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Friday, August 7, 2015

Bill Bell: "That's unacceptable to me as the mayor of this city."

Posted by on Fri, Aug 7, 2015 at 8:16 AM

Here's an affordable apartment! A shed! In the background, the luxury Berkshire Apartments under construction last year. - FILE PHOTO BY LISA SORG
  • File photo by Lisa Sorg
  • Here's an affordable apartment! A shed! In the background, the luxury Berkshire Apartments under construction last year.

Yesterday's City Council agenda looked like a semi-snooze. Yet, you never know what can happen at the work sessions—where the real heavy lifting gets done—so it's always important to show up.

Agenda Item 6 recommended Council approve $77,000 to Enterprise Community Partners for consulting and technical assistance in crafting a holistic affordable housing plan for the city. No fireworks here. Everyone agreed this is a wise use of money, and Enterprise clearly has its act together, having done this work in cities all over the U.S. And Karen Lado, its vice president, lives in Durham.

But it's been clear over the many Council meetings that Mayor Bill Bell is frustrated about the lack of affordable housing, particularly downtown. He (and anyone who's been paying attention) sees condos and apartments 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. Yet not a single unit is affordable for a public school teacher, firefighter, police officer, waiter, parking attendant, and yes, journalist. The Ninth Street District is no better, a new three-bedroom over there going for gulp, $3,000 a month. 

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

The city's Penny for Housing Fund generates about $2.4 million each year. Bell is proposing using part of that money to start a city rent subsidy program to help people and families earning 60 to 80 percent of the area median income afford an apartment downtown. 

This is equivalent to a single-person household earning $28,000–$37,000. Two people earning a total of $32,000–$43,000 would also fall within that range. The program would be similar to that run by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, except the city would control it.

He has asked Enterprise to expand the scope of its work, and thus for more money, to analyze this as another "tool in the toolbox," which as of last week's City Council vote, includes more incentives for developers: If they build a certain amount of affordable apartments/condos, they can provide less parking and build more units than the zoning would otherwise allow. Bell said he is skeptical that these tools will work, "but if they do, great." 

Council is still concerned that this is the best use of affordable housing funds, considering the city-owned land downtown that's ripe for that type of development. Although state statute forbids the city from requiring developers to build affordable units as part of the zoning, the city can place covenants on land it owns in order to compel them to do so. 

What Bell doesn't want is "a conclave of affordable units," in other words, an old-school housing project, a popular method of warehousing the poor in the 1960s–1980s. Lado noted that even within an affordable housing complex, the incomes can be mixed: people in that $28,000-$37,000 range, which would include teachers, for example, all the way to people earning very low incomes, fast food workers, people on Social Security, disability, etc.

The discussion went on for nearly two hours, more details of which I'll write about in the next print edition. But the other major surprise of the afternoon was that Self-Help is considering buying the land between the Durham bus station and Whetstone (which, last time we checked, was no where near affordable, but the company has removed the rents from its website) for 80 new affordable apartments. 

That would help the city add to the stock of affordable housing near transit areas, the bus station and the future light rail stop.

Stay tuned.

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