When the editor called and offered me a job at the News & Observer almost 30 years ago, he attached one condition: I had to live in Durham.
One’s first thought in such a situation: “What the hell is wrong with Durham if I have to live there?”
Turns out – nothing. The editor wanted me to focus, editorially, on Durham issues, and he figured it would be easier to do that as a Bull City resident. I was cool with the decision to live in Durham, but I had to convince various realtors who badmouthed the city and tried to steer me to Raleigh or Cary.
What did I love about Durham? It had the right mix of low-doings in high places and just enough vice – if you knew where to look - to keep it interesting. (That vice has disappeared: for instance, the most gloriously notorious sin den has, in recent years, been a church, a daycare center and is now a high-end nail salon.)
The most attractive thing about the city, though, was its housing prices. Whenever some national magazine would denigrate Durham for – for instance – its raucous school board meetings that were seemingly a monthly feature on CNN, I’d respond with a passionate defense.
A weird thing happened each time I extolled the city’s myriad virtues, though. I’d receive phone calls and letters demanding “STOP IT!!!” Those demands came from Durham residents who reveled in the notoriety because they knew it provided an antidote to the problem facing residents in Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Cary – exorbitantly priced homes.
Durham, at least on the affordable home-buying tip, was a hidden gem back then. Now, though, in the immortal words of the Jermaine Stewart 1984 dance floor classic, “the word is out” and affordable homes – and affordable housing – is an oxymoron in the city. The same is true not only in small to mid-sized cities across North Carolina, but in previously ignored neighborhoods in larger cities.
Remember that advertisement from decades ago about the Maytag repairman being the loneliest man in town? Well, in Durham and many N.C. cities, homeowners have to be the least lonely people on earth, because their mailboxes are stuffed with cards and letters and their phones are blowing up with calls from people wanting to buy their cribs.
Former city councilman Frank Hyman wrote a recent piece about the “vultures” swooping in trying to buy up homes — including his — and flip them for huge profits. He lamented that he didn’t save the cards so he could start a massive bonfire at City Plaza.
Hardly a week goes by that I don’t get a cold call from some cheery voice saying “Hi there. I was in your neighborhood the other day and was wondering if you’re interested in selling your home.” These calls are rivaled in frequency only by the ones asking if I want to buy a burial plot. Dirt cheap.
You know who else receives unsolicited calls from people wanting to buy his home?
Bill Bell, the former mayor and county commissioner and the man whose leadership, more than any other single person’s in recent history, helped turn Durham from the snaggletoofed stepchild of the Triangle to the current belle of the ball.
“You can’t stop the market for gentrification,” he said, citing the formerly hard-scrabble neighborhood of South Street as an example. “If a person owns a home down there, and some guy come and says ‘I want to buy your house for $100,000, and he’s only got $20,000 in it, you can’t tell that person not to sell.”
“The city,’ he said, “ can incentivize developers who are building market-rate developments to add a certain amount of affordable apartments and homes. You can’t demand that, but you can certainly put it on the table.”
My question is “Why can’t cities demand that?”
Until the do, many residents and prospective residents will be singing the old cowboy hymn
Oh give me a home
Where the buffalo roam
And the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard
A discouraging word
From a realtor whose price you can’t pay.
Editorial Board member Barry Saunders is founder of thesaundersreport.com.