Six Months After Becoming Durham’s Mayor, Steve Schewel Has a Lot to Say | News Feature | Indy Week

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Six Months After Becoming Durham’s Mayor, Steve Schewel Has a Lot to Say

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It's been six months since Steve Schewel was sworn in as mayor of Durham, laying out a vision of the Bull City "as a progressive beacon for the South and the nation." In a long, wide-ranging, occasionally wonky interview—Schewel is nothing if not verbose, particularly on subjects he cares about—the INDY asked him what it's like being covered by the paper he founded, the council's controversial statement against police exchanges, and leading a growing, liberal city in the age of Trump and under a Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Below is a condensed version of our interview, edited for space and clarity and organized into nine subjects.

Durham's city council, with its majority of working moms of color, has been touted as one of the most progressive in the South. We asked Schewel about the potential of that group, given its limitations under the much more conservative General Assembly. In his answer, he discusses steps the city has taken to provide identification cards for undocumented immigrants, efforts to keep those busted for possession of marijuana out of the court system, and a program that provides grants to homeowners in three gentrifying neighborhoods to cover their rising tax bills.

Let me start with the things we would love to do.

We would love to have gun control that is meaningful. We would love to have municipal broadband. We would love to have environmental regulation that really protected our water supply as opposed to what the legislature will let us do. We would love to have inclusionary zoning.

There are so many things that are hidden that no one even sees that are just little ways in which the legislature is constantly attacking us.

But there is still a ton we can do, and I think a lot of it is in what I think of as these Durham workarounds. The faith ID is nothing but a Durham workaround. The way in which our chief is handling body-camera footage: Durham workaround. The misdemeanor diversion court is a Durham workaround of the marijuana laws. The tax-grant program we're doing for the three neighborhoods is a Durham workaround of the state's tax laws.

We can do a lot of that. It makes it much harder for us. It makes it much more cumbersome. But if we're going to be the progressive city that we want to be, we have to take advantage of the opportunities we have for that.

After Immigration and Customs Enforcement took twenty-five people into custody in the Triangle during one week last month, Schewel said he condemned the arrests "in the strongest possible terms." We asked Schewel if he was concerned that speaking out against ICE would cause blowback for Durham.

I used to be more concerned about that than I am now, and here's why: I used to think that Durham could fly under the ICE radar, and now I know we can't. ICE is active here. We're not drawing them here by making a strong statement against them. I believe that ICE is here and that whatever we do in terms of speaking against them—and I believe that we should speak strongly against them—whatever we do, I believe they will be here, and they will be active here.

I do think that part of the reason that [Clarence Birkhead] won [the primary for Durham County sheriff] was over the issue of the ICE detainers. I do think that the immigrant community has been very concerned about and opposed to the ICE detainers. By Clarence's pledge not to continue those, and assuming that that happens—which I believe it will—I think that will improve relations [with the immigrant community]. I do support that change.

The Durham Police Department stopped fourteen thousand fewer drivers in 2017 than it did in 2013, the year before the agency began requiring officers to get a person's written consent to search a vehicle without a warrant. Black drivers accounted for about 60 percent of that reduction, but they're still being disproportionately stopped and searched by Durham police. We asked Schewel what the city should do to address those disparities.

Can I emphasize the first part first? Because I think it's a big, big story, and I don't think it's really been told the way it ought to be by you or anybody else.

But, true, we still have racial disparities in our stops and searches. And we have to continue to reduce those disparities. I feel like that will be happening. I feel like [Police Chief C.J. Davis] will be paying a lot of attention to that.

We've also reduced the disparity, as well. So take a look at that. In other words, I know it can be done. We have to make sure that our police officers are never targeting anyone and that they're never discriminating. And, I think, again, that's something that you have to imbue in the culture of the police department.

I don't think there's any magic to it. But I think that the racial-equity training that our officers are getting now, the crisis-intervention training that they're getting, the de-escalation training that they're getting—and de-escalation goes along with procedural justice, the idea that people are treated fairly and feel like they're treated fairly by a police officer in that encounter—all those things are going to contribute to our ability to continue on this trend.

Twenty people a day are moving to Durham, many of whom want to live in the historically black neighborhoods ringing downtown. We asked Schewel how the city can increase its density to accommodate this demand for housing without destroying those neighborhoods.

First of all, we are densifying, right? But we're densifying for people who can afford it.

There's another way that we can incentivize density that will be helpful for people who are low-income. One is the [Old West Durham neighborhood protection ordinance] that we passed the other night. It's very rare among NPOs because, not only does it include accessory dwelling units, it encourages them.

There's a second aspect of this densification, which has to do with what's called "missing-middle housing." And missing middle includes triplexes, quads, townhomes, tiny homes. ADUs would be included in that as well. We should be allowing missing-middle housing to be built by-right according to design standards that make sure that that missing-middle housing is compatible with the scale of the neighborhood housing. We can do that, and our planning department is now just beginning to work on that. I'm very excited about that.

Another issue with our ability to maintain affordability in near-downtown neighborhoods is our affordable housing developers' inability to act quickly when there is a property that's for sale. This is where I think our housing trust fund, our affordable housing loan fund, will come into play. What that is about is to raise a pot of money—I would love to see twenty million in the fund—that would be available for low-interest loans for our affordable-housing developers to be able to move quickly. That money would be housed there, and then all you would have to vet was the project. You wouldn't have to vet the organization. They would be pre-vetted.

