Duke’s Office of Durham and Community affairs convened a community conversation on housing in Durham on December 9, 2019 at Lyon Park Community Center. Approximately 75 Durham community members and leaders met to discuss and think critically about Duke’s partnerships in affordable housing availability in Durham. Duke University President Vincent Price and Dr. Stelfanie Williams, Vice President for Durham and Community Affairs were present. Participants gathered for small-group round table discussions. The following three questions were posed to participants at ten discussion tables.
- What has gone well in Duke’s partnerships to address housing?
- What could improve in partnerships to address housing?
- What new ideas are there to for Duke to partner in housing in the future?
The responses from participants at the discussion tables were multifaceted and included a great number of details gleaned from Duke’s history with housing in Durham. In these discussions, several themes emerged.
1. What has gone well in Duke’s partnerships to address housing?
Investments in loan-making and land-banking
The first theme was the effectiveness of the Self-Help partnership, starting in 1994, with a $2 million loan for housing in the Walltown neighborhood and a doubled commitment in 2004. The land bank that was created as a result of Duke’s investment in Self-Help and the Southwest Durham Quality of Life project was lauded by discussion participants as a positive step toward creating and retaining affordable housing. The QOL/Self-Help/Habitat for Humanity/DCLT and Duke collaboration was stated to have stabilized the housing ecosystem in Southwest Central Durham. It was pointed out that the Walltown effort did not result in the gentrification of the neighborhood, and raised the general standard of living in the community.
Positive partnerships with existing projects
In general, participants noted that Duke has been very effective in plugging into developments of housing that were already in place rather than starting from scratch on their own, and those developments have yielded a satisfactory number of newly built affordable homes in the places where plans were laid. In addition, Duke has invested funds in not only building new housing with its partners, but also in providing the resources to repair and maintain current homes, which residents would not have otherwise had the means to do themselves. This has protected the neighborhoods and allowed people to stay in their homes over time.
Supporting financial literacy
Duke’s other partnerships and initiatives—mainly the Homebuyers Club and the collaboration to assist with the Latino Community Credit Union—were mentioned as beneficial outcomes of Duke’s work in the Durham community. In general, the support for financial literacy learning among Durham residents and Duke employees was described as a success. Duke’s flexibility of funds was mentioned as well: the ability to move funds between projects as opportunities arose to support different efforts in the county and city.
It was stated that Duke’s willingness to be involved in these issues makes other organizations and individuals come out to listen and help. There was unanimous agreement that the calling of the very meeting which they were attending was a testament to Duke’s commitment to hearing voices from around the Durham community to improve their investments and overall work with housing.
2. What could improve in partnerships to address housing?
Improving minimum wages
The strongest theme regarding improvements to partnerships concerned the wages of Duke’s employees. The discussions almost all mentioned how the $15 minimum is an improvement but does not keep up with the rising cost of living in the greater Durham area. It was noted that many employees can no longer afford to live downtown or even in Durham County because of high rents and property taxes combined with too-low wages. Participants emphasized the importance of keeping Duke’s workforce local, though acknowledged that hiring outside of the Durham area can be necessary and beneficial to the university. The overall consensus was that hiring locally and paying employees more were potential—and arguably necessary—next steps.
Tied deeply into the issue of wages and ever-increasing property taxes was the problem of some of Duke’s housing efforts sparking gentrification in certain areas around city center. No particular evidence was cited, but the overall impression gleaned from the participants is that this has been and will continue to be a problem. If areas set aside for affordable housing gentrify, residents who cannot pay the higher taxes or rising rents will be pushed out from spaces that were originally intended to be affordable. However, the discussions covered Duke’s ability to leverage its influence among city, county, and community officials to enact policies that might place a limit on new and expensive housing developments. That is not to say that development would be legally restricted, but simply more thought-through by community partners, legislators, and developers. It was mentioned that Duke is in a position to gather these stakeholders and facilitate better communication between them to encourage development, but also keep housing affordable.
Improving public transportation
Issues of public transportation and its effect on housing patterns were addressed by almost every table in the discussion. The termination of the light rail project and thereby the plans for providing housing along the train line were mentioned multiple times. Since rail is no longer an option, participants brought up the importance of building or maintaining affordable housing along bus lines. As housing prices and taxes in Durham County rise, many workers at Duke and in the city are being pushed to live in counties were the taxes are lower. This increases the traffic congestion and commute times of these workers, which takes its toll on infrastructure and increases transportation costs for individuals.
Expanding affordable housing geographically
These discussions transitioned into issues of expanding affordable housing efforts beyond downtown Durham, to places like North Durham, where there are community amenities such as grocery stores and health clinics that are not available in areas that have previously been considered for the development of affordable housing. It was also suggested that Duke consider developing housing on its own land rather than working with land owned or acquired by others. There was some discussion of a development of a Duke-led land trust, as well as Duke approaching private investors about funding for greater housing initiatives. However, the focus was on the above themes and ideas for improvement of partnerships in the future.
Increasing public policy research
There were numerous mentions of doing more public policy research on affordable housing. A “Duke Center for Housing Policy” was proposed at several tables, as well as simply providing more funding for faculty and student efforts in examining housing markets, trends, and policies to better serve the Durham community.
Addressing health system and homelessness
Also addressed was the Duke health system releasing patients without housing upon the completion of their treatment and the problems of homelessness it creates. Tackling problems of homelessness in Durham was mentioned, but more focus was placed on the repercussions of discharging people without stable homes to return to after their treatment. Duke and the health system could improve in its efforts to prevent discharge into homelessness.
Remaining in place for existing residents
A major theme among the participants was not always focused on new development of housing, but aiming to help keep people in their homes, such as subsidies for landlords who are willing to keep their rents low in the long-term and providing forgivable loans for deposits (first and last month’s rent) on new rentals. These costs are often prohibitive for those facing eviction and it is likely that this will result in individuals and families being unable to regain housing. The expansion of financial literacy programs and potential assistance for homeowners fighting rising property taxes were mentioned as well.
3. What new ideas are there to for Duke to partner in housing in the future?
Participants encouraged Duke to be more transparent in the current partnerships in order to entice other partners to join in existing or new initiatives. Documenting the process of collaboration could also be helpful in transparency. A full and systematic review of what has and hasn’t worked in the past three decades could be beneficial in designing how to move forward. Seeking more partners in the community was emphasized: not only organizations but also members of the community to weigh in on the history of their neighborhoods to ensure that current residents are not pushed out by changes.
Adding student and staff housing
The emphasis on keeping people in their current homes as well as funding new development was a consistent theme among the tables, as well as addressing issues of Duke student housing. The participants called attention to the fact that many of the expensive apartments being built around campus are aimed at student tenants with more resources than other Durham residents. Providing more student housing on campus, for both graduate students and undergraduates, could reduce the demand for expensive new apartment complexes, reserving for space for affordable housing. Housing for employees was also brought up as an issue: making homes near campus more affordable so that workers can live close to the university campus rather than commuting from surrounding counties.
Exploring Duke-owned land
Development on Duke-owned land was again addressed, and an emphasis on racial equity in both housing development and selection of partnerships with nonprofit organizations. Duke’s brand is strong and its influence can have significant and real impact in the housing ecosystem.