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Despite calls for radical change, City Council funds the police department

For the second time this month, frustration and outrage over police misconduct against Black people dominated a Durham City Council meeting on Monday.

Council members reported receiving thousands of emails demanding that they defund the police department. Dozens of community members spoke at their virtual meeting urging the same thing.

Despite repeating their support for reforming the city’s police department, city council members unanimously passed the city’s $502 million 2020-2021 budget, which includes $70 million for the police department, a 5% increase from last year.

That doesn’t mean change isn’t coming, they stressed.

Before that vote, council members passed the Durham City Council Statement on Community Health and Safety, which commits the city council to continue the process to “transform policing” in Durham.

Written primarily by Mayor Steve Schewel and Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, the statement calls for reforming the Durham Police Department’s use-of-force policies.  It also requires an analysis of 911 calls to identify police activities, such as responding to mental health crises, that other city departments could handle.

The statement pledges $1 million to fund a Community Safety and Wellness Task Force. Johnson championed the body last year as a means to research and present proposals for alternative community safety measures.

Schewel and Johnson emphasized that $1 million was not the only amount elected officials will commit to new community safety measures. 

“A million dollars is a down-payment on the work we need to do to be transforming community safety in Durham,” Schewel said.

That amount was too low, argued two council members, Mark-Anthony Middleton, who represents Ward 2, and DeDreana Freeman, who represents Ward 1.

“I think the million, even as an initial down payment, the pure power of the symbolism of it is just not enough,” Middleton said.

He criticized what he felt was the council’s reluctance to commit at least $2 million to exploring measures, such as universal basic income, which he says would help reduce crime by addressing poverty, a root cause.

“I think we have an opportunity to literally transform the budgetary culture of our city and be a beacon for the rest of the world,” he added. “Do you want to put police out of business? Let’s start spending real money on those things that will put them out of business.”

Middleton noted that the city council spent $2.4 million in 2018 on the Durham Participatory Budgeting initiative spearheaded by Johnson.

“Some of us fought like hell for $2 million for participatory budgeting, and 60% of the voters were white,” Middleton said. “We need to fight like hell now to send the right message for the folk that are dying right now.”

Council member Freeman said she would have preferred a figure closer to $11 million.

“It’s almost like we’re saying that these Black lives are worth a million dollars,” she said. “It just doesn’t feel right.”

Johnson, Reece, and Caballero campaigned last fall on a joint platform that included addressing police brutality and developing new community safety institutions. They have favored decreasing the police budget and reducing the number of officers while supporting community-led task forces to create proposals for community safety. 

While Freeman and Middleton have also supported calls for police reform, on Monday they emphasized the continuing need for policing due to what they say are unacceptable levels of violent crime affecting lower-income neighborhoods in Durham.

Freeman and Middleton also questioned the need for a task force to investigate solutions that they said the city council and community already understand. 

“I don’t need the task force to tell me that mentally ill people don’t need people with guns being the primary responder,” Middleton said. “We can move on that now. And we can start preparing the groundwork now for a budgetary revolution.”

Freeman emphasized that some in Durham are alarmed by campaigns to defund the police.

“The people I speak to in the community have a very different understanding of what that means and how it’s going to impact their lives,” Freeman said. “There’s a whole lot of folks that we are scaring this evening, and we have to be mindful of the fact that they are still residents in this community, and they deserve to be represented.”

Approval of the statement passed 4 to 2, with Middleton and Freeman voting no.

The passionate discussion took place immediately after a heated public commenting session where almost 50 people addressed the council about the city’s proposed budget.

Noting that a large number of people wanted to speak, Schewel limited comments to those who pre-registered, giving each one minute. That angered several community members who criticized the council during their remarks. Others voiced their complaints in a virtual chatroom.

Of those able to make comments, 35 spoke against the budget, demanding that the city council defund the city’s police department. That is something included in an alternative budget proposed by Durham Beyond Policing, a coalition of local activist groups.

Some speakers expressed outrage that council members were considering any increase in police funding at a time people are protesting across the county against police violence directed at Black people.

“How dare you — at a time like this — give $70 million, a 5% increase, to cops when cities are burning in rage and mourning across the country,” said Erin Carson, a member of the city’s Human Relations Commission. “Our city workers’ wages and our vital programs are frozen, but the police never miss a cent while delivering nothing.”

