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What you need to know about the city council’s 4-hour meeting on coronavirus

During a four-hour virtual Durham City Council meeting on Monday, Mayor Steve Schewel announced that the city is flattening the growth curve of COVID-19: The daily rate of case increases has fallen from 12% to 8%, he said. 

Representatives from different sectors of the city discussed changes they have implemented to continue flattening that curve.

Social distancing, sanitation and support 

Multiple city officials said they have taken significant steps to reduce the spread of the coronavirus while still supporting employees and residents. 

According to Durham City Manager Bo Ferguson, the city has adjusted day-to-day activities to ensure unnecessary services are suspended and employee contact remains at a minimum.

Key services still in operation include water and sewer management, litter clean-up in high use public facilities, emergency street and concrete repair and garbage and recycling pickup. Custodial services are still in place in facilities where employees are working; employees are using enhanced cleaning protocols.

Ferguson recognized the 250 city employees who are not permitted to work even though they need to.

“Some of our heroes are the ones who are sitting at home and helping us not to spread this,” he said.

Many of those who do need to work rely on public transportation. 

GoDurham buses and GoDurham ACCESS have waived fares during the pandemic, according to transportation department director Sean Egan. He said the department’s workforce is receiving a 5% pay increase.

The city reduced the frequency of routes and buses stop running at 9:30 p.m. In order to reduce contact between passengers and drivers, passengers may only board using rear doors. Egan said his team has implemented more rigorous sanitation practices, including pressure washing stations and wiping vehicle interiors down with Lysol.

Drivers are not currently required to wear masks during their shifts, but some city officials expressed interest in seeing them do so. 

“I would like to see our bus drivers wearing masks,” Schewel told Egan. Referencing the CDC’s recent recommendation for people to wear cloth masks in public settings, he added, “I think that is great guidance and I just worry about them so much.” 

During the meeting, some speakers recognized the importance of protecting the city’s low-income and homeless people. 

Durham’s Office of Emergency Services, which coordinates disaster response, has created an interagency task force to work with Durham Public Schools, which is currently providing meals to 5,500 children each day.

Colin Davis, the manager for homeless systems for the City of Durham Community Development Department, said that to prevent the virus from spreading in Durham’s homeless shelters, the department is setting up an agreement with local hotels where the medically vulnerable can stay. 

Davis did not shy away from the harsh reality of the homeless community’s vulnerability. “There will be probably people who will remain unsheltered during this process,” he said.

How police are enforcing stay-at-home orders

The Durham Police Department has changed its protocols to protect officers and the public, said police chief Cerelyn Davis. Many calls about minor crimes are handled by phone rather than in person, and inquiries about COVID-19 are redirected to Durham One Call, the city’s information hotline, to avoid 911 interruption.

When speaking to residents in public — especially while monitoring social distancing — officers are supposed to use distinct verbal commands from 15 feet away and use the PA speaker system in police cars.

Davis said the police department has responded to multiple calls about residents failing to practice proper social distancing, but none have resulted in a formal citation. 

Economic impacts of the coronavirus

Small businesses across the city are struggling during the pandemic. 

Andre Pettigrew, director of the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, said the department is working with members of Durham’s Small Business Advisory Committee to provide small business owners and employees with as much information as possible about their financial options, including unemployment insurance and Small Business Association (SBA) programs. Pettigrew and his team are disseminating information and advice through webinars and a website portal

He said one of his biggest challenges is helping small business owners and independent contractors who do not have the required information to submit their application to the SBA for relief services.  

Even those who do qualify will have difficulty reaping the benefits because of bottlenecks in the system. On April 3, its first day of operation, the SBA payroll program received applications requesting between $3 and $5 billion.

City officials are currently in talks with other large cities to project the impact COVID-19 will have on the economy. Durham’s Budget and Management Services department director Bertha Johnson said there is a projected 10% loss from sales tax alone — a significant blow to the city given that sales tax generates $71 million a year.

According to Johnson, budget development guidelines will be revised to address complications caused by the pandemic, and the city manager is scheduled to present his budget for the next financial quarter on May 18. 

City council changes 

Amid the coronavirus news, council member Vernetta Alston announced her resignation and plan to join the state’s General Assembly, effective April 9. 

The council debated how to fill Alston’s seat. Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said that instead of filling the seat in the next 30 days, it should be on the ballot this fall.

Middleton argued that the proposed time frame would be unfair to residents who, under different circumstances, would apply for the position, but are unable to due the pandemic. 

“I don’t think we should create a higher bar than already exists to sit on this council for folks who may not have computer access, who would have filled out an application but are worried about unemployment right now, or are worried about bills,” he said.  

