Innovator's Journey: Tom Bonfield and Durham's Affordable Housing Strategy

The Alliance for Innovation spoke with Tom Bonfield, City Manager of Durham, NC, about the city’s affordable housing strategy

ARTICLE | Mar 4, 2020
Tom Bonfield, Durham City Manager

AFI: When you started at the City 12 years ago, was the City of Durham an essential figure in the affordable housing strategy?

Tom Bonfield: There was not a strategy. When I started in 2008, the country was in the throes of the recession. Durham was very fortunate to not be as impacted by the recession. Our housing impacts have been much more driven by the growth in the community than some of the other factors that contributed to that. We did not have the two cent tax rate back in 2008. I think we started to put that in maybe in 2010 or '11 as we began to look for opportunities for successful projects to be financed. And then we kind of just built on that and developed the affordable housing five-year-plan to support the affordable housing strategy just a couple of years ago.

AFI: Could you start by giving us a little bit of background on the city's affordable housing strategy?

Tom Bonfield: A couple of things we know, for example, is that we've got to produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 to 3,000 additional housing units every year just to keep up with population growth. We currently are doing that. As a result of our vibrant economy and our tech economy, 20 or so people a day are moving here and they are bringing approximately a $10,000 income dividend with them. In other words, they are making $10,000 more a year than the people who are already here, on average.

AFI: With many new housing developments on the horizon, what happens to some of the aging affordable housing units that may fall on the wayside? Case in point, McDougald Terrace is a 70 year old housing project that is currently facing health issues.

Tom Bonfield: Our most current housing crisis, which is a public housing development called McDougald Terrace, is managed by the Durham housing authority. The backdrop of that is that right around the Christmas holiday, we began hearing rumors of some illnesses that were associated with carbon monoxide poisoning. And after just a few weeks, found out that almost 80% of the 400 plus units at the housing development had elevated levels of carbon monoxide. We had to relocate probably 90% of the residents into hotels beginning right after the 1st of January. We’re working with the Durham Housing Authority (DHA) to address these challenges. We’re in the throes of that. A lot of folks say, "Well is the $95 million bond issue going to go toward replacing or renovating or why isn't it going to go into renovating McDougald Terrace?" Which it isn't intended to at this point.

AFI: When you focus more attention and resources on a specific population, what is the general reaction from your community and the electeds?

Tom Bonfield: We are fortunate that the community has been incredibly supportive of this work, and the elected officials have been incredibly supportive as well. Two examples of that: the city dedicates a 2% tax rate to generate money for affordable housing. Our average home costs $270,000, and this homeowner contributes about $75 a year toward this through their taxes. But, we have a dedicated tax rate that goes towards supporting housing programs. This is coupled with our federal entitlements. The residents of Durham and the City Council have been extremely supportive of doing that. Additionally, just this past November, the City proposed a $95 million affordable housing bond issue to support our affordable housing strategy, which was by far the largest affordable housing bond issue ever in the state of North Carolina. The good news is that that referendum was supported by over a 76% margin, which is an incredibly high number for a non-school bond issue anywhere, but it was for affordable housing.

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