Others emphasized what they felt was the community’s desire to have police funding redistributed to other services. “To say defund the police, we’re just saying give the people back our money, and that’s what we’re asking for now,” said Mabelle Segrest, a resident.

Four people spoke in favor of passing the budget as it was drafted. Sheila Huggins, who represented Friends of Durham, a moderate political action group focused on public safety, asked council members to commit to working with residents on a “comprehensive plan for community policing”.

Middleton stressed that approving the budget did not preclude advancing police reforms.

“This budget is increasing the police budget, full stop. It’s not buying tanks, it’s not buying tear gas, it’s not hiring more officers to be on the street. But it is going up,” said Middleton. “Because inflation happens. Things happen.”

This year’s budget, rewritten after considerable revenue losses during the coronavirus pandemic, canceled raises for city employees. Reece explained that he supported the budget because he says it avoids further layoffs, preserves essential city services, and safeguards city finances in case revenues continue to decrease.

Reece noted that the thousands of emails he received asking to transform public safety and policing was the most he had ever gotten for any city council matter. Still, he said he felt more dialogue and understanding were needed. “There are lots of folks in Durham who have a hard time imagining a Durham beyond policing,” he said.

With the budget issues seemingly settled, the city council meeting moved onto seemingly less contentious topics such as community development grants. But a public hearing on that matter provided another opportunity for comment from audience members.

“You don’t have the moral courage to take a very small step toward addressing the centuries-old damage that’s been done to our community at the hands of government,” said Donald Hughes, who had earlier spoken in favor of the Durham Renewal Project, a budget proposal by activist group Other America Movement Durham calling for more spending on community services. 

“Before there was COVID-19, I want to remind you again, there was COVID-1619,” he said, referring to the date frequently linked to the start of slavery in North America.

At top: Members of the Other America Movement have set up camp in front of the city police headquarters downtown. Photo by Henry Haggart

Outdoor fitness classes, real estate open houses allowed to resume

The city of Durham and Durham County are continuing to move forward with reopening plans during the coronavirus pandemic. An amendment to the “safer-at-home” order issued on May 28 will allow real estate open houses and outdoor fitness classes to resume starting Friday. 

Gyms can hold outdoor fitness classes of up to 25 people, with recommendations to keep 10 feet of distance between participants and make sure the areas are sanitized. Realtors can now hold open houses for up to 10 people, although officials said in a press release they “strongly discourage” this activity. 

“We appreciate the active engagement and participation of both our realtors and our fitness centers in our Durham Recovery and Renewal Task Force Roundtables,” Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham Board of County Commissioners, said in the release. “Like many of our business sectors, they are taking the lead to develop and implement industry best practices putting their clients and customers safety first.”

These changes come against a backdrop of rising COVID-19 cases in Durham County. Data reported by the Durham County Public Health Department shows a clear upward trajectory in cases for the first week-and-a-half of June. As of June 12, Durham County has approximately 2,470 confirmed cases — up from 1,677 on the first of the month

A similar spike in cases of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus is taking place across the state. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human services reported 1,768 new cases in North Carolina on Friday, which surpassed the previous largest single-day increase of 1,370 cases on June 6. This brings the total number of confirmed cases in North Carolina to 41,249 cases. 

A social distancing sign in a Durham park. Photo by Lyndsey Gilpin

“As we continue to re-open activities in our community, it is more important than ever we all continue to practice the 3 W’s- Wearing face coverings, Waiting 6 feet and Washing our hands to keep ourselves, our loved ones and each other safe and healthy,” Jacobs said in the release. 

This amendment means it’s up to real estate companies and fitness center owners to decide if they want to host larger groups. 

Steven Squires, senior broker for Costello Real Estate and Investments, regularly conducts business in Durham County. He told 9th Street in an emailed statement that he recommends real estate professionals who plan to show homes or host open houses take a “one in, one out” approach so that no more than 10 people are in the home at a time, and that all parties should wear personal protective equipment and limit touching surfaces such as doorknobs, light switches and plumbing fixtures.

He also said that he is holding off for the time being on hosting open houses based on his “own comfort level with the pandemic.” 

“Considering there are so many other methods of advertising at our disposal, I just don’t feel like it’s necessary to host events where an increased level of exposure is possible,” he said. “I do plan to resume hosting open houses on my own listings in the near future, but only when I feel more comfortable doing so and my clients are on board with it as well.” 