However, other members of the council disagreed, citing concerns about leaving the seat open for an extended period of time. The motion to appoint a new member in 30 days passed 5-2. The application and questionnaire will go live online on April 13.    

Top photo: Screenshot from the Durham City Council meeting on April 6.

Pregnant woman, fiancé forced out of apartment just before evictions freeze

Three hours before a court order froze evictions across North Carolina during the COVID-19 pandemic, a Durham couple was forced into homelessness. 

On March 19, the couple — Abriel Harris, who said she is three months pregnant, and her fiancé DeAngelo Reddick — were ordered to leave their place at Foxfire Apartments. The eviction occurred just before North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley extended deadlines for legal filings and gave North Carolina sheriffs the ability to stop serving evictions. 

“There’s a lot of feelings, having to deal with the stress of being high risk of catching the virus and of having to deal with the stress of being put out of my apartment,” Harris told the 9th Street Journal. 

According to the CDC, pregnant people are at an increased risk of COVID-19 complications. Homeless people are also at high risk because they don’t have quick access to healthcare or hygiene and sanitation facilities. 

Harris said the couple lived out of a car for several days before moving in with family. “When you’re living in your car and have to go to the gas station to wash, you can’t get a good scrub,” she said. “I’m worried about germs, about trying to keep myself clean… it’s hard to close your eyes and go to sleep when you don’t know if you’re safe.” 

Sarah D’Amato, a Legal Aid attorney who is handling Reddick and Harris’s case, told the 9th Street Journal she was surprised Foxfire went forward with the eviction.

“The landlord is the one who gives the last thumbs up or down,” D’Amato said. “They had the ultimate power to say, ‘You know what, we’ll work it out, we’ll deal with it later.’” 

Foxfire Apartments, which is run by a company that claims to manage over 30,000 apartments in the Southeast, declined to comment on the eviction. The complex’s website states they are taking precautions regarding the spread of the coronavirus, including closing their office. 

“Our highest priority continues to be the health and well-being of everyone who visits or is a part of our community,” reads a message on Foxfire’s homepage.

Struggling to make rent

The couple missed their January rent payment while they were in and out of work, according to Harris. When their landlord brought them to small claims court for an eviction hearing, they lost. After appealing, a new court date was set for late March. 

D’Amato said the couple paid their rent bond in February. When the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. canceled new work opportunities, they couldn’t pay their next rent bond due March 5, Harris said. Foxfire filed for a writ of eviction a few days later, and the sheriff sent the couple a notice that they would be evicted on March 17. 

Then, Reddick, who D’Amato said is a marine reservist, got a job at Amazon. With new income, the couple thought they’d be able to pay the rent they owed and negotiate with Foxfire to stay. But the company wanted several months worth of rent, including rent they hadn’t paid: a total of $3,000, according to Harris. The couple told Foxfire they could pay by mid-April, Harris said, but couldn’t make it work in only a few days. Foxfire moved forward with the eviction. 

“We tried to come to them to make a payment,” Harris said. “I felt like they weren’t being very considerate of what was going on.” 

The sheriff’s office postponed for two days while trying to determine if they were still legally required to conduct evictions after a March 13 order from Chief Justice Beasley halted nonessential court proceedings, Durham County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer AnnMarie Breen told 9th Street Journal. 

Once the office received clarification that it was still required to evict, they rescheduled for March 19, said Breen. The couple was evicted at 9:30 a.m. By 12:30, Beasley announced an order giving sheriffs across the state power to stop serving evictions. 

D’Amato said she understood why the sheriff’s department felt legally obligated to carry out the eviction since Foxfire decided to go through with it. 

What she didn’t understand was why the sheriff claimed two business days later that no recent evictions resulted in homelessness when her clients had to live in their car. In a statement about pausing evictions, Durham Sheriff Clarence Birkhead said that he takes “the safety and wellbeing of every resident of Durham County very seriously.”

“No one has been evicted into a homeless situation as a result of recent orders,” the statement said.

Harris said the sheriff’s office never reached out to her or Reddick to see if they were evicted into a homeless situation. D’Amato said she wasn’t contacted, either. 

“At no time did Mr. Reddick [whose name was in the lease] indicate that he did not have any place to live,” Breen said, adding that Reddick told the deputy “he said he had just gotten a new job,” and that “he was reported to be pleasant and cooperative.”

An uncertain future

While evictions have temporarily come to a halt in Durham, delayed eviction hearings are being rescheduled and the city is still receiving eviction filings. Attorneys say the backlog may lead to a “tsunami of evictions” when courts reopen. Legal Aid NC is continuing to work with Durhamites facing eviction. 

