Mayor Bill Bell Has Overseen a Bull City Renaissance. So Why Has Durham’s Poverty Rate Gone Up on His Watch? | News Feature | Indy Week
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Mayor Bill Bell Has Overseen a Bull City Renaissance. So Why Has Durham’s Poverty Rate Gone Up on His Watch? 

Durham Mayor Bill Bell

Photo by Alex Boerner

Durham Mayor Bill Bell

In the spring of 2001, Bill Bell boarded a bus destined for some of Durham's struggling neighborhoods. The soon-to-be mayor rode past West End streets that had all the infrastructure for houses, yet remained full of vacant lots. He passed the former site of the Few Gardens housing complex, where, while Bell served as a Durham County commissioner, a two-year-old girl had been killed in a drive-by shooting.  

"What I saw was the need for a large-scale neighborhood revitalization. It didn't mean going in and repairing housing one at a time," Bell recalls. "To me, it was almost like a barrel of apples. You can have some good apples. Put a bad apple in a barrel, pretty soon the whole barrel becomes affected."

In his sixteen years at the city's helm, an era that will end in December, Bell has taken aim at the sort of endemic poverty he viewed on the bus tour. During his 2003 State of the City address, Bell announced the first target of a sweeping effort to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods: Northeast Central Durham, especially Barnes Avenue, a residential area across from the former Few Gardens. He stressed the need to replace dilapidated homes with new, affordable ones, reduce crime, and attract businesses.

In that same speech, Bell also described the beginnings of a different revitalization project. He cheered the fact that renovations had "kicked off" at the American Tobacco campus, a sprawling complex that had been the heart of Durham's once-thriving manufacturing industry until it closed in 1987.

Since Bell took office, Durham's downtown has seen a stunning renaissance. According to data compiled by Downtown Durham Inc., since December 2001, when Bell was sworn in, $1.7 billion in public and private investments have flooded the 0.8-square-mile area in the form of tech start-ups, world-class restaurants, and trendy hotels. Downtown will add thirteen hundred new housing units in the next few years—ten times the number of units that existed in 1995. Many have already been snatched up.

In short, downtown Durham has gone from a place to be avoided to a place to be celebrated: the tastiest town in the South, the number one housing market in the U.S., America's fifth geekiest city, to name a few recent accolades.

But while Bell would deliver his 2004 State of the City speech from American Tobacco's Fowler Building, he wouldn't announce the completion of Eastway Village, as the Barnes Avenue affordable housing development would be known, until 2010. And today, fourteen years after Bell identified it as a priority, Northeast Central Durham remains ground zero of the city's poverty-reduction efforts.

"This is unlike anything else I think we have done," Bell says. "When we talk about the revitalization of downtown Durham, we knew what the goals were—to readapt the tobacco factories into places that are livable, for jobs, etcetera—and you knew after a certain period of time if that has been accomplished. Poverty is different. To me, it's an ongoing effort. It's not suddenly that this number of people have risen out of poverty and you can say goal accomplished."

Despite these efforts, the city's poverty rate ticked up from 15 percent in 2000 to 19.2 percent in 2015—more than forty-five thousand residents living at or below the poverty line, which in 2015 meant an annual income of $24,036 for a family of four. Lost in this figure are the massive disparities from neighborhood to neighborhood. While some parts of Durham have single-digit and even less-than-1-percent poverty rates, in other neighborhoods, half the residents struggle to make ends meet.

And so, as the seventy-six-year-old Bell enters the final months of his final term, the city is grappling with this dichotomy of simultaneously being a "best place to live" and a locale that is out of reach for so many. Bell will doubtless be remembered for his leadership in transforming downtown. But for those who didn't share in that growth, the past sixteen years are perhaps better summed up by the fact that poverty rates in some neighborhoods have more than doubled.

Put simply, the poor are being pushed outward—north and east, specifically—from a flourishing downtown, says Melissa Norton, a senior researcher at Duke who studies gentrification in Durham.

"Over the past fifty years, poverty has been, in terms of density, very much concentrated in the central city, in particular the south and eastern sides of downtown," she says. "What we're seeing right now is a lot of dynamic change in the central city and the geography of poverty." Thus, she continues, a situation exists in which poverty is "massively concentrated in certain parts of the city, and there are certain parts of the city where you're really insulated from having to see real poverty."


In many ways, this story begins with Durham's incorporation in 1869. From the outset, a divide existed between the wealthy landowners who built the city's textile and tobacco factories and the people who worked in them. Those at the top accumulated wealth through their businesses and assets, while those at the bottom lived paycheck to paycheck.

"If you multiply that over one hundred and fifty years, you have some sense of why, say, in terms of housing, how hard it was for people who made really minimal wages," says Robert Korstad, a history and public policy professor at Duke University.

When Durham's factories began their slow decline in the 1950s and manufacturing jobs moved to other North Carolina cities, it was easier for the laid-off white workers to find new jobs. Segregation, discrimination, and policies like redlining, in which banks refused to give loans in black neighborhoods, reinforced the divide between working-class blacks and whites. Areas redlined by the Home Owners' Loan Corporation in 1937—including Hayti, Northeast Central Durham, and West End—still have some of the highest rates of poverty and lowest homeownership rates in Durham.

click to enlarge Source: U.S. Census Bureau. Graphic by Shan Stumpf - @2017 MAPS FOR NEWS, HERE
  • @2017 Maps for News, Here
  • Source: U.S. Census Bureau. Graphic by Shan Stumpf

Other than the shutdown of Durham's factories, perhaps no single event has had as much of an impact on shaping the city's economic landscape as the construction of the Durham Freeway. Beginning in the late 1950s, scores of homes and largely black-owned businesses were torn down to make way for N.C. 147, chopping existing communities with concrete and separating those residents from the growth that prompted their removal.