Cameron Oglesby contributed reporting to this story. 

Q&A with mayor centers on police funding, COVID-19

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel’s virtual Q&A with faculty and staff of Duke University’s public policy school on Wednesday offered a glimpse into how the city is handling police violence protests and the coronavirus pandemic.  

“We had last week in Durham, verelly powerful forceful protests, eloquent protests . . . about, not just the murder, the heinous inhuman and cold murder of George Floyd,” Schewel said, “but also the racism in our system that persists.”

Nearly 100 people attended the hour-long online event. Duke faculty and staff, as well as the public, submitted questions via Zoom for Sanford School of Public Policy Dean Judith Kelley to ask the mayor. 

Much of the conversation revolved around policing, including the department’s funding and potential reforms. The mayor said that last week, he signed a pledge to review and reform policies around police officers’ use-of-force within the next 90 days. 

“I’m happy to say that our police chief has already responded to the eight particular tactics that were highlighted in that [pledge],” he said.

Many Durham residents are calling on city officials, including the mayor, to defund the police department. But Schewel said the police budget will instead be increasing by just over $1 million dollars. In 2019, the police department asked for an estimated $69 million and spent $67 million; this year, the city has a proposed police budget of $70 million. 

“That million dollars is not adding any police officers,” he said, assuring attendees that the money will pay for state-mandated pensions and mandatory raises for officers.

Kelley asked Schewel if he felt Durham police were where they needed to be in the community. Schewel responded that Durham has spent years “reforming the way our police operate.” 

He added that police have and will continue to respect demonstrators’ right to protest, adopt non-confrontational tactics and monitor if traffic stops are made because of racial profiling.

“We have racial equity training for all our officers, we have de-escalation training for all of our officers, we have crisis intervention training,” he said. “Our police department is far from perfect . . . but we are putting in a lot of effort and have put in a lot of effort over the last few years to reform our police force.”

The city also plans to establish alternatives to policing, he said, so officers are not called in for something better handled by medical services, mental health services or social workers.

He did not offer any details about how specific programs would work or be funded, or say if the city will reduce the number of police officers over time.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. Credit: Wikimedia photo

The Q&A also covered voting during the coronavirus pandemic. Schewel said it was up to the Board of Elections and the state to decide how to handle voting processes in November’s general election. 

“Right now, there isn’t quite a strategy,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are thinking about it, and I have a lot of confidence. But we’re going to need good guidance from the state.”

Last year, the North Carolina legislature passed a law making it harder to request absentee ballots, which is being challenged in court. Schewel said he’s worried about residents having easy absentee voting options and safe, quick in-person polling stations.

“Voter suppression is real, and I think that our legislature, unless they agree to have mailed to every voter an application for an absentee ballot, I think that that will be suppressing the vote,” Schewel said.

Other attendees asked about the city’s COVID-19 response and the reopening of Durham schools. Schewel said he wasn’t sure what would happen in the fall, but is concerned the continued increase of cases in Durham could lead to a resurgence of the virus.

One program he emphasized was an effort to address unequal access to remote learning during the pandemic. Durham Public Schools will spend $8 million providing Chromebooks to students and installing wireless hotspots around the city to help ensure every child has access to digital learning.

Throughout the conversation, Schewel responded to many questions with “I don’t know.” He reiterated that some decisions — especially those about the pandemic — depend on state lawmakers. 

“As we all know we’re in an incredibly difficult time in our nation,” he said, “It’s a hard time to be mayor, I’ll tell you that.”

McDougald Terrace crisis was decades in the making

Health threats from carbon monoxide leaks plunged hundreds of McDougald Terrace residents into a crisis last winter.

After Durham County EMS Assistant Chief Lee VanVleet noticed an unusual number of EMS calls linked to the hazardous gas, nearly 900 residents were evacuated from Durham’s oldest and largest public housing complex. 

Beginning in late December, inspectors found stoves, furnaces, and water heaters emitting excess amounts of the invisible, odorless gas, which can be lethal. 

These substandard conditions didn’t come out of the blue. McDougald Terrace failed federal inspections in 2019, scoring a dismal 31 out of 100. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development marks scores lower than 60 as failing grades.