D’Amato is trying to work with Foxfire and the courts to get her clients into their apartment. Harris said the company told them if they paid the past due rent along with some future rent — now a total of $4,000, she claims — by March 31, they could move back in. 

“That’s not grace,” Harris said of the company’s offer. “That’s highway robbery,” 

For now, the couple is living with Harris’s family. Harris said she’s grateful to have somewhere to stay, but would feel safer and better able to manage her pregnancy if she had her own place. She’s looking for a new spot, but it’s hard to find one.

“We went to different apartment complexes, but most of them are closed,” Harris said. 

That exact problem is one of the reasons D’Amato questions why Foxfire evicted Reddick and Harris. 

“What’s the urgency in clearing out an apartment which will likely sit empty until the time my clients are able to come up with all their past due money?” she said. “I don’t understand that.”

Top photo: A screenshot from Foxfire apartment complex’s website.

What the stay-at-home order means for the homeless

On March 24, Mayor Steve Schewel ordered Durham residents to stay at home as much as possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But many people in the city do not have homes to go to. 

The stay-at-home order exempts homeless people, and they are being encouraged by ministries, advocates and government officials to seek shelter. Organizations that serve the homeless are working to establish protocol for those infected by the coronavirus. As of Friday, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Durham’s shelters.

The city and county departments and external services providers are in ongoing communication to establish “the screening, treatment, and housing protocol for the homeless population,” Colin Davis, manager for homeless systems for the City of Durham Community Development Department, explained in an email. 

Davis said services for the homeless are provided through the Durham Continuum of Care, a group of organizations and government agencies that works together to end homelessness and coordinates housing for the City of Durham and Durham County. The community development department is the lead agency for the group. 

There are two emergency homeless shelters in the city: Urban Ministries of Durham, which provides shelter for single adults and a small number of families, and Families Moving Forward, which focuses on shelter for families, according to Davis. 

There are not enough beds available for everyone who is experiencing homelessness in Durham, and beds are allotted in accordance with shelter’s admission policies, Davis said. The Urban Ministries of Durham has 149 beds total with an additional 30 overflow cots available and Families Moving Forward houses 21 families at a time.  

The Urban Ministries of Durham has restricted access to its campus because of the mayor’s order, which means people who do not live in the shelter can only come for food pick-up. All free meal services are now served in to-go packaging. Donations, such as the organization’s clothing closet, are suspended and volunteer staff is limited. 

Executive director Sheldon Mitchell emphasized that this is a big change for Urban Ministries of Durham, since over 100 people who do not reside on the campus typically come each day for meal services. 

The Urban Ministries of Durham has also created an Amazon wishlist to help stock items. According to their website, they are struggling to find thermometers, bottled water, Clorox bleach, spray disinfectant and hand sanitizer.  

“We have looked at trying to focus on the basic services for the residents we have on campus at this point,” said Mitchell. 

The shelter isn’t at maximum capacity yet, Mitchell said, but staff and residents are practicing social distancing. The city and county staff, as well as the Durham Emergency Communications Center, have been in discussion about where to relocate individuals to better alleviate the crowded space.  

Schewel said in his address that if a homeless person were to contract COVID-19, the city would work to create a facility where affected people could self-quarantine. He didn’t offer details about what that might look like. In San Francisco, homeless people have moved into vacant hotel rooms after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Mitchell has been in communication with city and county staff for at least two weeks to arrange plans for the homeless community during the virus outbreak. However, that process is challenging because of a malware attack on the city and county IT systems earlier in March that left some employees with limited email and phone capacities. 

More services are being organized and Mitchell has been pleased with support, but there’s been a delay in making plans for the homeless community, which Mitchell said is “one of the more vulnerable populations in this whole scenario.” 

“It is definitely important when we do have to make plans to address the community crisis such as this,” he said “that we do remember those who already have less resources or a lesser ability to react and respond.” 

Top photo: The Urban Ministries of Durham, which provides shelter for single adults and some families experiencing homelessness. Photo by Corey Pilson

County’s emergency order expands Durham’s stay-at-home policies

County Board Chair Wendy Jacobs extended stay-at-home orders for nonessential workers Saturday as local officials moved to stem the rapidly growing number of coronavirus cases in Durham, which reached 103 on Friday.

The new county measures broaden a citywide order that Mayor Steve Schewel implemented two days ago and adds new requirements for local businesses and childcare facilities. The county order goes into effect Sunday at 5 p.m. 

With Schewel’s consent and collaboration, Jacobs said the new rules extend stay-at-home and workplace requirements to parts of the county outside the city’s jurisdiction, including the Durham side of Research Triangle Park.

