The Durham City Council voted Monday to sideline a program that would have extended loans to Durham homeowners
suffering from the increased taxes that come with higher property valuations.
Instead, on a 4–3 vote, the council approved a proposal from council member Steve Schewel to give residents of the Southside neighborhood grants for the difference in their 2016 tax bill while the city develops a more comprehensive housing stabilization strategy.
“I am in strong support of figuring out a comprehensive, efficient, equitable, and cost-effective program to keep our low-income homeowners in their homes, and I know that is a goal that all of my colleagues share,” Schewel said. “After a lot of reflection, I don’t think the program in front of us tonight is the best we can do.”
Mayor Bill Bell, Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden, and council member Eddie Davis voted against Schewel’s proposal. Bell said he believes the program drawn up by city administrators was the city’s best bet.
“I think we have a program that's sound, that’s sound fiscally, that's sound legally and will work, and it's not something that is gonna cause a burden on those property owners who choose to participate,” Bell said.
Council member Don Moffitt expressed concern about the city giving loans to people who are already economically burdened, adding that the cost of administering the loans would be very high compared to the amounts of money being loaned.
Bell countered that the loans have zero interest and would only need to be repaid if the property is sold, saying that it’s only fair the city get back what it invested.
"From my perspective, what we're talking about is fairness. We're not talking about what's equitable, we're not talking about what's equal. We're talking about what's fairness," Bell said.
Camillia Foust, president of the Southside Neighborhood Association, worried that a loan would pass the burden on to her children. She said other homeowners, who are mostly seniors on fixed incomes, share similar concerns.
Council member Charlie Reece said the city staff’s proposal would saddle Southside homeowners with debt instead of providing actual tax relief.
“I simply don’t understand the rationale of providing city funds to all sorts of private entities for a perceived economic benefit while being unwilling to extend the same type of public investment in some of our most longstanding Durham residents who have made incredibly deep and lasting contributions to our community," Reece said.
Jim Svara, with the Coalition of Affordable Housing and Transit, urged the council to vote against the loan proposal, arguing the parameters for eligibility were unfair. Under the city’s proposal, the property had to be located in a neighborhood that saw property values increase as a result of city investment, while also being within five hundred feet of an area where the city has made a direct investment.
"There are lots of cases of people that are close to those boundaries, and they don't get assistance," Svara said. "But let's recognize that the changes the city has made downtown and throughout the city have impacted the property values that homeowners have, and in areas that were formerly low-income, these gentrifying forces are pushing up property values and pushing up the tax burden, and this is a destabilizing force."
Bell voiced concern that Schewel’s proposal has not been properly vetted and fails to take into account residents of Northeast Central Durham who would have been covered under the city’s loan program.
Schewel, who is running to replace Bell as mayor, said Southside has seen a massive infusion of city investment that has created more gentrification than in other areas, rendering that area in need of more immediate relief.
"I think that anyone that raises the fact that we only did this for one neighborhood is certainly raising an important point, and we need to expand what we do, but we need to do it well,” Schewel told the INDY
Tuesday. “I don't think what we had last night was good enough.”