Exposed electrical wires and ventilation problems, including misaligned chimneys and faulty ventilation systems in water heaters, were among 153 health and safety deficiencies detailed in the federal Housing and Urban Development inspection report. Inspectors also found mold and roaches in apartments at McDougald, which was built to house black tenants in 1954, when racial segregation was still sanctioned across Durham.

Ashley Canady, resident council president at McDougald Terrace, and other tenants marched in the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Unity March and Rally in January. 9th Street Journal file photo by Corey Pilson

Total costs for putting residents up in hotels, providing them with stipends and completing emergency repairs at McDougald Terrace are expected to reach at least $9 million, the Durham Housing Authority announced this month.

After news broke that parts of McDougald Terrace were unsafe, Durham Housing Authority and city officials immediately blamed inadequate funding from HUD. They claimed that the federal government failed to give the authority the money needed to keep Durham’s public housing communities in good repair.

Federal funding for the Durham Housing Authority has actually been on the rise in recent years. In 2017, the authority received a total of approximately $32 million in federal awards. In 2018, awards totaled about $34.5 million, and this funding rose to over $35 million in 2019. 

While federal funding has technically increased each year for the past three years, the authority has not been receiving enough funds relative to their needs, a DHA spokesman said. 

Researchers and HUD officials have confirmed that federal grants across the country have not been enough for housing authorities to keep traditional public housing well maintained. In 2011, HUD estimated that the deferred capital needs in public housing amounted to nearly $26 billion and that number has only continued to grow.  

Despite that, housing authorities in other North Carolina cities operating in the same challenging funding environment manage to keep their properties in better shape than Durham does.

Public housing in Durham has failed significantly more HUD inspections than has public housing in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, and Greensboro. Since 2015, Charlotte has failed only one property inspection and Durham has failed 13. Winston-Salem, Raleigh, and Greensboro failed no HUD inspections in the past five years, according to available data

An early aerial view of sprawling McDougald Terrace, built in 1954. Source: Durham Housing Authority

What explains this disparity?

Behind other cities

North Carolina affordable housing experts say some cities were quicker to embrace a private-public-housing hybrid called Rental Assistance Demonstration, frequently called RAD conversion. RAD allows housing authorities to use non-federal public funding and private investment to improve their properties.

Most Durham Housing Authority properties depend on federal grants. Rents paid by tenants with incomes low enough to qualify to live in public housing don’t cover operating costs and upkeep. Before the coronavirus outbreak, DHA reported its residents had average annual incomes of $13,000 a year and average rent paid was $238 a month. 

When a housing authority pursues a RAD conversion project, it can use public money besides HUD funding and private investment to improve authority-owned property. A share of the housing can be rented at market rates.

Durham has converted only three out of its 17 properties to this model. Last fall, Durham voters passed a $95 million housing bond that will help DHA convert four more public housing communities and the DHA office building. Some of these plans call for tearing down what’s there now and building new housing.

The Greensboro Housing Authority, on the other hand, has converted all but one of its public housing communities to RAD properties. This allowed the authority to leverage more private capital to maintain these properties.

RAD conversion does offer housing authorities new sources of funds. But housing authorities in North Carolina that have not transitioned entirely to the RAD model still keep their rental housing in better shape than Durham does, according to HUD inspection reports.

Even without the extra cash that RAD conversion provides, Raleigh and Winston-Salem had no properties that failed their most recent HUD inspections. Durham had seven in 2019. 

The Housing Authority of Winston-Salem takes steps Durham does not. It hired a company called United States Inspection Group to conduct property inspections that mirror the federal HUD inspections, said Kevin Cheshire, the authority’s executive director and general counsel.

The company specializes in inspecting and mitigating issues prior to HUD’s evaluations. This helps the authority keep up with needed repairs and earn high scores when HUD inspectors arrive, Cheshire said.

The Raleigh Housing Authority also takes extra steps to maintain their public housing despite funding challenges. Over the last few decades, that authority demolished and rebuilt its three largest properties, using Hope VI grant funds for two of the projects.

The redevelopment of these properties has helped keep repair costs lower for the agency in the long run,” Raleigh Housing Authority special assistant Laura McCann explained during an email correspondence.

The Durham Housing Authority, which is expected to receive more than $34 million in federal funding this year, has no such success story. And there’s no one place to pin the blame, according to observers inside and outside the organization.

“We’re seeing in Durham the consequences of years of problems,” said Samuel Gunter, Executive Director of the North Carolina Housing Coalition.

