Durham Leaders Pushing For Workforce Housing Legislation


Greg Childress (NC Newsline)

Durham officials are hoping for the best this legislative short session — knowing the worst is likely to come — regarding a bill to allow the Board of Education and the county to build workforce housing on public land for teachers, law enforcement officers and first responders.

Durham lawmakers have filed bills year-after-year asking colleagues in the House and the Senate to support efforts to build workforce housing in Durham where gentrification and a shortage of affordable, quality, rental property has severely stretched the paychecks of people working in the public sector. But the Republican-led General Assembly has refused to take up the bill dating to at least 2017.

Critics have said that allowing public land to be used for affordable housing would erode the Umstead Act, which bars the government from competing with private business.

Last week, Rep. Vernetta Alston, D-Durham, filed House Bill 1067 — Employee Housing/Durham County — that would allow workforce housing in Durham. Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, filed a companion bill, Senate Bill 905.

Alston said she isn’t sure why past bills have not been taken up by the General Assembly. “It’s a local bill, and to me feels pretty straightforward in terms of just giving our local jurisdiction the ability to support their employees, particularly in a moment when housing is really hard to come by for folks of all income levels, but particularly for our public servants,” Alston said. “It’s a local matter that’s overdue for being taken up by the General Assembly.”

Does Alston think the bill will gain enough support to be heard this time around? “That is the hope, always,” Alston said.

Despite lawmakers’ concerns about workforce housing in Durham, several other communities have been green-lighted to build such housing, with help from the State Employees Credit Union Foundation. The credit union provided interest-free loans for workforce housing. The newest one, in Bertie County, is scheduled to open this summer in time for the 2024-25 school year.

Most workforce housing complexes have been built on property donated by counties or owned by school districts. Legislative approval is needed for these initiatives because of laws  to “prevent state and local government from aiding or interfering with the private sector,” Tyler Mulligan, a professor at the UNC School of Government, wrote in a 2022 paper titled Local Government Support for Privately Owned Affordable Housing.

If approved, the law would allow the Durham County Board of Education and the county to enter into a partnership, joint venture, land trust, or similar arrangement to construct, provide, and maintain affordable housing on property now owned by the Board of Education.

The workforce housing would be restricted to teachers employed by Durham Public Schools, sworn law enforcement officers or other first responders employed by local governments in Durham County.

The bill also allows the partnerships to contract with any person or business entity to finance, construct or maintain the affordable housing. The housing units can be rented at reasonable, potentially below-market rates, with 75% of the units being reserved for teachers. The bill does not exempt the constructed housing from compliance with building codes, zoning ordinances, or other health and safety regulations.

“I think there is more need than ever for workforce housing in Durham and urban parts of the state,” said Durham school board member Natalie Beyer. “It’s incredible that we’ve been at this for so long and still need to make progress.”

In 2017, the Durham school board approved a State Employees’ Credit Union proposal to build housing for teachers on the former Lowe’s Grove Elementary School site in southern Durham near Research Triangle Park. That project never happened. Other sites could be under consideration, Beyer said, if lawmakers pass the bill.

In 2019, a bill filed by the late former Sen. Mary Ann Black, D-Durham, never saw the light of day after some Republican lawmakers complained that allowing workforce housing to be built in Durham would lead to government competing with private industry.

“We have to stay optimistic that local bills will move forward and not be blocked in partisan ways,” Beyer said. “I’m glad that [the bills] includes firefighters and law enforcement officers and gives us some options as we work to retain educators.”

Supporters of workforce housing see it as a way to retain teachers. Many educators say they are leaving the profession because they are underpaid and underappreciated. The teacher turnover rate in the state has increased 47%, according to the “State of the Teaching Profession” report released in April.

The bottom line, supporters say, is that teacher salaries have not kept pace with housing costs. North Carolina’s average teacher salary is $56,559, which is nearly $13,000 below the national average. Pay for starting teachers in is $40,136, which places the state 42nd in the nation, and almost $15,000 below the minimum living wage.

A North Carolina Housing Coalition report recently found that it cost $1,631 a month to rent a moderately priced, two-bedroom apartment in Durham. An income of $65,240 per year is needed to afford fair market rents in Durham, the coalition found.

According to the report, the average salary for an elementary school teacher in Durham is $49,000; $30,810 for a childcare worker; and $35,020 for a firefighter.

Forty percent of renters in the county have difficulty affording their homes, according to the report.

Some conservatives have criticized the idea of publicly supported workforce housing. In a 2019 column making a case against teacher housing, Bob Luebke, currently on staff at the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation, argued that rents are affordable for teachers in Durham and Bertie counties. Luebke’s argument was based on teacher salaries, local supplements and fair market rents for each county. Using that formula, he argued, teachers in both counties could find rentals that did not exceed the 30% of gross take-home pay most financial experts recommend.

While that remains true in Bertie County, it’s no longer true in Durham, Luebke said when asked by NC Newsline.

“A quick review of the math shows starting teachers in Durham would spend about 45 percent of income on rent, while starting teachers in Bertie County would expend about 26 percent of income,” Luebke said in an email response.

Amid rising inflation, higher rents and the lack of quality, affordable rentals in many locations, Luebke hasn’t changed his mind about whether school districts should be in the business of building teacher housing.

“They [school districts] are not trained to be landlords. And there are many reasons why they shouldn’t be,” Luebke said. “If teachers can’t find affordable housing, is there a reason why raising teacher pay should not be the preferable option for addressing these concerns?”

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