Faced in 2005 with a high percentage of abandoned local properties and low home ownership rates, the Southwest Central Durham Quality of Life Project (QOL) sought to turn the tide in its six neighborhoods.
With financing from Duke University and management from Self-Help, QOL formed a land bank that has since acquired about 120 dilapidated properties, more than three-quarters of which have been re-developed and sold to local homeowners, all with the feedback and approval of the neighborhoods themselves.
The numbers are impressive. But for Mayme Webb-Bledsoe, Duke Senior Neighborhood Coordinator and QOL Facilitator, the land bank’s true impact is hard to quantify.
“When there’s an opportunity to create a visible change that is concrete, that people can see and touch – it makes this kind of community work more real, and people can own it,” Webb-Bledsoe said. “The land bank has done that.”
Like other land banks, the Southwest Central Durham model allows an organization – Self-Help – to buy targeted neighborhood properties and hold onto them until a plan is in place to develop and re-sell. The process keeps homes affordable and allows for a coordinated neighborhood development plan.
What sets the Southwest Central Durham land bank apart from other models is its approval process: A QOL allocations committee of neighborhood representatives must approve – or deny – each and every proposal to re-develop property in the land bank.
“It’s pretty rare that the neighborhood has a true voice in what’s happening, rather than a situation where the developer, whether profit or nonprofit, says, ‘Yeah, we’ll check in with you,’ but do whatever they want,” said Dan Levine, the Self-Help project manager who coordinates the land bank. “I think it’s given peace of mind to the neighborhood that, even with all the change happening, they can direct that change.”
The Southwest Central Durham land bank builds upon a collaboration between Duke and Self-Help that began in the 1990s, when the two entities worked together to revitalize the Walltown neighborhood near campus.
The land bank has allowed for coordination with other local nonprofit developers, Levine said, rather than a sense of competition in a race to buy up and re-develop local properties. About three-quarters of the land bank’s properties have been sold to developers other than Self-Help – such as Habitat for Humanity of Durham, Builders of Hope, and Durham Community Land Trustees.
The land bank’s impact has caught local attention. Northeast Central Durham recently used it as a model for creating its own land bank, and another local vote of confidence came in the form of a Neighborhood Stabilization Program grant through the City of Durham. The QOL land bank will use the $540,000 of federal stimulus funds over the next two years or so, to buy and develop about a dozen neighborhood homes.
Levine said the grant will be another valuable source of funds for the same good work the land bank has pursued for the past five years.
“There may be a property that’s been a drug house, a hot spot for crime, been burned in a fire – whatever the case, the neighborhood might want something to happen but can’t do it alone,” Levine said. “We’ll hold the property, keep the grass cut, keep it secure, until we and the rest of the neighborhood are at the point where we can move on it.”