In the last The Bulls of Durham piece, the cool Durham’s Cool Mayor Bill Bell shared with us how he came to be the Mayor and a bit of his personal history. Today we continue with his interview and discuss the tough issues on the Mayor’s workload and heart.
Bill has been here for 48 years and had an integral role in shaping and forming our city into what it is today. With a city that’s landscape and population is readily changing and a community steadfast in maintaining its unique, eclectic, Bull City distinct culture, what changes, if any, Bill would like to see for Durham.
His answer had nothing to do with downtown parking, incoming businesses or any of the surface changes that many residents talk about wanting to see change. Bill took a deep breath, paused and started talking about matters you can tell are close to his heart. Turns out Mayors can be cool and have emotions.
“In spite of the resources in this community, such as being home to Research Triangle Park, Duke University, NCCU, Biotech and pharmaceutical industries and a budding entrepreneurship community, we still have the challenges of too much poverty. If I could wave a magic wand then poverty probably is the first thing I would reduce or eliminate.
“We also have the challenges of reducing crime. It is an issue that I think comes with most growing communities. However, reducing poverty is a high priority for me. Also, with our growth, we have a large need for more affordable housing.
“When I speak about affordable housing, I’m speaking about housing relative to incomes that are 80% — 30% below the medium income. Affordable housing is another area that is a high priority and which we are focusing, but like reducing poverty it is a long term challenge.”
That seems like such a daunting challenge. The most recent reports show the Durham poverty rate hovering around 18% and the 2016 Durham Fiscal Report showing that we have a population of 262,789. The math on that is heartbreaking. Where we do even you start?
Bill answered, “We’ve already started. One of the first things I did when I was elected Mayor in 2001 after having ridden around the city, was to look at neighborhoods that have been depressed for long periods of time. I wanted to convince the council that we should make our focus on long depressed communities first and we should do it on a large scale. Before that the council had primarily focused on housing improvements on a much smaller scale, typically a few houses at a time, mostly renovations and not any real new affordable housing.
“We identified a block with about 40 single family homes, but few home ownerships — a lot of illegal drugs, illegal activities going on. It was in a section of a community that had been impoverished for a great deal of time. This particular block was sitting next to an elementary school that had been built maybe 2 or 3 years before. I was able to convince the council to go in and buy up those houses. We didn’t push anybody out using eminent domain — it was strictly a willing buyer, willing seller situation.
“As a result, we created and built a mixed income neighborhood of approximately 40 units of affordable single family homes and condominiums for families below the medium income and market rate families also. That development process was started in ’01 and in ’02, somewhere along there.
“We completed another development (Lofts at Southside) on a much larger scale — Phase 1: 132 apartment units, 80 affordable for families at 60%- 30% of the median income , 52 market rate families at 80% or above the median income. We completed the Phase 1 approximately 2 years ago. Phase 2 has begun and will have 82 apartments; 58 affordable and 27 market rate. Additionally, we have approved in April 2013 a percent of the units to be bought by families at or above the median income. Phase 1 of this development is almost complete.
“We’ve have also brought in a consultant to look at the whole affordable housing issue in Durham. Out of that study came some very specific recommendations as to possible goals we might to work towards in terms of the amount of affordable housing units we wanted to bring on year by year. We’re in the process of trying to implement the recommendations of that study.”
There’s the collective sense of community in the Bull City. Durham has a unique population of attributes that aren’t going to show up in any census report, unless there is a census report for kindness, compassion and big hearts. In the Bull City the overall attitude has been and will be, “how can we help?” How can those of us that aren’t in public office help with issues like bringing up the impoverished in the area? How can we get involved and/or contribute?
“Each year I do a “State of the City” address. It is generally between the January-February time frame and, where I speak about achievements and the projected vision going forward. In February of 2014 when I did the “State of the City” address, I did pretty much the same thing but I offered the challenge of ”Reducing Poverty Neighborhood by Neighborhood, Year by Year, Starting in 2014”. It was a challenge to the council, really to the whole community to take up the challenge of reducing poverty.
