Durham’s Mayoral Candidates Discuss Affordable Housing

“Affordable housing is [not just] an asset issue, it’s a people issue.” – Farad Ali

In advance of Durham’s mayoral primary on October 10th, Clarion Content organized a series of themed forums, in which the mayoral candidates were given the opportunity to answer questions from interested citizens on a topic chosen in advance. The September 27th forum was the last forum to feature all three leading candidates for mayor – Durham City Councilman Steve Schewel, former Durham City Councilman Farad Ali, and activist Pierce Freelon.

The theme of the September 27th forum was affordable housing. After a two-minute opening statement, the candidates were asked ten questions connecting to housing and development; each candidate had 75 seconds to answer a question, and each candidate answered the same question in succession (in rotating order) until all candidates responded to the question. Two other candidates – business owner Shea Ramirez and pastor Sylvester Williams – participated in the forum, but this article will focus on the broader debate between Schewel, Ali, and Freelon. Over the course of the debate, the three candidates outlined their agendas and approaches, contrasted their views with the views of the two other leading candidates, and expressed their core values as they relate to housing.

Defining the Municipal Role in Affordable Housing

“I can’t promise anything other than I’m gonna work like hell on [affordable housing]. That’s what I can promise, and I promise that I know a lot. I know a lot, I know how to get a lot of it done.” – Steve Schewel

In response to a question about creating developer mandates or goals for affordable housing, all three candidates referred to the difficult legal context in which Durham operates: the North Carolina General Assembly has recently pushed to limit municipal governments’ ability to regulate markets, including taking tools like affordable housing unit mandates out of the hands of municipal governments. Each candidate then discussed how to expand the role of the City of Durham in creating affordable housing:

  • Ali clarified that the city of Durham does have the ability to set non-binding goals for affordable housing development. He then called for the city to culturally define standards by which developers will operate.
  • Freelon called on Durham’s residents, particularly millennials, to promote civic engagement statewide in order to change the composition of the General Assembly and remove some of the city’s barriers to policy development.
  • Schewel described an ideal approach of involving developers in affordable housing construction before changing the state legislature can be accomplished. He then used development along the future light rail corridor as an example to describe relevant interventions currently available to Durham: downzoning, tax incentives, and bonuses for high-density construction.
Steve Schewel speaks during the affordable housing mayoral candidate forum. Photo Credit: Casey Toth, The Herald Sun.

Accountability and Return on Investment

“Policing is a priority to the city. This is costing us $71 million, and we’re paying $60 million to the police department – that’s a total of $131 million that we’re investing in policing. We just upped our affordable housing to another penny, which will create another $5.5 million to focus on affordable housing…If we wanted to address the root of the problem, we would do it.” – Pierce Freelon

Several of the night’s questions were concerned with types of accountability in affordable housing – establishing accountability for city projects by measuring return on investment, holding organizations that receive city funds accountable for their performance, and holding the municipal government accountable for the present state of affordable housing in Durham. The candidates’ interpretations of accountability had similar themes across these groups:

  • Freelon centered his analysis of accountability on areas where priorities in spending could be realigned to match the desires of Durham citizens. He called for accountability measures to be directly tied to city investment, noting significant tax incentives administered in downtown Durham without associated requirements for spending. He compared affordable housing funding to municipal dollars spent on policing and public transit as a proxy measure for Durham City Council’s governmental priorities. Finally, Freelon placed overall accountability in an electoral context, calling on voters to hold city officials accountable through elections.
  • Schewel referred to examples of successful interventions, conveying that accountability would be in terms of meeting expectations from previous successes. He referred repeatedly to the high return on investment in repairing and redeveloping existing affordable housing stock, rather than building new affordable housing. Schewel noted that Durham City Council has an audit committee (of which he is a member) that holds organizations accountable; he then described how the committee’s work helps the city invest in good organizations that do good work. His response to the question of holding the city government responsible for the current state of affordable housing was to outline several recent successes in supporting affordable housing and reducing homelessness.
  • Ali characterized accountability as a complex issue and sought to provide holistic, comprehensive descriptions of accountability measures. He defined return on investment in quantitative and qualitative terms, incorporating per-dollar rate of return on housing unit projects, per-dollar homelessness reduction, and a more general assessment of human impact. He explained that the city’s poor support for affordable housing in recent years was a consequence of recession-era market forces and abandonment of nonprofit support. He echoed Schewel’s statement on the importance of City Council’s audit committee, and noted that input-output matrices can be used to hold organizations accountable for the impact of the investments Durham makes in them.
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Pierce Freelon speaks during the affordable housing mayoral candidate forum. Photo Credit: Casey Toth, The Herald Sun.

Policy Design

“The main thing we need isn’t innovation – the main thing we need is to do the things we know work, that are working now, and to make them work better and keep them going.” – Steve Schewel

Multiple questions provided the candidates with opportunities to outline their policy ideas and philosophies for supporting the creation of affordable housing.        

