Durham housing advocates get the transit ‘goal’ they wanted

jwise@newsobserver.comMarch 13, 2014 

— The city, the county, their shared planning department and an ad hoc advocates’ coalition reached a meeting of minds last week about affordable housing near future light-rail stations.

“We got exactly what we wanted,” said Ivan Parra, director of Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods (CAN), a member group in the Ad Hoc Coalition for Affordable Housing.

What the coalition wanted, and got, is the local governments’ commitment to a goal of at least 15 percent of all residences within a half-mile of each station to be affordable to households with incomes less than 60 percent of the area median – and a deadline for getting there.

“I have no problem with it being a goal,” Mayor Bill Bell said. “If you can achieve it you can achieve it, if you can't achieve it you can't.”

The goal won’t be official until the county commissioners and City Council formally approve it later this spring, but it won approval from the commissioners and council members discussing it as the Joint City-County Committee last week.

That approval brought applause from CAN members and other supporters in the audience, some of whom held up signs reading “Affordable Housing Now” and “Affordable Housing at All Transit Stops.”

Community concern

Affordable, or “workforce,” housing near transit stations has been a concern at least since Durham voters approved a half-cent sales tax for bus improvements and a light-rail line from Alston Avenue to UNC Hospitals in 2011.

The City-County Planning Department has had special zoning for each station, effective developer incentives and subsidy funds, on its priority list for more than a year. When a county funding cut threatened its ability to work on the station areas, housing advocates lobbied city and county to restore money and re-emphasize the work’s importance.

In December, the Ad Hoc Coalition gave the City Council a draft resolution setting out the 15 percent goal and several specific steps to achieve it. Last week’s discussion involved around what to adopt from the coalition’s final resolution and what from an alternative the planning department submitted as a response.

Planners planners preferred making 15 percent an overall goal for the 11 planned stations in Durham County, rather than for each one; and Bell and Councilman Eugene Brown balked at the coalition’s three- to five-year timetable for finishing several planning tasks.

“I don’t want to put us in a box,” Bell said, as he and Brown pointed out that money to build the $1.3-billion light-rail line is still an uncertainty.

Reckhow’s recollection

County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, though, pointed out that 15 percent at each station was a stated goal in the special legislation authorizing the transit-tax referendum (S.L. 2009-527, bit.ly/1nhauZY) and making the Durham-Orange project eligible for state money.

She also pointed out and that some of the tasks – a housing inventory and incentive plan among them – have to get done in less that two years to meet an application deadline for the federal New Starts grant program the rail project is depending on.

“There’s no ifs, ands or buts,” Reckhow said. “If we don't do it in two years our application won't be as strong as it could be.”

In the end, the officials settled on leaving 15 percent each in a resolution, and instead of “three to five years” include “as soon as practicable consistent with the criteria for New Starts applications.”

That, Parra said, was “absolutely” a victory.

“It will force them to think outside the box,” he said.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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