“We kicked it off a couple months later at the Durham Rescue Mission. They were gracious enough to host a breakfast at their place. We invited the community — about 100 plus people attended from all walks of life: political, educational, civic, etcetera. We laid the thought out and indicated that it would be a strategy that was data driven not anecdotal driven. We went to the census tracts to select the highest poverty tracts in the city and decided to start there as a target. We set up a few task forces which we felt were some of the underlying causes that contributed to poverty — such as education or lack of sufficient education, housing, jobs, health, and public safety.
“When we were at the conference one of the ladies that was there and lived in the neighborhood said, “You are talking about poverty and you didn’t say anything about money.” She was right, so we set up a task on finance.
“We didn’t want it to be a strictly city council driven effort because it sort of cuts across all areas of local government. We were able to get the county commissioners involved and school board. Initially we asked an elected official to serve as co-chair of the task forces. It was also extremely important that we have the residents of the community involved in the task forces as members and as co-chairs. The community that we selected was comprised of about 2100 people, 1100 houses and apartments.
“We also conducted a door to door survey of the neighborhoods that we had selected. We asked each of the task forces to develop questions and went door to door asking residents to respond to questions and give us their thoughts. We then came back, compiled the results and charged each task force to pick the top 2 or 3 items that they would like to focus on. It has taken us a long time to get there.
“We began this process by deliberately not putting any money into the program. I really wanted to get the information and see what drove it. This year the reducing poverty initiatives are a part of the city’s and county’s budget and the task force has their specific goals.
“2016 has been designated as the year of execution. We have a staff person on board now who is overseeing the program. For those persons who have an interest in helping to reduce poverty in our community this is an opportunity for them to participate in helping to meet that challenge.
“If they would like to be involved in any of the task forces they can call my office (919–560–4333) or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.“The person who is heading it is a young lady by the name of Tannu Gupta. Call my office and they will give you her contact. It was initially called the Mayor’s Poverty Reduction Initiative by it is now called “Transition in Ten”. The staff came up with the new name.”
Tannu Gupta kindly agreed to an interview for The Bulls of Durham book project in early January. We’ll find out about the inspiration behind the new name, the initiative’s projects and plans, as well as how us Average Joes and Joettes can get involved with both the initiative and the overall poverty problem in Durham.
No need to wait though to start doing what you can to help. Now that we’ve seen the numbers and factors we’re working with there’s no way to turn a blind eye to the matter.
Genuinely wanting to know what does make a difference, I asked Mayor Bell what have been effective measures for reducing poverty.
“First of all, I don’t expect that suddenly these approximately 2100 people who live in this neighborhood, as a result of what we’re doing, are suddenly going to come out of poverty. What I do hope is that the quality of life for those persons, if they are living in those neighborhoods, will have improved in one of those 6 task forces that we talked about — either jobs, housing is better, health is better, education, etcetera. That is why I wanted to have measurable goals for each one of the task force.
“The intent of the task force is to set specific goals in their areas and then at some point in time we failed. As I said, we’re early on into this. This is the year we started trying to implement all those things. It’s too soon to tell.
“I can tell you one thing that has happened in the finance area. They’ve chosen very specific goals. There happens to be a school in the targeted area — an elementary school, low wealth school. They set up a college saving account. The concept behind this that if a family started in kindergarten were to contribute up to $100 we would match that. It’s not so much the idea that this money is going to be available for them to go to school. The concept is putting them in the frame of mind of beginning to save and making one of their goals to attend college. In the first year I think we had probably about 75% participation in terms of family’s that set up accounts and started.
“That same task force was also able to have about 25 [people] attend a financial literacy class to enhance their opportunity to purchase a home. That is another challenging piece.”
Bill went on to explain that it’s not all about stats or helping within 1 of these 6 areas, but rather helping each person by looking at the whole picture that is their life. He gave an example that stood out to him.
“One example is there was this mother who suddenly wasn’t taking her medications and she should have been. She was developing health problems of her own. When this community health worker had conversation with her, what they found out is that she was concerned about her son who was in high school and wasn’t doing well. He was causing all kinds of problems. All of her attention was focused on him, so she was neglecting herself. They got in and got more involved with what was happening with the son at school. This sort of relieved some of the issues she had, so she got back into taking her meds and started doing better.
“One need that was identified was maybe we need to have more community health workers working in this particular community. That is one of the goals is to hire community health workers to work in this particular community. Some persons have already gone through some training over at Durham Technical Community College to help prepare them.