Carl Newman, general counsel for the Durham Housing Authority, says that RAD conversion is Durham’s best hope for improving its public housing. RAD conversion has already been completed at Morreene Road, Damar Court, and Laurel Oaks, but much more work is needed.

No McDougald makeover

RAD conversion is at the heart of DHA’s planned redevelopment of five of its properties in downtown Durham. With a share of a $95 million affordable housing bond that Durham voters approved last fall, and other additional funds, DHA plans to invest more than $58 million in redevelopment. 

The focus is on five properties in and near downtown, including J.J. Henderson, Oldham Towers, Liberty Street, Forest Hill Heights, and DHA’s office building on East Main Street. DHA aims to create a mix of subsidized housing reserved for low-income residents and market-rate rentals at each site.

McDougald Terrace is notably missing from this redevelopment list. At first glance this appears puzzling, as McDougald is arguably the DHA property most in need of redevelopment.

But Mayor Steve Schewel shortly after the housing bond passed last fall said there are economic reasons to wait on rebuilding McDougald. The city’s largest public housing property is over 65 years old, making it a challenge to renovate. “It’s good to get experience creating these mixed income communities on a smaller scale first,” the mayor said. 

One downtown redevelopment plan calls for replacing Durham Housing Authority offices with housing available to renters with low incomes and others able to pay market rates. 9th Street Journal graphic by Cameron Oglesby

In order to complete these redevelopments, DHA is relying not only on funds from the affordable housing bond but also on private investment. And private investors need to be convinced they’re putting their money into something worthwhile.

“You have to give confidence to people that you’re going to succeed,” Schewel said, “and the best place in Durham to gain that confidence is Main Street, and downtown. We know that private investors will come there, and we know that market rate renters in these communities will want to live there.”

After finding success on Main Street, city and DHA officials can then move on to more challenging projects like McDougald, Schewel said.

“We’re going to do RAD conversion, because actually that’s the only solution. It just isn’t a quick one. Had we started this project 10 years ago…,” said Newman, his voice trailing off for a few seconds. “But, here we are.”

There has been significant turnover in management at the Durham Housing Authority in recent years, Newman said. CEO Anthony Scott started with the authority in 2016. “The people who could have made a different decision 10 years ago, most of them don’t work here anymore,” Newman said.

Living with the legacy

Gunter, at the statewide affordable housing organization, said the federal government’s history of underinvestment in public housing shoulders some of the blame for conditions at McDougald Terrace.

This is what it costs when you have spent decades under-investing,” Gunter said, “This is the bill coming due. It really is a no-win situation. And the folks that get screwed are the residents” 

A rear view of a dwelling at McDougald Terrace, the city’s oldest pubic housing complex. 9th Street Journal photo by Corey Pilson
Shimey Harvey visited her McDougald Terrace apartment regularly while she and her son stayed at a local motel. 9th Street Journal file photo by Corey Pilson

During the evacuation of McDougald, the mostly women and children residents were relocated to 16 hotels throughout Durham County, displaced from their kitchens, school bus stops, neighbors and, sometimes, practical transportation to jobs.

McDougald resident Shimey Harvey and her son had lived in her apartment for about two years before the evacuations began. She lived with frequent headaches before the evacuation, she said.

When Harvey was relocated to Quality Inn & Suites on Hillsborough Road, her headaches stopped, she said. She was safe from carbon monoxide leaks, but her world had been turned upside down. As a result of the disruption, she was forced to quit her job, she said.

In a scramble to get people back to their homes, work at McDougald was exempted from  Durham’s stay-at-home order intended to decrease the spread of coronavirus in March. Residents, including Harvey, returned to the sprawling brick complex near North Carolina Central University in May.

Back at home in McDougald, carbon monoxide leaks are no longer a threat, Harvey said, but her living space is still in poor condition. “I still have mold in my apartment. All they fixed was the appliances,” she said.

Harvey blames Durham Housing Authority for the mess at McDougald. “All these years, if certain things had been updated sooner, these problems wouldn’t have gotten so bad,” she said, “My heater looks like it’s from the beginning of time.”

Although Harvey would like to move with her son to a safer home, this is not the right time.

She hasn’t been able to search for another job while coping with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, including public schools closing. Home-schooling her son without a laptop or teaching experience have been among the hardships, she said. 