Along with the Durham Freeway came urban renewal, a program in which cities nationwide were given federal money to clear so-called blighted areas. In Durham, many of the demolished structures were never replaced; black residents were often displaced into inner-city, low-cost apartments and public housing, and many white residents retreated to the suburbs.

If you ask Bell, downtown Durham's revitalization began with the 1981 opening of Brightleaf Square—former tobacco warehouses renovated for restaurants and retail—and the construction of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 1995. But little was taking place besides those projects.

"There was no life in terms of people, no life in terms of the building structure," Bell says.

With the reopening of American Tobacco in 2004 came a surge of investment in office space, tech start-ups, and restaurants—and new, better educated, wealthier residents who wanted to live within walking distance of it all.

  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Downtown Durham

"What we've seen in the last ten years is Durham really position itself as a winner in this new economy," Norton says. "You have to be really educated to take part in that economy."

It's a transformation that has made Durham North Carolina's "hippest" city in the eyes of Vogue magazine and the "Silicon Valley of the South." But it's also left portions of the Bull City's population in the dust. The city's poverty rate is higher than that of the state (17.4 percent) and the country (13.5 percent). And according to census data, 48.7 percent of Durham residents living below poverty level are black.

"We're building for the whiter, richer new people that are moving to town," says Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson. "We're not building grocery stores and pharmacies and banks in east Durham, and that's what we need to be building."


On a sweltering Thursday afternoon in downtown Durham, those braving the heat outside seem only to be in transit, rushing from one place to another. They're pouring out of the county human services complexes near Dillard Street, waiting in the shade for buses, relishing that first kiss of air-conditioning after walking through the doors of The Parlour ice cream shop on Market Street.

There's a hum of trucks idling, bass and reggaeton bumping from cars at stoplights, the tinny thud of construction workers banging on metal, a lone trombonist in the parking lot of St. Philip's Episcopal Church. In the rare quiet moment, one can detect a slow, low whir, like an elevator steadily ascending. It's a crane, periodically rotating atop the under-construction One City Center, a twenty-seven-story tower of retail, office, and apartment space being built at the corner of Main and Corcoran. Half a mile down Main Street, construction continues on a new $71 million police headquarters, a gray behemoth that, for now, seems to mark the edge of downtown development.

The Golden Belt and Cleveland-Holloway neighborhoods are on the front lines of this outward push from downtown.

With development looming, Golden Belt residents in 2010 lobbied the city council to designate the area a local historic district. Much of the area had already been listed in the National Register of Historic Places before the district was approved last year, creating another layer of approval for demolition, construction, or modification.

Like downtown, Golden Belt's roots lie in the city's manufacturing heyday, taking its name from the Golden Belt Manufacturing Co., which initially made cotton tobacco bags. The warehouses reopened in 2008 with lofts, artist space, and retail. Scientific Properties, which bought most of the factory in 2006, has also rehabbed several of the remaining mill houses, along with Habitat for Humanity.

"These were boarded-up houses," says DeDreana Freeman, president of the Golden Belt neighborhood association and InterNeighborhood Council of Durham. When Freeman moved into her Worth Street home in 2007, she says, the house next door was leaning and had to be propped up. "The revitalization that happened—you could call it gentrification if Habitat hadn't gotten involved and some of the homeowners hadn't stayed," she says.

click to enlarge DeDreana Freeman, president of the Golden Belt neighborhood association. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • DeDreana Freeman, president of the Golden Belt neighborhood association.

Contrast that with the nearby Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood, where intense investor activity pushed home prices up by 490 percent from 2005–15, according to a real estate analysis by Norton. In a presentation called "The Big 'G': Gentrification and the Dynamics of Neighborhood Change," she says this neighborhood was the "most shocking" of the six she studied.

Tammi Brooks, president-elect of the Durham Regional Association of Realtors, says Durham real estate prices "are on this sort of upward escalator right now." While Cleveland-Holloway (along with Old East Durham, Old North Durham, Duke Park, and Forest Hills) is experiencing high demand, "we're seeing a lot of pressure in all neighborhoods."

"People are pouring in here, and the dynamic that's mainly driving gentrification is demand," says Steve Schewel, who has lived in Durham for more than forty years and served on its city council since 2011. (Disclosure: Schewel founded the Independent Weekly in 1983; he sold the publication in 2012.)

According to a 2015 report by Enterprise Community Partners Inc., which studied the city's housing stock, from 2000–11, median rents in Durham went up by 22 percent and median home values by 42 percent. The result has been an affordable housing crisis.

According to the Enterprise report, there were forty-two thousand low-income households in Durham in 2013, meaning they earn 80 percent or less of the area's median income of $73,300 for a family of four. The same report identified 6,100 income-restricted, subsidized homes in Durham, 1,240 of which could exit affordability agreements by 2021.

The situation is particularly dire for extremely low-income residents, who earn 30 percent or less of the area median income, or just $21,990 for a family of four. According to Enterprise, for every hundred very low-income households (of which there are about twelve thousand in Durham), just thirty-eight affordable units are available.

The city has dedicated one penny of its 56.07-cent property tax rate to affordable housing, generating $12.5 million since 2013. But as city manager Tom Bonfield has put it, "there's not enough money to solve the city's affordable housing problem."

"We're adding another penny to the housing fund this year. We need like five to even start making a dent," Johnson says. "We're just really in a difficult situation, and I think that a big part of the reason for that is that the forward thinking that happened was around how to make development happen. It wasn't about how economic development is going to affect the low-income people in these neighborhoods going forward."


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