The 13-page order points to a federal list of critical infrastructure sectors to guide local businesses as they decide who should and should not be going to work. It also lays out  new sanitation and social distancing requirements for local businesses, as well as residents. These requirements include mandatory temperature checks for all employees at the start of each workday, maintaining six feet between all individuals, thoroughly washing hands as frequently as possible, and prohibiting the sharing of tools or workplace instruments.

“It really boils down to personal responsibility and just responsibility of all of our employers,” Jacobs said of the new requirements.

The order asks that childcare facilities abide by more stringent guidelines. Specifically, all childcare must be carried out in specific, unchanging groups. That means the same adult must be with the same group of children each day. These groups also are required to remain in separate rooms throughout the day, and they are prohibited from mixing.

Professional services such as legal, accounting, insurance and real estate also have strict new guidelines. All services are required to be carried out by a single individual, and may only take place if they are necessary for a closing sale. The ordinance prohibits in-person showings and open houses, but Jacobs encouraged real estate agents to take advantage of online tools like Facebook Live events for showing houses.

Jacobs emphasized that the county rules are more restrictive than a statewide order announced Friday by Gov. Roy Cooper. In order to most accurately target Durham County’s virus loci, Jacobs emphasized that local ordinances and rules take precedence over those in the state order, which takes effect Monday.

Jacobs acknowledged the inconsistencies in limits on social gatherings in different places, as some prohibit gatherings of any size, while others prohibit gatherings of more than two people. As of right now, both the state and local ordinances prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people. However, Jacobs said this rule does not mean people should be going out of their way to socialize. “You really should try not to have social gatherings of any type,” she insisted.

Should the gathering limit prove too large in the coming weeks, the County Board will work with the mayor and county Health Director to amend the social gathering guidelines. 

Jacobs explained the new rules in a Facebook video from the County Board’s chamber Saturday afternoon. She pushed through a cough throughout the 40-minute announcement, but assured the audience that it was allergies, not COVID-19. She said she tested negative for the virus, and had practiced self-quarantining while waiting for her results.

Jacobs signed off by echoing an optimistic message from Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services: “To our beloved Bull City, we can do this, we are strong, we are in this together.”

At top: County Board Chair Wendy Jacobs announces expanded emergency measures Saturday. Facebook video image by 9th Street Journal

Schewel announces stay-at-home order to slow spread of virus

In a bold effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Mayor Steve Schewel announced a sweeping stay-at-home policy that will limit when people can leave their homes but allow a host of exemptions for everything from grocery shopping to doctor visits to playing tennis.

He said it was critical to act now before Durham is overwhelmed by the virus.

“This is our window for social distancing to work. This is our window to intervene,” he said. 

He said the stay-at-home order assures that the maximum number of residents will self-isolate while still keeping essential businesses open. Those businesses include grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies, and stores selling vital household goods. 

Schewel said the policy also allows Durham residents to continue to go outdoors for exercise, but he emphasized everyone must practice social distancing. He said contact sports – he mentioned basketball — were prohibited. But walking, hiking, running, biking, golfing and playing tennis are permitted.

The order will be in effect from Thursday at 6 p.m. until April 30, although Schewel said it could be extended or shortened.

Schewel said the order is legally enforceable, although no one will be arrested unless they “continuously and egregiously offend.”

Durham County has the state’s second-highest number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus – 74 in Tuesday evening’s tally. Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte, has, 142.

“There is no need to fear this virus if we act. And the way to act is to stay at home,” Schewel said.

While the number of cases in Durham remains low, Schewel noted that the trend line of coronavirus in the United States is following that of Italy. He said it was urgent to act now to prevent the same magnitude of fatalities that occurred there.

He said he also hopes the order will keep the Duke Hospital from being overwhelmed with cases.

The order includes an exemption for educational institutions, including North Carolina Central University and Duke University, to stay open for essential research. 

Wake County was set to make an announcement Wednesday about a stay-at-home order, the Herald Sun reportedSchewel said he expects the order to be very similar.

A stay-at-home order has not yet been announced statewide, but Schewel is hopeful the governor will adopt one soon. He has been in contact with other North Carolina cities and counties which will adopt similar policies soon. 

“Our cities are all experiencing this same crisis,” he said.

Mecklenburg announced a policy similar to Durham’s Tuesday afternoon that orders residents to stay at home and bans gatherings of more than 10 people. The order limits travel on public roads to those needing medical care, food, or other trips vital to “well-being.” Mayors of nearby towns Cornelius, Matthews, Davidson, Mint Hill, Huntersville, and Pineville also signed the order.

The  stay-at-home approach by the North Carolina cities and counties is similar to policies in 18 states, 31 counties, and 13 cities as of Tuesday, according to a New York Times summary. Soon the majority of Americans will live under similar restrictions, the Times said.

