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Top Issues Facing Voters in Durham, NC: Balancing Growth, Community, and Change

4 min read
Alex Furlin · Aug 25, 2023

As one of the fastest-growing cities in the southeast, Durham, North Carolina is facing a unique set of challenges, with both historic and modern issues forming the bulk of the city’s community concerns. As Durham, NC continues its centuries-long transformation from its roots in the textile and tobacco industries to its current revitalization as a knowledge and service-based economy, growing pains are to be expected. And with the 2023 elections in Durham, NC just around the corner (the primary is on Tuesday, October 10), these issues are at the top of mind for Durham’s voters. 

These growing pains are leading community leaders, voters, and residents to tackle thorny issues like urban development, gun violence, affordable housing, and improving community engagement among Durham citizens to better effect grassroots solutions on their local government. Balancing explosive growth and economic change with the needs and wants of the community is no small feat, but transformation is nothing new to Durham, NC. The city has undergone several evolutions throughout its history, and its residents currently sit at the precipice of another pivotal moment in the city’s development. 

Top Issues in Durham, North Carolina Ahead of City Elections

There’s a lot to get into. So let’s break it down bit by bit in this comprehensive overview of Durham’s biggest problems. 

Urban Development and Gentrification 

Perhaps among the hottest-button issues currently facing Durham voters and residents is the issue of urban development and gentrification. That is, as the city continues to modernize economically, new building developments are being constructed at the expense of the city’s older infrastructure. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but as is the case with many other cities across the nation, Durham residents have expressed concern that these new buildings and businesses may be contributing to the loss of Durham’s unique character. 

Gentrification and urban development are particularly complex issues because they intersect with basically every other issue that faces Durham residents: the city’s physical aesthetics, affordable housing, racial discrimination, an imbalance of opportunity, and even gun violence and crime rates. After all, a city at its very core is composed of two central factors: the buildings and the residents. Any time one of those central categories undergoes generational changes, the other will soon follow. So as we unpack the effects that modern urban developments and gentrification has on Durham, NC, we’ll break it down by each cross-issue that it influences.

For instance – even more critical than the city’s aesthetic character are the challenging economics that these new developments represent. As property values rise in accordance with these new businesses and developments, both the demographic makeup and affordability of living in Durham have started undergoing pretty dramatic changes. From 2010 to 2019, the span of an entire decade, property values in Durham increased by over 50% – and across the past two decades, from the start of the new millennium to present day, downtown Durham’s population has become 50% whiter. 

The city has realized this is a problem. With ongoing gentrification straining both affordable housing and racial equality, Durham in 2021 approved a $750 tax credit that low-income, longtime Durham residents can take advantage of to offset their soaring property taxes and housing expenses. Unfortunately, this measure was only implemented in the 2021 tax year, and the types of developments that have led to skyrocketing property taxes, rents, and mortgage rates haven’t slowed down in the slightest. 

It’s safe to say the issue of how gentrification exposes Durham’s economic and racial fault lines is far from adequately addressed, if such a trend can ever truly be “adequately” addressed by the time Durham’s elections come around.  

Affordable Housing and Racial Disparities

As a direct consequence of Durham’s ongoing gentrified redevelopments, housing costs have significantly risen in the city, which has had the effect of forcing out the city’s lower-income residents and renters. Census Bureau studies indicate that between 2011 and 2017, the average rent in Durham skyrocketed 34%, a figure which is almost undoubtedly higher in the year 2023. 

Such rapid increases in standard housing costs, without a complimentary rise in income, had has predictably detrimental effects on the city’s renting class: the Urban Institute found that out of every 100 low-income Durham residents (defined as anyone making 30% or less than the city’s median income), there are only 34 affordable apartments, leaving 67% of the city’s poorest residents stuck between a rock and a hard place. And even among these “affordable apartments,” rent costs are an extreme burden: over 22% of the city’s renters have to spend over half of their income on rent and utilities alone. 

And of course, complicating this thorny issue even further is how such financial strains on housing affect Durham’s racial communities in vastly different ways. 

Like many cities across the United States, Durham has a long history of its black residents being affected by the practice of redlining – in which residents of “undesirable neighborhoods” are denied the same financial resources as residents elsewhere. Redlining is a huge problem that affects more than just Durham, of course, but Durham itself is still wrangling with the thorny and discriminatory history of redlining. Since the majority of U.S. household wealth is directly tied to homeownership, black families that were relegated to redlined districts never got to take advantage of rising property values or the types of home and business loans available to residents in non-redlined districts. 

Those historical trends draw a direct throughline to Durham's modern-day black residents, who still face a major income discrepancy compared with the city’s white and Asian populations. In Durham, black and Hispanic families experience poverty at a rate of 24% and 32% of their respective populations, compared with 8% and 17% poverty rates among whites and Asians. The figures for median income are even more dire, with the median white Durham resident making around $68,000 yearly, compared with just $40,000 for the median black resident and $41,000 for the median Hispanic resident. 

Gun Violence

From 2019 to 2020, the number of shooting victims in Durham NC spiked by over 66% year-over-year, and over the past 5 years, the city has tallied an average of 200 gun violence victims per year. Perhaps even more alarmingly, out of the 1011 distinct shooting incidents over the past five years (resulting in 1,188 victims) only 74 convictions were handed down in Durham courts. Studies have shown that, on average, 85% of Durham’s gun violence incidents end without a single arrest or conviction, period. 

Clearance rates – that is, shooting cases that result in at least an arrest or conviction – were even more dismal in non-fatal gun violence incidents in Durham, NC. Among shooting incidents with no fatalities, Durham police only managed to clear 16% of total cases. 

Safety is a major concern among the residents of Durham, NC and will surely factor to be a major issue on the minds of voters come election time – and the trend for gun violence and gun safety in Durham over the past half-decade is not a particularly encouraging one, leaving issues related to gun violence as a significant problem for the city’s leaders, elected officials, and prospective candidates to keep addressing. 

Gun violence has become such a major point of contention ahead of Durham’s elections that the mayor of Durham, NC, Elaine O’Neal, centered her State of the City address around the topic of gun violence. She even included that she personally knew victims whose lives were taken away by gun violence in the city, which helps underscore just how deeply and viscerally this issue is felt among many Durhamn, NC voters. 

How You Can Make a Difference

For such critical issues facing the city of Durham, NC, it’s important that voters are aware of the full scope of their options – including nonpartisan, independent candidates that are Good Party certified. To learn more about Good Party's mission, get involved in local politics, join community initiatives for change, and receive updates on Durham’s 2023 elections, sign up for Good Party’s weekly newsletter. You can also get ready for election day by registering to vote by Friday, September 15.

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By Alex Furlin
Alex Furlin is a freelance writer for Good Party.