Sitting at a large oval table in his City Hall Office, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel pauses and gazes out the window at the city he first moved to in 1969. The clock on his office wall ticks as he takes time to carefully consider how to phrase his priorities for local government.
“I prioritize them by what the needs of our community as expressed by our community,” he said.
In his run for re-election against long-shot opponent Sylvester Williams, Schewel’s top three priorities are ensuring Durham remains affordable, diverse and safe for everyone who calls the city home.
“We want Durham to be a welcoming city for all people and we want everyone to know that whether they are a refugee, or they have lived here all their life they are welcome here and that we love them, and we want them,” he said.
Schewel is still working on completing the goals he promoted during his 2017 campaign, which moved him from a City Council seat to the mayor’s office. Two years ago his platform focused around eight central issues – transportation, jobs, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, police reform, housing, and trash, trees and trails.
After two years in office, here is a loose accounting of progress made or not made from some 2017 goals.
“Durham needs a mobility strategy for the next 50 years. I am proud to have led our region’s support for the 18-mile Durham-Orange light rail project, and this year we must push it over the finish line for federal funding. We must also provide an expanded, efficient bus network for our 22,000 daily riders—and it’s time to begin the work to make the system fare-free.”
On April 8, 2019 the Durham County commissioners mournfully killed Schewel’s proposed light rail project. This vote came after Duke informed GoTriangle it would not support the project in February. A missing, needed commitment from North Carolina Railroad and a tight North Carolina General Assembly funding deadline weakened its prospects too.
Schewel said he is looking for alternatives to what would have been the core of his transit plan. He supports the Commuter Rail Transit project which would connect Durham to Raleigh on existing train tracks. Transportation development will now be integrated in the city and county’s comprehensive plan.
In this plan, Schewel still hopes to advance his second goal of expanding the local bus service so that is accessible to all residents. Expansion would include creating more routes and infrastructure such as bus shelters.
“We need a beautiful phoenix to rise from the ashes of the light rail,” he said.
“Durham needs strong council and community oversight of our police force to ensure that everyone lives free from fear. I support Chief C.J. Davis’ reform of our police department and her emphasis on de-escalation and racial equity training. I will continue to work towards a police force that effectively fights violent crime while actively seeking to build the trust of our entire community and enforcing the laws free from racial discrimination.”
Despite Schewel’s support of Davis during his 2017 campaign, the mayor could not convince all city council members to give her more police officers this year. Council members rejected Davis’ budget increase request to hire 18 additional police officers with a 4 to 3 vote in June, something Schewel has said was a mistake.
That said, Schewel praises Davis for multiple changes at the police department, including enforcement of the council’s written-consent-to-search policy, decreasing traffic stops and car searches (a study before she took over detected bias against black drivers with such stops), and outreach to minority communities members, including LGBTQ groups, among other things.
“We must double our local expenditure on affordable housing this year from $2.75 million to $5.5 million. We must support the redevelopment of the aging Durham Housing Authority units that serve 6,000 of our most vulnerable residents. We must leverage publicly owned land downtown to build affordable units. We must support our local non-profits as they build new units and preserve the affordability of older ones.”
Alongside city council candidates, a $95 million-dollar housing bond will be on the ballot on Tuesday. If this bond passes, Schewel can confidently say he has money needed to tackle his 2017 housing goals.
With these funds, Schewel outlines the city’s plans to construct 1,600 new affordable housing units, preserve 800 affordable rental units, among other construction plans.
“It will be a really big bite out of the apple in terms of our affordable housing work,” Schewel said.
The bond would also support first-time home buyers, efforts to house the homeless and an expansion of construction jobs in Durham.
“If we do it right, we can leverage the affordable housing bond into a really good program of employment and economic development for low income people in Durham,” he said.
“We can support the Living Wage Project’s recruitment of businesses to voluntarily comply with the $15 minimum. We can work with the schools and Durham Tech to make sure that our young people are educated in the skills they need to get the great jobs available in Durham. We can ensure that the City’s job training programs are effective and that our NCWorks career center does a great job connecting job-seekers to local employers.”
Despite failing to fund more police hires, the June budget approval devoted money to support local business in Durham and to expand the $15 hourly minimum wage already established for full time worker to include part-time and seasonal city employees.
With the creation of Bull City Foundation, which was a $300,000 dollar initiative, Schewel’s city council approved increased support for female and minority owned businesses through training in accounting, marketing, and finance.
Schewel hopes his next step will be establishing a debt and equity fund over his next term that would provide financing to these businesses. However, he recognizes this big goal is “difficult to do”.
The budget also included funds to support the Summer Youth Work Internship Program, which will allow for 50 additional students to be hired in paid summer internships in Durham. Currently 300 students have participated in summer internships, within a five-year goal of hiring 1,000 students. He hopes that skills learned in the classroom can be translated to local jobs for students in Durham.
“We can make sure that we have a pipeline between our schools and our good jobs we have here,” he said.
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