Punishments vary by location. Violators in Hawaii may face up to a year in jail or $5,000 in fines. 

Schewel’s stay-at-home order followed escalating restrictions in the city. On March 13, he ordered a state of emergency restricting gatherings to fewer than 100 people. He later expanded the order to close gyms, health clubs, and theaters. 

Then, on March 17, Governor Roy Cooper banned dining in at restaurants and bars.

On Monday, Durham closed all city facilities, including City Hall, police headquarters, fire stations, playgrounds, and park restrooms. Parks, trails, and greenways remained open.

Schewel says Durham, like other areas, is considering shelter-in-place restrictions

In California, the governor has issued a statewide “stay-at-home” order to slow the coronavirus pandemic, calling on residents to stay in their houses and apartments unless they work in a critical job such as government, schools, childcare or construction. 

It’s also been dubbed a “shelter-in-place” order, a term used by some local governments that have adopted restrictive policies about when people can leave their homes.  

Is Durham likely to pursue those kinds of restrictions?

At a news conference Friday afternoon, a 9th Street Journal editor asked Mayor Steve Schewel if he was considering a shelter-in-place policy for the city. With 39 confirmed positive tests, Durham County has the second-most coronavirus cases in the state. 

“I don’t know anyone who is grappling with this issue in a serious way and is in a leadership position in a city or a county that is not actively thinking about shelter in place,” Schewel said. But he said a Durham policy alone would have little teeth. People drive into the city from other areas every day. 

Schewel was asked if he thinks it is necessary now, on a local level. 

After pausing for a few seconds, Schewel took a deep breath. 

“I’m still evaluating that. I’m listening to the public health authorities and I’m evaluating it. If we are not there now, we will be getting there,” he said. “We have the first transmissions in the state that are community-spread. We are heading in that direction.”

Schewel said he talked with Gov. Roy Cooper about more restrictions as recently as Friday morning, though the governor said Friday afternoon that the state was not ready to issue such an order. Wake County is mulling such a policy, though. 

Schewel struck a tone of caution Friday. 

“Societies that have most effectively fought coronavirus have acted early,” he said.

What exactly does shelter in place mean?

In emergency management, “shelter in place” has typically been used for seeking protection from hazards such as hurricanes or a shooter. A Yale University definition says: “Shelter in place means finding a safe location indoors and staying there until you are given an ‘all clear’ or told to evacuate.”

With the virus outbreak, the term has been used to describe policies closing nonessential businesses and asking people to stay at home except for certain purposes, like getting food or medicine, Schewel told the 9th Street Journal. 

This is not yet happening in Durham—the city is asking people to socially distance, he said. 

The city has also shut down businesses such as theaters and gyms – “venues and businesses in which we think that kind of social distancing will not occur,” Schewel said. 

In announcing the “stay-at-home” order Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said more than half of California’s residents could get the coronavirus. His order called on residents to stay home while closing gyms, bars, restaurants (for dining in) and non-essential entertainment venues. Newsom said he didn’t think law enforcement would be needed to coerce people into staying in. 

However, grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, gas stations and other essential services were allowed to stay open. Residents can still go for walks and bike rides if they follow social distancing. 

The response so far

Durham City and County have each declared states of emergency. 

The city’s declaration runs through March 28, and has prohibited gatherings of 100 or more people in city-owned or partially city-owned buildings like Durham Performing Arts Center. A later amendment to the city’s declaration closed fitness clubs, gyms and theaters on Friday. 

On Tuesday, Gov. Cooper banned all restaurants in the state from serving dine-in meals and shuttered all bars. Schewel has said enforcement of this provision hasn’t been needed for the most part.

A reporter asked Schewel about businesses that have been impacted by the explosion in Durham last spring and how new restrictions would or could impact them. 

“The longer we wait, the greater our chances are that the virus will have wide community spread and the longer the disruption of the business will be,” Schewel said. 

In other news on Friday:

  • Schewel announced the Durham Farmer’s Market scheduled for Saturday would be closed to avoid the large crowd. 
  • The city announced all city buildings would be closed effective Monday at 8 a.m. That includes City Hall, police headquarters and every fire station. Parks and recreation facilities have been closed since March 13. 
  • The city also announced GoDurham will end all routes at 9:30 p.m., beginning Monday, as to allow more time for disinfecting the buses. 
  • Garbage and recycling collection will continue as scheduled, except for bulky cardboard pickups, which have been suspended indefinitely. 

In photo above, Mayor Steve Schewel speaks at a news conference about the city’s response to the coronavirus. | Photo by Corey Pilson, The 9th Street Journal

City, county declare emergency over virus

The city and county of  Durham have each declared a state of emergency to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

The city’s declaration prohibits gatherings of 100 or more people in buildings owned or co-owned with the county such as the Durham Performing Arts Center, Carolina Theatre, Durham Arts Council, and the City-County Convention Center. The city declaration expires March 28.

