- Durham CAN Facebook
- Candidates for Durham County Board of Commissioners address the CAN crowd.
The pews were full at First Presbyterian Church on Sunday afternoon—though not for a church service. Instead, the standing-room-only crowd was there for a pre-election delegates’ assembly forDurham CAN (Congregations, Associations, and Neighborhoods). It was a chance to hear from a variety of community stakeholders about issues important to the city, as well as from candidates in this Tuesday’s election for Durham County Board of Commissioners.
As Rev. Mark Anthony Middleton of Abundant Hope Church put it: “Durham CAN doesn’t endorse. We don’t have permanent candidates or allies. But we do have permanent issues.”
Three of those issues were discussed Sunday: the lack of youth counseling in Durham Public Schools; affordable housing; and immigrant-police relations.
Two high school students— Laura Salazar of Riverside High School and Faith Jones of Jordan High School—addressed the crowd on the topic of school counseling. It was noted that, while the recommended ratio of students to counselors is 250 to one, in Durham Public Schools it is 350 to one. Salazar said she’d had virtually no guidance about the ACT test prior to taking it—just one twenty-minute conversation with a counselor. She reported that many other Riverside students had been unaware of the deadline for signing up to take the test.
There is also concern among CAN members about the use of ConnectFunds. This money, generated through a sales tax referendum passed in 2011, is meant to help high school students pursue education at Durham Tech. But data reviewed by the Durham County Board of Commissioners has found that the funds aren’t being utilized.
Jones and Salazar called for Durham Public Schools and the superintendent to audit DPS’ counseling system, and to prioritize hiring bilingual counselors for all open and future positions. They also asked that DPS investigate the use of ConnectFunds.
On to affordable housing—the most common menu item at Durham civic meetings these days. Several Durham leaders spoke on the issue. Rev. Clarence Laney, of Monument of Faith Church, said, “Gentrification is real. We can’t leave this conversation on the desk of developers or, as much as we love them, our elected leaders.”
“Housing downtown is simply unaffordable,” Rev. Susan Dunlap, of First Presbyterian Church, said. She relayed a story of an acquaintance whom she had recently heard say, of affordable housing in downtown Durham, “It’s too late”—meaning the developers’ claws were already in too deep for ordinary people to be able to afford to live there.
Dunlap didn’t think so. She explained that Durham still owns several plots of land downtown. That includes:
*Two acres of city-owned land at Jackson and Dillard Streets.
*Two acres of county-owned land right outside the meeting, on the 300 block of East Main Street between First Presbyterian Church and St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church.
*Four acres of county-owned land on the 500 block of East Main Street.
*The Durham Housing Authority also has the option to repurchase Fayette Place, twenty acres of property at Fayetteville and Umstead Streets that is currently owned by a Philadelphia-based company.
“The county can say to a developer, ‘We will sell you the land, but we are also going to require you to build affordable housing,’” Dunlap said. “This land belongs to us. [To the commission]: Don’t give it away without talking to us. We need to make sure downtown isn’t just for rich people, but for all of us.”
“It’s not too late for downtown Durham,” Dunlap concluded. “We have land, we have time—and we have an election.” Big cheers from the crowd.
CAN leaders then lined up all the candidates for the Durham County Commission and asked them if they’d support specific affordable-housing goals. One was that one-hundred percent of the units at the property on the 300 block of East Main Street be affordable (sixty percent below area median income). The other was to require developers interested in the 500 block of East Main Street location to include sixty percent affordable units.
It would have been interesting to see what happened if a candidate said he or she wouldn’t support those goals. But all the candidates said they would.
“It’s imperative we take advantage of the public land we have,” said Heidi Carter, a school board member and commissioner candidate. “If we squander it, it’ll be a monumental mistake.”
The meeting closed with a brief discussion about the erosion of trust between Durham’s immigrant community and local law enforcement. Recent ICE raids have brought on fear among immigrants that interactions with police could result in their deportation. Judith Montenegro, of El Centro Hispano, spoke about issuing “faith IDs,” a concept based on a model developed in Greensboro. The idea is that churches and other community organizations give immigrants a verifiable form of identification that, while not formally accepted by the government, acknowledges that the person is a member of the community. “It can help turn strangers into neighbors,” Montenegro said.
Councilman Steve Schewel read a statement from interim police chief Larry Smith in support of the faith ID concept. That earned a standing ovation from the crowd.
The election is tomorrow. Our endorsements are here.