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Durham residents press for affordable housing downtown

A crowd packed into a Durham City Council work session on Thursday to call for affordable housing downtown.

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DURHAM, N.C. — A crowd packed into a Durham City Council work session on Thursday to call for affordable housing downtown.

City staff presented information to the council that recommended developing 2 acres of vacant land that the city owns at Willard and Jackson streets into a mix of commercial and residential space that could tie into a nearby transit station.

Residents said 85 to 100 affordable apartments should be put on the site, and many held up signs expressing frustration with the high cost of living downtown, where rents often top $1,000 a month.

"Our downtown is quickly becoming an affordable housing desert," said Bishop Clarence Laney of Monument of Faith Church, who is co-chairman of Durham CAN, a collection of religious congregations and neighborhood groups that pushes for social change.

Herbert Reynolds Davis of Durham CAN said downtown Durham has no affordable housing units, "and there are zero in the developmental pipeline.

"So, what are we asking for?" Davis said. "Simply for working families to be able to benefit from downtown Durham."

Although city staff voiced support of affordable housing, they said they couldn't guarantee it as part of a mixed-use project. Mayor Bill Bell went further, saying he has strong reservations about the affordable housing idea.

"I'm not interested personally in putting any of the city's money in strictly affordable housing that's packing poor people into one area," Bell said. "Maybe I shouldn't use the word poor – in packing families below the median income."

The Durham Housing Authority already works on affordable housing projects, the mayor said.

Advocates said Bell has the wrong idea of what they mean by affordable, noting many teachers, nurses and police officers can't afford to live downtown.

"(They) have helped make downtown the community that it is now that we all love. How do we house those (people)?" said Dan Levine, director of business development for Self-Help Credit Union.

City staff proposed a five-month timeline to complete the project's bidding process.


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