She won’t be turning to the Durham Housing Authority for help of any kind. “What are they gonna do for me?” she said, “They have a lot of problems to deal with, I’m just a small nut.”

At top: After a months-long evacuation, McDougald Terrace residents have returned to their aged public housing community.  Photo by Corey Pilson

Durham leaders share pain, hope as protests grow

The agenda for Monday’s Durham City Council virtual meeting listed 27 items, but the topic that weighed most heavily on everyone present did not appear by name.

On the screen, five faces stared straight ahead, elected leaders of a city relieved that a weekend of national protests had been peaceful within Durham, but also troubled by the violent confrontations between police and participants in nearby Raleigh and across the country.

Council and community members took turns sharing stories of pain and hope in the wake of the death of George Floyd, transforming a virtual meeting into a space where their collective emotional toll surfaced and was acknowledged.

“I just wanted to say a few words tonight about the experience that we’re having this past week, in our country,” began Jillian Johnson, mayor pro-tem and co-founder of Durham For All, a multiracial political organizing group.

“As a child in the 1980s, my mother warned my younger brother not to play with toy guns so the police wouldn’t think he had a real gun and shoot him,” she said. “Decades later, the only thing that’s really changed is that the ubiquity of phone cameras and live streaming technologies brought the reality of this experience to a new and broader audience.”

Durham needs to come together to push for change as a community, she said, listing what she views as critical problems: an expanding city police budget, racial disparities in traffic stops and a civilian oversight board she said lacked authority to enforce changes in policing practices.

Johnson urged redirecting the city’s spending priorities to community safety approaches “outside of policing,” though she said that “I want to appreciate the work of our police chief C.J. Davis and her staff in avoiding needless conflicts with demonstrators over the last few days.”

Unlike the police response in Raleigh, which used tear gas, rubber bullets, and riot gear in confrontations with protestors over the weekend, Durham officers did not confront people protesting downtown. Instead they closed traffic on nearby streets and kept a distance.

Not that protests were over in Durham. At 2 pm Monday, a group of over 50 people led by local artist Skip Gibbs had blocked Highway 147 near downtown, at South Alston Avenue. The group demanded a meeting with the Durham Police Chief and Durham County Sheriff about preventing police brutality. Within an hour, both public officials had called the organizers and agreed to a meeting on Friday, and the group moved off the highway.

An hour before the council meeting was set to start at 7 pm, a crowd of several hundred, including students and families with children, started assembling in front of the Carolina Theater downtown. The “#DefundThePolice” demonstration, organized by the Durham chapter of Black Youth Project 100, a youth-led group, walked through downtown toward the Durham County Detention Facility. City police followed, closing off streets to traffic around the crowd, which stretched for several blocks.

With a wavering voice, council member DeDreana Freeman explained that she would likely be off camera at points due to her emotions after the killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin, which medical examiners have labeled a homicide.

“I do want to uplift just how hard it is to come face to face with this … uninvited mental health trauma,” Freeman said. “There are no words. I can feel it in my bones, I can feel it all throughout my body. The trauma I’m carrying, it’s, it’s just, in my DNA, and it is the reason I do what I do, how I do it.” 

Johnson warned about “paramilitaries and provocateurs” potentially entering Durham and other cities to provoke conflicts with the police. Mark-Anthony Middleton, a council member and pastor, urged city residents to be vigilant and to “keep our eyes open for those who don’t really love us, who don’t care about the Floyd family, who don’t share our tears, but are here to co-opt and preempt us.” 

“This is Durham,” Middleton added. “We know the difference between a confederate monument and a mom-and-pop store. We don’t need anyone bringing any more bull to the Bull City.” 

Council member Charlie Reese pointed to what he said is the foundation of the police violence being protested across the country.

“This is an epidemic that is, of course, the natural outgrowth of America’s original sins of racism and white supremacy,” he said. “It’s the result of a rampaging, out of control flavor of capitalism that enlists police violence as a means to protect private property, all too often punishing small acts like attempted forgery with the death of those alleged to have committed it.”

Council member Javiera Caballero concurred. “We have seen the response in cities across this country due to the militarization of the police. In Durham, we have tried to take a different approach,” Caballero said. 

Caballero also praised Police Chief Davis. “She’s done a remarkable job changing the culture of Durham’s police department,” she said.

