The Search For Affordable Housing In Durham

Jul 17, 2017

Fontella Bass and Randy Tompkins purchased their home on the south side of Durham, in 2013.
Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC

It is not as easy to find a place to live in the city of Durham as it used to be just a few years ago. The “Bull City” has made its share of “best places to live” lists, thanks to population growth, a booming economy and a transformed downtown.

But while new apartments, condos and single-family homes are being built, they’re not affordable for many Durham residents.

Nigel Brown is a housing locator for the non-profit, Housing for New Hope. On a recent day, he drove along Elizabeth and Holloway Streets – not far from downtown Durham.

“That’s a new house for $325,000," said Brown, pointing to one property. "This is an older house, an older house, renovated house, house under reconstruction here."

Brown’s job is to seek out and secure housing as fast as possible for people in dire need of a place to stay – homelessness, job loss, illness. But Brown says in the new Durham, landlords who used to readily rent to their organization are disappearing or charging a lot more.

“This is another one of our properties, which I can see in the foreseeable future [the owner] is going to go up on rent or sell it," said Brown.

Olive Joyner is the Executive Director of Housing for New Hope.

"We need more housing, yes, absolutely we need more housing," said Joyner.

The organization just celebrated its 25th anniversary. Joyner says just as critical as the need is for more housing, there is a major need to protect the available housing that’s left.

“Those communities that are riddled with drugs or crime, we are having to encourage our city officials, the police department, all of our stakeholders, reinvest, reinvest, reinvest, protect the little bit of property our clients can afford," said Joyner.

Joyner says if they can find a one or two bedroom for $750 or $800 a month it won’t be anywhere near downtown Durham. She says they have had to move people as far away as Creedmoor and Butner, with Alamance County not out of the question.

The online real estate database company Zillow.com puts the median rental price for a house in Durham at nearly $1,400 a month, and rising.

Anthony Scott is the CEO of the Durham Housing Authority. He knows the challenges of trying to house low-income families. Scott says like in many cities, the wait list for a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher is long.

“So we had about 200-300 available vouchers we actually could lease out, and we had 6,500 people apply," said Scott.

The Durham waitlist for those 200-to-300 available vouchers was whittled down to 1,500 applicants. But landlords have to want to rent to low-income Section 8 tenants.

Complaints range from the Durham Housing Authority taking too long to inspect properties to tenants not taking care of the properties once moving in. 

Fontella Bass was lucky enough to get a voucher some years ago.  She also spent several years living in subsidized housing provided by Housing for New Hope. She says it helped her on the journey to stay drug free, find a house and then a home. Today she lives in her own home, but it was not love at first site. 

“It was the ugliest house on the street. It was dark, it was dingy, it was a tree on the roof and I did not want it!" said Bass.

Then, Bass’ husband Randy Tompkins, almost single-handedly renovated the two-bedroom, south side Durham home – tearing down walls, ripping up floors, building a deck.

“This is our little home now, and I am proud of it!" said Bass. "I’m proud to say it’s my little ugly house.”

Bass says the only struggle is the property taxes, which she says is now more than their modest mortgage.