“We know that social distancing is one of the most important ways of keeping us all safe. I know this will be a hardship on venues like DPAC and the Carolina Theatre, and I am very grateful for their close cooperation as we make these decisions together,” Mayor Steve Schewel said in a statement.

The county’s declaration, which is effective until it is rescinded, provides further restrictions. 

It says any gathering of 100 or more people in the county should be canceled or postponed and it recommends that people in Durham maintain a 6-foot “social distance.” 

It also says individuals must comply with quarantine orders and that county public health officials must have “cooperation from the public and unobstructed access to persons, records, residences and facilities” to investigate coronavirus cases. Failure to comply with either quarantine orders or the investigations is a criminal violation of state law, the county says.

The emergency declaration also says county and city utility services will not disconnect residents for failing to pay their bills, and it urges private utilities to adopt the same approach.

‘A city for all’: Mayor’s State of the City address focuses on racial justice

During his State of the City speech Monday night, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel stressed the importance of addressing three major issues — public housing, climate change and gun violence — that disproportionately impact African Americans.

He vowed to take on “the devastating and lasting legacy of racism, our great, national sin.”

Schewel introduced public housing reform efforts by recognizing the pain caused by the crisis at public housing complex McDougald Terrace, where 270 families were evacuated in January due to carbon monoxide leaks. 

“For 40 years, we have failed you,” Schewel said to the residents in the crowd, emphasizing his administration’s efforts to do “the work that the federal government should be doing” through Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding.

Schewel outlined plans to allocate more than $15 million in tax funds for the Durham Housing Authority’s (DHA) renovations of hundreds of affordable housing units, and $1.4 million in upgrades for the electrical system at McDougald Terrace. 

DHA will use $59 million of the $95 million affordable housing bond voters overwhelmingly approved in 2019 to redevelop properties into mixed income communities with no increase in rent, he said.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. Credit: Wikimedia photo

Former Durham city council member Jackie Wagstaff said she isn’t satisfied by the proposed housing initiatives because they aren’t affordable for people living in poverty.

“For some of us that live in this community, you didn’t speak our language,” she said to Schewel at the city council meeting after the address. “When you have no income, but you need somewhere to live, how do y’all address that?”

In the address, Schewel emphasized other justice issues in Durham as well. He announced a climate action plan to localize the efforts of the proposed Green New Deal — a vision he dubbed “Green New Durham.” 

Some efforts include renegotiating an agreement with Duke Energy so Durham has more control over its use of solar power, requiring all city-funded construction to meet sustainable building standards and halving the waste sent to landfills by 2024. 

He proposed making public transportation systems more efficient, with a focus on providing services to low-income residents. 

The mayor also cited violence in the city as an urgent problem. Despite the decline in shooting victims in the last three years, he said 189 people were shot in the last year in Durham, and that he is determined to bring that number down. 

Schewel expressed his support for a proposal to add six new officers to the police department’s gang unit — a measure unanimously passed by the city council Monday night. 

The city will continue supporting racial equity training for officers, second-chance initiatives for people with criminal records and deferral of first-time offenders to Durham’s misdemeanor diversion court. 

Schewel also announced plans to pressure Congress to create a comprehensive national reparation policy for racial injustice.

He invited mayors from neighboring cities and towns to join him, because he wants the work to start at home.

‘It’s been a tough year, but still, we rise,” Schewel said. “Let’s make this city we love a city for all.”   

Gray Ellis: Family lawyer, transgender man, state Senate District 20 candidate

In his state Senate campaign, Gray Ellis did not land an endorsement from either of Durham’s most influential political action committees.

But the local lawyer hopes that voters will educate themselves on individual candidates, rather than passively voting with a local PAC. 

“The bottom line is I spent my career working with people, not with PACs, not with a political agenda. I’m focused on people, service to people,” said Ellis. 

In Tuesday’s primary, Ellis is running against fellow Democrats Pierce Freelon, a former mayoral candidate and arts organizer, and Natalie Murdock, a Durham Soil and Water Conservation supervisor with work experience in multiple facets of public policy. 

Because it’s extremely unlikely the district will elect a Republican in November, whoever wins will very likely become a state senator. 

Ellis is the first openly transgender man to run for the General Assembly in North Carolina. If elected, he would be the first openly transgender senator in the United States, he says. 

Ellis transitioned seven years ago, at age 40, and experienced no negativity in Durham following this “very public” change in identity, he said. He wants voters to consider all of him.

