Will Durham finally tackle affordable housing downtown? | Triangulator | Indy Week
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Will Durham finally tackle affordable housing downtown? 

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File photo by D.L. Anderson

The city of Durham, as has been well documented in these pages, has something of an affordable housing problem. This is especially true around downtown, where new luxury condo towers seem to sprout from the ground every other day.

As has also been well documented, city leaders have for a while now declared their desire to do something about it. Early last year, in fact, the City Council passed a resolution professing a goal of having 15 percent of housing units within a half-mile of Durham Station be affordable.

Since then, at least 1,190 units in that area have gone online or entered the pipeline. None are affordable.

In its work session Thursday—1 p.m. on the second floor of City Hall, if you're interested—Council will have a chance to begin addressing that gap. The question is whether they'll take it. City staff would rather they didn't.

At issue is a city-owned 2.15-acre site just south of Durham Station, excess land that the N.C. Department of Transportation greenlighted for development in April. Housing advocates want it set aside for affordable housing. Self-Help, a nonprofit credit union, says that, once it procures Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, it could build 80 to 100 affordable units on that site.

"There's a whole lot of private development around downtown," says Dan Levine, director of business development and project management at Self-Help. "It's important to look for opportunities when affordable housing can happen. It's not going to happen with the free market."

But, as is ever the case with affordable housing, it's not that simple: The state typically only awards tax credits to just one Durham organization per year. This year, two want to apply, Self-Help and the Durham Housing Authority, which is seeking funds for a different project. Without the LITHC money—an $8 million to $9 million subsidy—this affordable housing development will be untenable, Levine says. (The deadline to apply for those tax credits is January, so haste is of the essence.)

And there's also something to be said for the staff-favored alternative: a privately developed mixed-use project that may or may not include what city documents describe as "a limited percentage" of affordable units, depending on the conditions Council imposes, but would align with the city's goal of increasing density and bringing more commercial space downtown.

This option is "likely to yield the greatest overall benefit to Durham residents," Kevin Dick, director of the city's Office of Economic and Workforce Development, wrote in a memo to Council last week.

"There are genuine advantages [to staff's choice]," admits Councilman Steve Schewel, who supports putting affordable units on that parcel. "We need to weigh those against the need for affordable housing."

Those two options—a mixed-use and an all-affordable development—are among five that will be presented to Council. The others are a mixed-income development and selling the land to the highest bidder with either few or no restrictions. Schewel believes Council is most likely to go with one of the first two.

While the allure of another mixed-use project is real, affordable-housing advocates argue that this is a golden opportunity the city shouldn't pass up.

"In Durham, the city time after time gets to see developers propose high-end developments," says Ivan Parra, lead organizer for Durham CAN. "They can't obligate developers to build a certain percentage of those to be affordable."

This case is different, Parra adds: The city owns the land, so the city can call the shots. Unless, of course, it chooses not to.

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