This week, my colleagues and I were sent a petition with the title “Stop Duke from Displacing Working Families in Durham.” Currently, the petition has just over 100 signatures, and organizer Frank Hyman is aiming for another 100 before sending the letter to Vincent Price, the university’s president.
“It’s no secret that affordable homes for working families are hard to find in Durham, Duke University’s 1500 seniors, who live off-campus, directly contribute to that scarcity,” Hyman writes in the petition. “And not all of them are good neighbors.”
The gist of Hyman’s argument is that Duke University should build dorms and require its students, who are (generally) wealthier than the average Durham resident and who (occasionally) are nuisances because of their penchant for partying, to live on campus. He stressed in a phone call with me that he knows it isn’t all Duke students. If he could, he tells me, he’d move the problem students to campus and the rest could stay. But that isn’t the reality.
The real issue isn’t rowdy Duke students. The university’s neighbors aren’t the problem either, even though their argument is a bit narrow-minded. The problem is the housing crisis.
Of Duke University’s undergraduate and graduate students, less than 20% live off campus — roughly 3,350 undergraduate and graduate students live across Durham and the surrounding areas. Hyman says that 1,500 seniors, specifically, are the ones who should be moved.
For lots of students, the choice to live off campus is about more than freedom from RAs and ugly dorm room furniture. Oftentimes, students save money by renting an apartment or house off-campus with their classmates. Not only is it cheaper to rent, the cost is broken up by month. Living on campus typically means paying your housing fees by semester. Aside from the upfront costs, students living off campus are able to cook their own meals and save money on meal plans.
Instead of pushing students out, Duke’s neighbors should learn from the school down the road. There has always been tension between UNC-Chapel Hill students and the town’s residents.
In the 1990s, more students started moving off campus and into the Northside neighborhood and surrounding areas that traditionally housed the working class residents of Chapel Hill. In 2004, the university partnered with the town and the Marion Cheek Jackson Center, a nonprofit organization that works within the Northside, to create the Good Neighbor Initiative.
The Good Neighbor Initiative is simple: we all have to be better neighbors to each other, whether you’re a college student going out on Saturday nights, an elderly neighbor who has been around for years, or a young couple raising their child. Instead of siloing students and town residents to their respective towers, the Good Neighbor Initiative focuses on introducing students to their neighbors and setting ground rules for the neighborhood. It also encourages speaking to your neighbors first, before calling the police with a noise complaint. Durham has very small versions of this program, Hyman told me, but they do not actually have buy-in from students.
Duke students aren’t going anywhere. Even if the university built more housing, there will always be students who prefer living in homes or apartments. A good neighbor initiative would work with this reality, and encourage Duke students to see themselves as true members of Durham’s community.
Hyman’s petition suggests that if Duke students were no longer allowed to rent off campus, the homes would immediately be rented by the community. That’s not necessarily true, either. It’s unlikely that these buildings and their four-bedroom units would go for anything that feels affordable to a family making $60,000.
The problem is that we are in a housing crisis that is exploited by developers who find college students more profitable with fewer complaints when things don’t work, or when state and federal laws are skirted. We are all members of this community, even those pesky college kids who just want to party, and even those who, like Hyman and his neighbors, just want a place to live. Better understanding each other can help all of Durham’s neighbors focus on the bigger issues at hand.