“I’m a lot of things, I’m a dad and a partner, I’m an attorney, I’m a volunteer, I’m a philanthropist, I just happen to be a trans guy too,” he said.

Gray Ellis speaks at a campaign event. Photo from Gray Ellis for North Carolina State Senate, Facebook

On many issues Ellis aligns with Murdock and Pierce, endorsed by The People’s Alliance and the Committee on the Affairs of Black People, respectively. But one of his major platforms sets him apart: a passion for mental health treatment reform. 

As a family law attorney, Ellis said that he often sees “families falling apart” because one or more of the members has a mental health issue and they do not have adequate access to treatment. 

“Not only am I seeing that in my day-to-day practice, but I’ve dealt with that in my own extended family, having grown up with someone who has significant mental illness,” said Ellis, who grew up in Columbus County and has lived in Durham for over 20 years. “We need to make it a state priority.”

Ellis often says: “I am someone who believes we have a lot more in common than we do different.” In the North Carolina General Assembly, he could work with Republican lawmakers to get legislation passed, he said. 

Despite recent resistance to gun-control legislation in the GOP-controlled state legislature, Ellis said he thinks he could find support on both sides of the aisle for common-sense gun legislation. Mandatory safety training for gun buyers, broader background checks, registering guns, red-flag laws, and banning assault rifles are all necessary, he said.

Ellis was endorsed by the Victory Fund, a national organization dedicated to electing openly LGBTQ people, as well as LEAP Forward and Durham’s Partners Against Crime.

“I know he will be a voice on LGBTQ issues as they arise. It is a lot harder to knowingly vote to discriminate against people when you’re sitting next to them,” said Annise Parker, the president and CEO of the Victory Fund. 

Equality NC, which works to defend the rights of the LGBTQ community in North Carolina, has endorsed all three candidates.

Longtime Durham state Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. resigned from the District 20 seat early this year after Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper appointed him to the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

McKissick has praised Ellis’ law training, though the former senator said he also sees value in his replacement having previous government service, which Ellis so far lacks.

“When 95% of what you’re looking at is laws, being a lawyer can be a major advantage. I think it’s important to have other perspectives, but it’s really important to be able to read a law,” said McKissick, also a lawyer. 

A North Carolina State University graduate, Ellis originally moved to Durham to attend law school at North Carolina Central University. Nearly 18 years ago he founded Ellis Family Law, which has offices in Durham and Chatham County. 

Ellis is also the vice president of the non-profit Meals on Wheels of Durham, an organization that delivers meals to the elderly with limited mobility. Four years ago, Ellis started the Feed the Need gala to address a long waitlist for meals, he said.

Ellis emphasized his work and personal experience at last week’s candidate forum. Photo by Corey Pilson

During a candidate forum at Duke last week, Ellis said he believes that his upbringing in southeastern North Carolina will help him work with senators from more rural areas. 

“I’m from Whiteville, North Carolina. I grew up on a pig farm,” he said, making his point by deepening his southern accent beyond his usual speaking voice. 

Ellis also says his age is an asset. He is 47 and Freelon and Murdock are both 36. “I’ve got life experience and I’ve got the professional experience that actually translates to the job,” said Ellis.

At last week’s candidate forum, Murdock closed by citing numbers to call attention to the lack of young black women in the North Carolina General Assembly.

“Four. There are only four black women in the state senate. Zero. I’m 36 years old, there are zero black women in the house or senate that are under 40,” she said. 

Ellis followed up.

“If you want to talk about underrepresented — zero in human history,” he said, making a circle with two fingers. I will be the first, if elected, trans senator in U.S. history.”

9th Street Journal reporter Jake Sheridan contributed to this report.

At top: Gray Ellis at the North Carolina Senate District 20 Democratic Forum held at Duke University last week. Photo by Corey Pilson.  

Pierce Freelon: Educator, community organizer, state Senate District 20 candidate

Pierce Freelon leaned on the lectern in front of North Carolina Central University’s Thursday evening “Black Women’s Activism” class. As he spoke, the state Senate District 20 candidate drifted between stump speech and lecture, connecting current politics and history.

As he lauded activism by black women, including the 1957 Royal Ice Cream Sit-in on Dowd Street, the class’s professor, Baiyina Muhammad, mentioned Takiyah Thompson was taking the course when she toppled a Confederate monument in Durham in August 2017.

“Of course she was,” said Freelon, a smile spreading across his face. “Doesn’t surprise me one bit.”

Freelon told the students about his 2017 Durham mayoral campaign. He lost, but his policy visions, like a jobs guarantee and support for a now-abandoned light rail plan helped give him momentum to enter a state race, he said. 