However, two of the three community members who spoke during the meeting had called in to voice opposition to increasing funding for the police department. Danielle Purifoy spoke on behalf of Durham Beyond Policing, a local network of activists opposed to policing. In opposing a 5% increase in the $70 million budget for the police, she pointed to the costly evacuation of McDougald Terrace, a public housing complex plagued by unsafe conditions, as well as the high number of evictions in Durham and the $9 million budget shortfall the city faces due to the pandemic.

“My question is what else needs to happen for us to prioritize serving people over punishing people?” she said. 

After council members spoke, Mayor Steve Schewel commended their “fantastic, fantastic words” and read the North Carolina Mayors’ Statement on the Murder of George Floyd, which he wrote. “The words are important, and we know we need to do the work along with it,” he added.

As the city council meeting stretched on past 8 pm, the #DefundThePolice demonstration had gathered outside the detention facility, chanting up to inmates who knocked on the windows in response. “Same story every time. Being black is not a crime,” they chanted in unison. 

In the setting sun, sounds of cheering, yelling, and clapping filled the evening air.

Above: A screenshot of a moment during Durham City Council’s virtual meeting Monday when council member DeDreana Freeman spoke.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Skip Gibbs’ last name.

 

Durham lightens stay-at-home order but sticks with stricter response

A new amendment loosens Durham’s stay-at-home order, but keeps local coronavirus-related limits stricter than rules imposed by the state. 

The update, in effect at 5 p.m. today, is the fifth version of the city and county’s joint order since the coronavirus outbreak struck.

The latest changes attempt to clarify how rules apply in Durham, Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham County Commision, told 9th Street. “We’re trying to simplify things and make this less confusing for people,” Jacobs said. 

One simplification made to Durham’s stay-at-home order is the removal of its expiration date. The order’s previous four versions included deadlines compelling the county and city government to reinstate an order every few weeks.

With the due date gone, an emergency order will remain in place until it is rescinded or modified.  

What’s looser?

In many ways, this update eases the Durham stay-at-home order’s strictest regulations. 

In line with Gov. Roy Cooper’s May 8 executive order, Durham leaders have raised the number of people who may gather to 10. The previous versions of the order limited gatherings to five. 

Durham’s new update also follows Cooper’s lead by allowing for larger religious gatherings or protests to take place outside so long as those participating socially distance. 

The amendment ends the local classification of businesses as “essential” or “non-essential.” While some previously non-essential businesses may be able to re-open, many are still closed by the state’s order, which still shutters bars, concerts and other live performances, and more.

Friday’s update also allows potential home buyers to view occupied houses in person and permits businesses to provide employees with boxed lunches.

What’s stricter than the state limits? 

Durhamites incapable of social distancing, such as those shopping or working in a store, are still required to wear protective face masks. And business owners must continue to conduct basic health screenings at the beginning of every employee’s shift. 

Funerals in Durham will be limited to 25 people, while the state  order allows up to 50 people to attend funerals. 

The amendment also creates new regulations for child care. Child care facilities in Durham are now required to keep supervised children in consistent groups that are isolated from other children.

The state’s order preempts Durham’s in regulating retail stores. Cooper’s May 8 order allows retail stores to open with restrictions, requiring them to ensure space for social distancing and setting maximum occupancy at 50 percent. The city and county cannot raise or lower that limit. 

Why and What’s Next? 

“What this indicates is that what we’re doing works,” Jacobs said, pointing to low community spread rates in Durham, where most lethal cases of COVID-19 have been detected in sites where people are confined in close quarters, including  living sites such as the Butner Federal Correctional Complex and longterm living facilities. Such facilities accounted for 33 of Durham County’s 37 coronavirus-related deaths as of Friday morning. 

Going forward, the county and city will follow the state’s lead on reopening, Jacobs said. Durham will look to North Carolina’s guidance on best practices for testing, tracing and PPE.

Durham will also seek direction from the city and county’s joint “Recovery and Renewal” task force, which includes  local health professionals, religious leaders, business owners and other community members.

“We’re looking to the work of the task force to guide our next steps,” Jacobs said. 

The task force had its first meeting Friday morning, remotely of course. As he and Jacobs opened up the conversation, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, who sported the city’s flag as his Zoom meeting background, announced that Durham’s rate of doubling for COVID-19 cases is now greater than 50 days.  

“That’s good. We’re doing well. But we have to continue to do well,” Schewel said. 

