Those Left Behind: Downtown Durham a Case Study for Questions of Equitable Growth and Prosperity (Part 2)

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Part two of a two-part series on the Downtown Durham Roundtable: A Promise of Progress for All?, a discussion hosted by the Kenan Scholars program and the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at MDC in downtown Durham on Sept. 21.

In our last post, we examined the history of how downtown Durham, North Carolina became one of the hottest destinations for people to live, work and play, and how that makeover is raising questions about economic equity, gentrification and displacement. In this post, we take a look at Durham’s future, and how local government and community leaders are working to address the issues surfaced by Durham’s transformation.

The second panel discussion of Downtown Durham Roundtable: A Promise of Progress for All? featured Durham County Manager Wendell Davis; Vicky Garcia, senior vice president of strategic initiatives and risk management for the Latino Community Credit Union; Michael Palmer, director of community relations for Self-Help Credit Union; Durham Mayor Steve Schewel; and Anthony Scott, president and CEO of the Durham Housing Authority.

The panel referenced some sobering statistics.  Although Durham’s median per capita income is one of the highest in the state, its poverty rate is 18 percent overall, and even higher in certain areas.  In Durham’s public housing communities, the average unemployment rate is 68 percent. The average apartment rental rate is $1,100 a month, while the maximum recommended rental expense for an individual making the “living wage” rate of $15 an hour is only $800 a month.

So what can Durham do to ensure that all segments of its population can prosper? The panelists had several ideas.

Both Wendell Davis and Michael Palmer stressed education as key. Davis positioned Durham’s growth issues as a human capital concern, saying “I believe the single most important way to address those issues is to ensure that anyone can get a good education.” Citing Durham’s highly qualified employee pool as a draw for many companies, Palmer emphasized that fostering local talent starts by investing in education.

Other panelists described how the city is already working to address issues of equity and affordability. Anthony Scott discussed the Durham Housing Authority’s plan to develop city-owned properties into mixed-use, mixed-income communities. “What Durham becomes in the next five years really depends on how we address–and in fact, attack–this affordable housing question,” he said.

Mayor Steve Schewel described affordable housing as “job number one” for Durham. A joint project is currently in the works between the city, Duke University and private developers to construct 82 new units of affordable housing near the Durham Transit Station. Unfortunately, said Schewel, such new construction is expensive.

Another initiative Schewel and Davis discussed was the light rail project between Durham and Chapel Hill. The 17.7-mile, 18-station rail system would run from North Carolina Central University to UNC-Chapel Hill. “This light rail system,” said Davis, “is the most transformative thing that can happen to this community for the next 100 years.”

The face of that community is changing. Durham’s Latinos constitute only 14 percent of the city’s overall population, but 30 percent of the students in its public schools. Bringing Latinos into the conversation is critical, said Vicky Garcia, but language and stereotypes make that integration difficult, as does many Latinos’ unfamiliarity with American systems. For example, said Garcia, community meetings are a new concept to many Latinos. “You have to explain and help us [navigate],” she said. “We need some handholding.”

The panelists all agreed that Durham’s future success depends upon building trust among its various constituencies. “We need to be intentional about setting up critical engagement strategies,” said Scott. Quoting author and educator Stephen Covey, he said, “The speed of change is consistent with the speed of trust.”

For more on the Kenan Scholars Program, visit the website. To see a full schedule of Kenan Institute events, click here.