“When you come up and present ideas that are truly visionary, people are going to look at you funny,” Freelon said. “That’s what trailblazing is. It’s the person in the front with the machete, they’re getting all the scratches and the bruises.”

The 36-year-old candidate is an arts entrepreneur, community organizer, college lecturer and politician. He is the son of Nnenna Freelon, the Grammy-nominated jazz singer, and the late Philip Freelon, a renowned architect who designed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. 

In a primary race against two Democrats — attorney Gray Ellis and Durham County’s Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor Natalie Murdock — Freelon has been endorsed by some of Durham politics’ biggest names and organizations: Mayor Steve Schewel, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Triangle Labor Council, Mayor Pro-Tempore Jillian Johnson and Bill Bell, Durham’s former longtime mayor.

The candidates are vying for a seat vacated by veteran state Sen. Floyd McKissick, who resigned in January to serve on the state’s public utilities commission. Whoever wins Tuesday’s vote is likely to become senator since voters in District 20, which includes Durham, are highly unlikely to send a Republican to Raleigh. John Tarantino, a former teacher who has lost several races for local seats, is the GOP candidate.

Pierce Freelon watches presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders at a Durham rally in February. Photo by Jake Sheridan

The three Democrats share many views, Freelon said, like support for Medicaid expansion, teacher raises and environmental protection.  

But Freelon — who calls himself “the lefty of the bunch” — thinks he goes further, pointing to his stances for greater police accountability and marijuana decriminalization.

“My positions on criminal justice aren’t things that I see being adamantly pursued by the other candidates,” said Freelon, who recently opened for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders at a Durham presidential campaign rally.

Some of his platform’s major goals include: reparations, which are payments or other amends for descendants of enslaved people or others treated unjustly; an end to gerrymandering in North Carolina through independent redistricting; a $15 minimum wage; abolishing the death penalty; automatic voter registration; and campaign finance reform.

The death of his father last July from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) had a major impact on his stances, particularly around healthcare. 

“You have principles — things you believe in — and then you have experiences that give you a front-row seat to how policy is relevant in people’s daily lives,” Freelon said. “That was a front-row seat in many ways: to health care, disability… the right to die.”

Freelon said he is passionate about education, and has long supported more funding for historically black colleges & universities and state-wide equity in public school spending. 

In 2013, he founded Blackspace, a digital makerspace that teaches local black and brown children about music, filmmaking and coding, and has developed alternative hip-hop high school curriculums. Freelon also is artistic director for  Northstar Church of the Arts, which he founded with his parents. 

He said he believes being the only Durham native candidate helps him stand out. 

“I have skin in the game that puts me in a unique position to lead in the city that produced me,” Freelon said. 

The ongoing crisis at Durham public housing complex McDougald Terrace, where 270 families were evacuated last month due to carbon monoxide leaks and other dangers, was “personal” for Freelon. He said he grew up with some residents and now mentors children there. McDougald Terrace Resident Council President Ashley Canady has endorsed him. 

Pierce Freelon carries signs and campaign materials for the state senate race. Photo by Jake Sheridan

Longtime Democratic state Rep Mickey Michaux, who was temporarily appointed to fill McKissick’s senate seat after he resigned, has endorsed him.

But McKissick—who held the seat for 13 years—told 9th Street he has some concerns about Freelon’s lack of experience. 

“I think he’ll be at a serious disadvantage were he to be elected not having any of the city government experience or academic training,” he said. “I think it’s important to have other perspectives, but it’s really important to be able to read a law.”

Freelon served on the NC Arts Council and is vice chair of the Durham Human Relations Commission, but has no elected office or law experience.

McKissick’s criticism doesn’t deter Freelon. “I think that one of the unique skill sets I bring given my background as an artist as an ability to communicate with a fluency that I don’t see in a lot of people trained in law school,” he said. 

He added that his arts residencies throughout conservative rural North Carolina showcase his work to bridge ideological gaps.

Schewel told 9th Street in an interview that he thinks Freelon has “experience as a leader.” He praised him for his progressive agenda and good-natured 2017 campaign, calling Freelon an “exceptionally open person.”

“He extends his warmth and his amazing creative powers to really embrace so many people and so many communities,” Schewel said.

Freelon’s ability to lead and communicate seemed to work in the NCCU class. Towards the end of his mini-lecture, he made a plea to the room of all black women.

“We need you,” Freelon said. “And I will be your ally, because I’ve been trained and raised by radical black womanists who I carry with me.”  

When he finished, he pulled out a sign up sheet and offered the students an opportunity to work for his campaign. Nearly half put their names down. 

Top photo: State Senate District 20 candidate Pierce Freelon speaks at a forum at Duke University. Photo by Corey Pilson