“The question is, “how do we get the funding to make that happen?” Obviously, one natural ally in this would be Duke University. We have gotten them involved with the work we are trying to do. Additionally, the Durham Board of County Commissioners recently committed to providing funding for a community health worker.”
Bill hasn’t gotten to be the Mayor of Durham for 8 terms by chance. He knows the city and he knows that when it comes to pursuing a successful outcome in any endeavor you do 2 things: 1.) Seek out experts in the field for their insight on being successful. That’s why he had expert consultants in the field of poverty reduction come in and help get the poverty initiative started. 2.) Look at what has worked well and do more of that, which is exactly what Bill and everyone involved with the poverty initiative is doing.
“Where we have been most successful in Durham is when we have been able to develop partnerships. That’s all what is happening in downtown Durham. If we wouldn’t have developed public/private/non-profit partnerships, then, in my opinion, Durham never would have gotten to the point that it’s gotten as far as downtown revitalization.
“When we speak of the task forces, it was obviously important to have residents involved, but it was also important to have other partners who specialize in the areas of which the task forces focused. That is why we reached out to Duke University and North Carolina Central University.
“In fact, I just had young man who was a student at NCCU, who participated in this survey. He just wrote me an email last week. He is now a Ph.D. student AT Old Dominion University and he wants to use the results of the study that he did as part of his doctoral thesis. He wants to use that as a model — the model that we have — to see if it can be explored in other communities.”
That has to make you feel good. Without even a trace of boasting, Bill said, “It does. It makes me feel good in the sense that someone was interested enough to get involved and as a result is taking it further.”
It was great to see that our Mayor genuinely remembers people and furthermore is proud of the accomplishments of the citizens. Those same intellectual and caring citizens have been asking a lot of questions lately. We can all see this mass influx of companies coming and the city growing and are aware of the poverty problem. Those 2 factors don’t seem to match up. Trying to find the missing puzzle piece I asked Bill if he thinks that the new business growth in the area going to help the poverty problem. It has to affect it some manner, but how so?
“I would hope that some of the talent that is coming in with these companies might have an interest in getting involved in one of these areas. They are obviously creating jobs, but it depends on what level of jobs. That’s another task force that we have set up specifically, first what are the skills that the residents in the community have and then when jobs in the community become available, how can we point them in that direction.
“Speaking about new companies coming in, one thing that we do as a council, particularly companies that are coming in is asking for some type of incentive from the city, one of the areas that we are concerned about is what type of jobs will you be creating? Are those types of jobs going to be available to the citizens of Durham along with other resources that the company will bring to the community?”
I wasn’t shying away from asking the hard questions and Bill didn’t shy away from answering them in detail. It could be said that he kept his cool. In order to help someone or a group of someones, you’ve got to meet them where they’re at to help them get where they want to go. When it comes to combating poverty via employment, entry level jobs that provide opportunity for training and advancement are a must — non-negotiable. Which lead to the next logical question, do the contracting jobs like the remodeling and total reconstructions create a lot of jobs locally or are they bringing in service workers?
“It depends. Those jobs that are requesting help from the city, we have more of an opportunity and leverage to see what they’re doing and how they might benefit the residents of the city. Those that are doing their own private development that aren’t asking for city help, I guess they just go to the market and see who is available.”
What about the jobs created by construction that don’t require a lot of schooling or training, but do require the physical ability to do the job, is that helping the residents of our city?
“For example there is a highway that is being constructed, the east-west freeway conductor; you can see the type of construction that is occurring at the site. While the city is not giving any money to the project, it was all federal and state; we worked from the opening of the contract to try to make sure that the jobs that were posted on our job link to make them available to the residents of the city of Durham. These are construction type jobs and I know some hires that have come out of that.”
In a city nearing 263,000 people with a poverty level that seems to have stagnated at 18%, that means roughly over 47,000 of Durham’s residents are living at or below the poverty line. The Mayor and his efforts are helping, but far more needs to be and can be done. It’s time for the Bull City residents to ask “what can we do” and take action. What can you do today, tomorrow and the next day to help that number dwindle and the city as a whole rise above this?
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Sheila Amir is a health & nutrition writer who fell in love with Durham, North Carolina and starting writing a book about it.