the property owner is better served financially if it becomes market-rate. So to keep rentals affordable they need to be owned by a mission-driven developer.

What mistakes should Durham avoid?

Don't make the discussions oppositional, developers versus affordable-housing advocates. And don't limit the discussions to that group. It's a community-wide discussion, and developers want to be a part of it without feeling like they have a target on their backs. You can get a lot of support from the real estate community if you engage them.

And plan for success rather than failure. Certain neighborhoods need investment. But what happens when market-rate housing comes in? If you don't plan for it, landlords may convert their rental housing for sale, and there's displacement. You need to ensure there is other affordable housing in the neighborhood so people can stay there.

This article appeared in print with the headline "That moment when you realize your city is unaffordable "

  • A conversation with Karen Lado about how Durham can avoid it

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