  • Schewel celebrated several policies already in place, including a housing program for veterans – if a homeless veteran goes to the VA hospital in Durham, they are housed within 30 days, without exception. He expressed enthusiasm about downzoning, Habitat for Humanity housing construction, and existing property redevelopment by the Durham Housing Authority. In his opening statement, he called for funding to be increased and new funding mechanisms to be developed for affordable housing programs; in a later question, he also called for creating mixed-income neighborhoods. In his answer to the final question, he argued that the mayor’s job is not to create development, but to bring together the people who create development.
  • Ali emphasized other stakeholders in policy creation and implementation, including housing developers and the new CEO of the Durham Housing Authority. In his opening statement, Ali called for forming public-private-nonprofit partnerships, creating a trust fund for affordable housing development, and introducing a bond referendum; he described a holistic approach to affordable housing, incorporating economic development, community development, and transportation planning. Later answers referred back to these interventions, as well as advocating for a faster rezoning process in order to reduce development costs. He used a “housing ecosystem” framework, describing movement from homelessness to transitional housing to workforce housing to homeownership; Ali explained that policy should deliberately move people between stages of this framework in order to avoid excess demand of any type of housing.
  • Freelon combined a poverty-based lens of analysis with innovation-led policy development and an effort to contrast his approach with that of the other candidates. In his opening statement, Freelon identified poverty as the core issue in considering affordable housing, referring to a quote from a city consultant that “affordable housing subsidizes low wages” and calling for shifting Durham’s economy to living-wage jobs. His poverty-based policy interventions included a pilot jobs guarantee program – the city of Durham would employ workers in jobs that pay a living wage if the jobs market was unable to employ them. His housing-focused policy proposals included calling for Durham to adopt a policy used in Philadelphia, where funds are set aside to provide legal assistance for vulnerable people at risk of eviction; encouraging the construction of environmentally-friendly, vertically-scalable tiny homes; and consciously fighting against displacement and gentrification. Freelon contended that fulfilling the policies outlined by Schewel would be insufficient to address Durham’s need for affordable housing, and noted that the conventional definition of affordable housing outlined by Ali and Schewel in one question failed to account for unique threats to marginalized communities or the capacity for developers to raise the price of affordable housing units to market value after 5-10 years.
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Steve Schewel speaks during the affordable housing mayoral candidate forum. Photo Credit: Casey Toth, The Herald Sun.

The Intersection of Housing and Poverty

“It’s the X-Y axis, right? Supply and demand. If you’ve got supply and demand like this, but wages are down here, then it’s not affordable, but if you move the wages up by creating job training programs for the industries that are prospering in this city…then you provide an outlet for the people living in affordable housing to move through this ecosystem.” – Farad Ali

While Freelon characterized poverty as the core issue underlying affordable housing, Ali and Schewel treated affordable housing as a distinct issue, though with different descriptions of the relationship between the two. Ali referred to poverty and income as a factor in housing affordability, explained that policy development around affordable housing needs to account for differential income levels and financial need, and described job training and workforce development as key elements of addressing the need for affordable housing and moving people through the housing ecosystem framework. Following a direct challenge by Freelon on the importance of wages in addressing affordable housing, Schewel characterized affordable housing as its own issue and a core element in community development; throughout the night, Schewel’s analysis and policy recommendations largely avoided workforce and income interventions.

Farad Ali speaks during the affordable housing mayoral candidate forum. Photo Credit: Casey Toth, The Herald Sun.

Critiquing Durham City Council

“I don’t think the city is good at housing development. That’s not the talent of the city.” – Farad Ali

“If you look at the record of City Council, there’s been a focus on go-go development at the expense of sustainability and the expense of equity.” – Pierce Freelon

Schewel was the only incumbent City Councilor in the mayoral race and at the September 27th forum. Though Schewel began his opening statement by saying “if you’re interested in a candidate who just wants the status quo, don’t vote for me either” – a reference to Freelon’s opening statement, which alluded to “status quo” candidates  –  Schewel frequently positioned himself, and was positioned by Ali and Freelon, as the representative and defender of Durham City Council policies. Schewel served this role by outlining several successful developments and policies created during his tenure and asserting his own knowledge and skill set developed as a member of City Council.

Ali’s critique of City Council hinged on his diagnosis of City Council’s limited skill set. Ali argued that cities – in general and specifically Durham – should avoid directly building housing; instead, according to Ali, cities should foster relationships with developers in order to encourage them to create housing developments that meet the goals of City Council. Within this critique, Ali frequently discussed city investment in terms of leveraging funds against developers and individuals in order to maximize impact without direct city-led construction.

Freelon’s critique of City Council framed his lack of Council experience as an asset in challenging institutional resistance to radical change. Of the top three candidates, Freelon is the only one never to have served on Durham’s City Council; in fact, Freelon has never held any elected office. Freelon acknowledged this in his opening statement before reframing “experience” as a negative when used to describe City Council, detailing poor performance measures in Durham’s housing and community development. Freelon attributed these poor measures to a lack of “civic will” and “civic imagination” in City Council, and claimed that his presence in City Council would add an innovative and necessary voice to policy debates.

