Finding Home in the Bull City

Bob Korstad

Standing before the Senate Finance Committee on Aug. 1, Senator Ron Wyden, D-OR., called the housing crisis in the United States a five alarm fire. “Our country’s housing policy needs an urgent remodel,” he said. “Today millions of Americans struggle to pay the rent, and they can’t even dream of purchasing a home.”

Across the nation nearly 39 million households are “housing burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, according to a 2015 report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard. If current trends continue, by 2025 nearly 15 million Americans will be paying over 50 percent of their income on housing.

This national crisis is also happening right here in Durham.

Since 2001, $1.7 billion in private and public investments have been made in Durham, North Carolina, an Indy Week report from 2017 shows. This boom in economic development is visibly marked by the establishment of new restaurants, the influx of commercial businesses and the creation of high-rise residential apartments. However, the large investment and growth have not benefitted the city’s poorest residents. During the same period, the city’s poverty rate also rose from 15 percent to 19.4 percent.

This unequal growth has impacted where people are able to find home in Durham. Enterprise Community Partners Inc. reported that median rents in the city have increased by 22 percent, and median home values by 42 percent. The rising cost of housing has displaced low-income long term residents of the city by a process traditionally referred to as gentrification.

Gentrification, a process driven by migration and one that results in displacement, is creating what Duke University professor Bob Korstad calls the story of two Durhams. One Durham, he says, is upwardly mobile, affluent and predominantly white. The other is predominantly black and hispanic with high rates of poverty, low rates of educational attainment, and limited employment opportunities.

Korstad, a professor of public policy and history, said that it is time for Durham, as it approaches its 150 year anniversary, to have a reckoning with this increasing inequality. In late September, Trey Walk of Duke Political Review sat down with Korstad to discuss the housing crisis, the Bull City 150 project, and why he believes history can help create better policy solutions.

Bull City 150: Reckoning with Durham’s Past to Build a More Equitable Future” is a project initiated by Korstad and hosted by the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Cook Center for Social Equity. Its purpose is to actively engage the Duke and Durham communities with the history of inequality in Durham. The project looks critically at the history of several issues – housing, education, health care, criminal justice, employment, municipal services, and politics – to better understand the root causes of contemporary inequality in these areas.

The first exhibit, “Uneven Ground,” has been on display the third friday of every month at MDC downtown, telling Durham’s history of housing inequality. Korstad said the team of researchers and local activists created the exhibit for the local community and people who are most impacted by these issues. The exhibit is especially timely, given that housing and gentrification are at the forefront of the current Durham municipal elections.

“I hope that people who see [the exhibit] have a better understanding of why affordable housing is such a challenge and where the lack of affordability comes from,” Korstad said.

Korstad also said the exhibit team hopes to provide elected officials, housing advocates and community members historical insight into this pressing challenge.

Although gentrification and the affordable housing crisis plague the nation, solutions are possible here locally.

“Maybe [Durham] has the chance to do something that most communities can’t – and that really is one of the ambitions of Bull City 150. We think this is a city that has the capacity to make a serious effort to deal with housing disparities.”

He noted that Durham is a relatively progressive city based on polling and that the city has access to financial resources that will be useful in facing these challenges. Korstad also said the city is home to several progressive grassroots organizations leading the fight for a fairer Durham.

Duke University is implicated in Durham’s history of housing inequality, Korstad said. He pointed to the building of the once whites-only faculty suburb Duke Forest, the investment in revitalizing the downtown area, and the university’s role as the largest employer and a major landowner in the city as factors that implicate the university in the city’s inequality. Duke’s ability to aggregate and ease Durham’s challenges is one of the reasons Korstad believes students’ knowledge of Durham should not be limited to its trendy restaurants and clubs.

“[Duke students] have a responsibility to get to know their neighbors, and to get to know the challenges that people are facing,” said Korstad, who teaches a public policy course called “What’s Up Durham?” where students learn about current issues facing the city.

“[Durham] is a place to learn about the issues and the challenges that America is facing; every urban area is facing a lot of the same challenges as Durham. If you’re going out in the world to work on public policy or business or medicine or nonprofits, you somehow will be impacted by these issues. Why not take advantage of four years here to take classes, do volunteer work, and do research to engage you in this particular place?” he said.

As the Bull City turns 150 years old in 2019, many will take this moment to reflect on the past. Korstad and the project team hope to lead the city in a difficult conversation that both celebrates and looks critically at Durham’s history, to determine where the city should go from here.

The exhibit, “Uneven Ground: The Foundations of Housing Inequality in Durham” will be on display at MDC Building in downtown Durham this Friday, October 20 at 6:00pm.

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