Is Durham’s affordable-housing punt an epic fail? | Triangulator | Indy Week
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Is Durham’s affordable-housing punt an epic fail? 

The Durham Station

File photo by Jeremy M. Lange

The Durham Station

Last week in this space, we wondered whether the Durham City Council would jump on an affordable housing project—specifically, city-owned land adjacent to Durham Station on which Self-Help wants to erect 80–100 units for lower-income workers—or opt instead for a private mixed-use development, as city staff recommended. (This recommendation, it's worth noting, came even though the city's explicit goal is to have 15 percent of the units around Durham Station and other transit hubs affordable for those who earn less than 60 percent of the city's median income—up to about $40,000—and currently none are.)

In the end, at its Thursday afternoon work session, Council punted.

Or rather, in more-precise bureaucratese, Council declined to fast-track its request-for-proposals process to enable Low-Income Housing Tax Credits next year. Instead it is going to let the bidding occur organically; city staff said they would bring the proposed RFP, outlining what the city envisions, back to Council at its next work session, Sept. 24.

It's possible that RFP will have an affordable-housing component. It is highly unlikely that affordable housing will comprise all of it. And even if it did, it would be impossible for Self-Help, should its bid prevail, to meet the Jan. 15 application deadline for LIHTC.

The more likely scenario is that staff crafts an RFP for a mixed-use development, which aligns nicely with the city's goal of increasing density around its transit hubs. From there, it will be up to Council to either go along or push for affordable housing in 2017.

Whatever they choose, however, they're not going to choose it quickly.

As Mayor Bill Bell told Council, 'This property ain't going nowhere. ... It's ours."

But that, Councilman Steve Schewel countered, was exactly the point: For affordable housing to be viable downtown, a developer would need both the LIHTC funds—about $8 million to $9 million—and city-donated land. In this case, the city had the land and had a developer willing to apply for tax credits.

"I just truly believe that if we don't use public land downtown for affordable housing, if we don't use that, it will be an absolutely epic failure," Schewel told Council.

Bell didn't just object to the timing. The mayor also made clear that he would not support an all-affordable development here or anywhere else. "I'm not interested personally in the city using this scarce resource for building strictly low-income housing," he said. Doing so, he argued, would "warehouse" the poor, leading to a situation like the notorious Cabrini-Green project in Chicago. (There's a case to be made for scattering subsidized housing, but this isn't a great analogy: Cabrini-Green was public housing; Self-Help's proposal was aimed not at the very poor, but at the working class.)

Bell argued that this conversation was in fact an argument in favor of his rental-assistance program, proposed last month, which would subsidize downtown rents for those earning between 60 and 80 percent of the median income, drawing on the city's one-cent property tax dedicated to affordable housing.

"I hope nobody walks out of this room and says the mayor is against affordable housing in downtown Durham," Bell told the packed house of affordable-housing supporters.

The three other Council members opposing the fast-track made similar commitments: They want affordable housing, but they want to do it right. And if they rush, they might not do it right.

Which is a perfectly logical argument. But if you're an affordable-housing advocate who's seen city officials make promises galore, you'd be forgiven for wondering when the action is going to catch up to the talk.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The kids are all right (if they vote)"

Reach the INDY's Triangulator team at

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