Pierce Freelon speaks during the affordable housing mayoral candidate forum. Photo Credit: Casey Toth, The Herald Sun.

Southside Revitalization

“We did change the community. There was a lot of crime in that community. They even made movies about how bad it was…That kind of element has changed and has gone, which helped our image.” – Farad Ali

“The image of Durham is not improved by removing people from homes that they have lived in for generations – especially not in the historic Hayti community, where we’ve dealt with displacement.” – Pierce Freelon

Likely the most contentious moment of the debate came during candidate responses to a question about the recent redevelopment of the Southside neighborhood of Durham. While the subject incorporated several of the recurring themes of the night – affordable housing development policy, critiquing City Council, interactions with developers, and intersections with poverty – it also provided the clearest opportunity for the candidates to discuss gentrification in the context of affordable housing, since Southside is such a prominent example of gentrification that the current city government is weighing policy interventions to alleviate resultant harm to long-time neighborhood residents.

During a nuanced answer differentiating between homeownership and rental revitalization, Schewel diagnosed the homeownership element of Southside as “truly gentrified” – new units were sold with a cap on the income of their owners, but rather than retaining historical residents of low socioeconomic status, the cap tended to attract graduate students whose low incomes were only temporary. Ali’s answer briefly mentioned a desire to avoid displacement, but focused on two elements: shifting housing responsibility to developers in order to reduce project failure, and improvements in Durham’s image resulting from reducing crime in Southside. Freelon answered after Ali and began his answer by turning to Ali, addressing him as “Farad”, and saying that he was “really bothered with” Ali’s answer. Freelon used most of his answer to dispute the crime-based characterization of Southside and argue that Ali’s characterization was more reflective of poverty in Southside; at multiple points during his answer, Freelon shook and made frustrated, cathartic noises. In effect, Freelon implied that Ali had suggested that the gentrification of Southside was a positive policy outcome.

The Candidates’ Personal Experiences

“This is not an academic exercise for me.” – Farad Ali

The next-to-last question of the night called for each of the candidates to explain how their personal experiences informed their approach to housing. Ali confided that he had grown up living in affordable housing until his father got a good enough job to afford a more comfortable living space. Ali connected this experience to his belief in the importance of extending access to well-paying jobs and moving people through the housing ecosystem framework, particularly by increasing their incomes.

“I learned that I grew up with a house over my head, food on the table, my parents were employed and following their passions – I learned that those are basic human rights, and everyone in Durham should have access to those basic human rights.” – Pierce Freelon

Freelon began his answer to the same question by saying that he was acknowledging his own privilege, which he considered to be an important exercise; he explained that he derives privilege from having grown up in a family where his father was consistently employed and well-paid as an architect. Freelon outlined the benefits associated with this experience and expressed a desire to make his privileges as a child “the standard” for children in Durham today. He noted that he works to advance this standard already as founder of makerspace/studio Blackspace, which provides access to creative materials to children.

“Racial and economic justice is the work of my life. That’s what I do…I do believe that as a white person, I need to be looking at every issue through a racial equity lens, and I strive to do that…I think it’s my obligation.” – Steve Schewel

Schewel, the only white candidate in the mayoral race, noted that he grew up during racial segregation in Lynchburg, Virginia. He outlined his experience fighting for racial justice, including attending his first civil rights demonstration at age 13 and cofounding the People’s Alliance, which helped to prevent highway development that would have cut through a marginalized African-American community.

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An organizer speaks during the affordable housing mayoral candidate forum with mayoral candidates pictured (from left) Farad Ali, Pierce Freelon, Shea Ramirez, Steve Schewel, and Rev. Sylvester Williams. Photo Credit: Casey Toth, The Herald Sun.


“I work on this every day, and the fact of the matter is, it’s hard to do.” – Steve Schewel

At multiple points, Ali predicted that all of the candidates would want affordable housing, with the only difference being how they wanted to do it. His prediction proved correct; he, Freelon, and Schewel all advocated for affordable housing, but each of the candidates were able to successfully differentiate their own approaches. Ali argued that as mayor, he would build a toolkit that would allow him to work with developers and other stakeholders to make effective investments that increase incomes, move people into better housing, and avoid the failures seen in past City Council efforts. Freelon argued that as mayor, he would address affordable housing as part of his effort to alleviate poverty while also advancing innovative housing development policies, shift spending priorities to affordable housing, and changing the nature of civic engagement. Schewel argued that as mayor, he would continue the successes of the current City Council – and he named several – while applying a racial equity lens to enduring problems in order to improve outcomes in the future.

About the Author: Keagan Sacripanti is a second-year Master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning, specializing in economic development. He has lived in Durham, NC since July 2017, and previously lived in Durham from 2009 to 2011.

Disclosure: Keagan is a supporter of Freelon’s candidacy; he has donated a total of $10 to his campaign, and has volunteered as a canvasser on multiple occasions.