I don't know exactly the amount that we will be able to hit at the beginning, but I'm very hopeful we'll be able to, in the next year or so, have a trust fund with money in the bank and able to act.

Last year, nearly ten thousand evictions were filed in Durham County, down from about fifteen thousand during the recession. We asked what the city's role should be in addressing evictions.

We should provide legal assistance. The county should be providing the emergency rental assistance, because the county does it already. They already do a lot of that, and there's some more needed. It's not what we do. And, you know, one of the things is that the county needs to help step up on these things as well. We need to be in this, fighting these evictions together.

There are more eviction filings per day than there are people moving to Durham per day. I've heard this called an eviction crisis. I almost never use the word crisis, because I think very few things really are a crisis. But I would say that, when you have that level of eviction, crisis is appropriate.

I am convinced that we can change that. There are places that have changed it, and I think providing emergency rental assistance and more lawyers to represent these people in eviction court can make an enormous difference.

Last month, the city council passed a resolution opposing "international exchanges with any country in which Durham officers receive military-style training" that included a quote from Chief Davis stating her agency is not and will specifically not participate in such exchanges with Israel. The resolution was prompted by a petition from a group called Demilitarize from Durham2Palestine, which wanted the city's police force to disassociate itself from Israeli security forces. Council members—including Schewel, who is Jewish—have been criticized for the vote and called anti-Semitic. We asked Schewel how the resolution came together and whether it was worth the controversy, considering the fact that the exchanges aren't actually happening.

Schewel at his election-night victory party at Pompieri Pizza - PHOTO BY JENNY WARBURG
  • Photo by Jenny Warburg
  • Schewel at his election-night victory party at Pompieri Pizza

Just today I've had a meeting with members of the Jewish community who were feeling vulnerable and concerned about the vote and feeling like the anti-Semitic posters that have come up in town again have contributed to that. I'm acutely aware of the fact that this was very controversial and that it stirred up a lot of emotions. I get that.

There was a petition during the election. All of my colleagues except for myself signed the petition. So there was a lot of impetus to act on that. The groups who had circulated the petition came to us. [City manager Tom Bonfield] said, 'I'll talk to the chief. And what I think would be good is, let the chief issue a statement, and you all can respond.'

That's what we did. [Chief Davis] issued a statement. We responded. So I think the impetus is really more around, from the council's point of view, the kind of policing that we want.

I don't expect this level of vitriol very often, but I also know it can happen. I try to figure out how to do the right thing and not worry too much about that. But we certainly could've taken a path that was less controversial.

Last month, the INDY reported that state funding for the Durham-Orange Light Rail line could fall $63 million short of what GoTriangle had requested. While that number has been questioned and is within what the agency budgeted for contingency, any gap would come on top of another $102.5 million a public-private partnership is trying to raise. We asked Schewel how funding for the project is shaping up.

Think of a pie, you know, a two-point-five-billion-dollar pie. Half of it is federal money that comes at the end of the rainbow.

Between us and Orange County, and mostly Durham—by far, mostly Durham—we are doing around nine hundred and fifty million in local sales tax, which you've already passed.

Then the other big pieces of that pie that we need are—two hundred and forty-eight million is the maximum state money, and about one hundred and two million in private funds or other donated funds. Not all private. So those are the two big pieces.

I think about forty or fifty million of that will come in right-of-way donations. So we've got to raise another fifty million. We have a wonderful group of people who are working on raising that. It's in the beginning stages, and that needs to happen by the end of the year.

One of the ways you can fill that hole is value engineering, as it's known. You can reduce the cost of the line. But that means making the line less attractive to ride. And so we don't want to do that if we can help it.

We've got a really tight deadline because we want to get the full funding grant in 2019 now. So this is crunch time, and I'm hopeful. I mean, it's far from a done deal, but I think we can get it done.

Among the priorities the city council conveyed to Durham's legislative delegates is a change to a state law shielding police body-camera footage from the public. Schewel said the current law leaves the decision to release footage "all in the hands of the police chief." We asked him about his thoughts as a former journalist on that law, as well as the city's other legislative priorities.

My understanding is that there is some sentiment in both parties—definitely among the Democrats, but also among some Republicans in the legislature—that city managers and city councils ought to have the ability to view and release that body-camera footage. Now you can do it, but you have to go to Superior Court. And that's a really high barrier. That's a bad policy. I hope we can make some progress on the body-camera part of that and the dash-cam footage, but I don't know that we can.

We discussed a piece of local legislation that I think is really—it's very small and minor. It won't be controversial, but I think it's important. And that is the ability for Durham Public Schools to transfer land to CASA, our nonprofit housing developer, to [develop] teacher housing at the corner of [N.C. Highways 54 and 55].

The second thing that we talked about was net neutrality. [State Senator] Mike Woodard is actually working on it with another senator. They feel like there's a lot of potential for an alliance with rural people, because net neutrality is actually as big an issue in rural areas as it is in urban.

Schewel founded the INDY in 1983 and sold it in 2012, and even though no one on the current editorial staff worked here while he owned the paper, the fact that he did can make covering him a little awkward. We wondered if he felt the same way.

It is strange. Because, you know, I'm so attached to the paper. Always will be. I have so many hopes and dreams for the INDY. I read it every week. I don't read every single story, but I read it every week. And I'm very supportive of what you all are trying to do. [But] it can feel a little odd at times.

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