There’s one downside to success, the mayor said. Many Durhamites don’t have immunity, he pointed out, so an outbreak could still spread quickly in Durham. 

Durhamites can go to more places and see more people when they must. But they’d be wise to voluntarily stick with the practice that has helped this community, Jacobs said.

“We still need people to stay at home whenever they can,” she said. 

At top: Duke Health continues to offer drive-up coronavirus virus testing near Duke University Hospital. Photo by Corey Pilson

The mayor’s inbox: gripes, praise and lots of angst

A lawyer grouses about people who aren’t wearing masks at Harris Teeter. A music teacher pleads for help from a small business relief program. A woman who has read — and reread — Ron Chernow’s thousand-page biography of Ulysses Grant demands that her local library be reopened.  

These emails, part of a sampling of 21 that Mayor Steve Schewel provided The 9th Street Journal from his inbox, reveal the unsettled mood of the city. They show Durham residents grappling with a pandemic that has shuttered their stores, cloistered them in their homes and left them afraid that they’ll contract the virus the next time they shop for milk or toilet paper. 

Residents worry that the virus spells doom for city businesses. There’s angst about mask enforcement, frustration over stay-at-home orders and social distancing. Some people simply long for life as it was a few months ago. Others offer the mayor a few words of thanks. 

“I cannot contribute to the economy from the grave” 

One recent Tuesday afternoon, Linda Goswick, 73, went to the Durham Costco for the first time in months. When she noticed a woman without a mask behind her in the checkout line, Goswick spun around and told the woman she was breaking the law.  

Later that day, she wrote an email to the mayor pleading that the city more strictly enforce its mask policy. “I am a lifelong Durham resident,” she wrote. “I want life to get back to ‘normal.’”  

Hank Hankla said his wife had a similar mask experience at a Harris Teeter, where she encountered several young men who weren’t wearing masks. Hankla and his wife, who are both immune-compromised, have since decided to buy their groceries somewhere else.  

Hankla, a lawyer, said the decision “is not only a protest, it is self-preservation.” 

Some of Schewel’s email correspondents also used dark humor to make their points that the pain and inconvenience of the shutdown was necessary for public health.    

“I’m begging you to extend (the stay-at-home order) further,” wrote John Davis, a father of a young child. “While the economy *will* recover, we haven’t – to my knowledge – figured out how to bring people back from the dead.”  

Jules Odendahl-James, a spouse and parent of “individuals at high medical risk,” put it even more bluntly.

“I cannot contribute to the economy from the grave,” she wrote.

“Imagine a ghost town” 

Many people who wrote to Schewel are worried that the shutdown will destroy the city’s small businesses.

Russell Lacy wrote that he is worried about whether his music tutoring company can survive. 

“If businesses like mine can’t get the help they need Durham’s richness will not be the same post covid-19,” he wrote, and urged the mayor to approve a small business grant.

For Crystal Williams-Brown, downtown Durham had once been a lively place where she could speak with strangers and enjoy the noise and rush of a weekday afternoon. But the pandemic has left silent streets punctuated only by the wailing of sirens.  

“Imagine a ghost town with store fronts serving as a reminder of what once was a vibrant, bustling, comforting place,” she wrote, while urging the mayor to approve funds for small businesses.  

After reading Chernow’s 1,104-page Grant biography, Morgan Feldman was ready to browse the stacks at Durham’s public library for something new. Feldman’s May 1 email indicated she’d grown frustrated not just with the shutdown of the library but with, well, everything.

“The current closures are the equivalent of a 5 mph speed limit — so it’s safe — and wearing 3 inches of bubble wrap–so it’s safe,” she wrote. “It’s all non-sense and we deserve immediate restoration of services–and the economy in general.”  

Scott Gray II described the impact of the restrictions on his personal life: his friends unemployed, his family members stranded at home, his church unable to congregate together.  

“We can’t be Bull City strong if we keep hiding.”  

Moments of peace 

“Thank you,” said the subject line in an email to Schewel from George Stanziale Jr., the president and chief business development officer at Stewart, a construction company. The message itself was brief. “I just wanted to send you a note of thanks for all you’ve done in protecting the health and safety of our city during the Covit-19 [sic] pandemic.”  

In another email, Schewel was invited to address Durham’s children.

Margaret Anderson, who directs children’s services at the Durham County Library, sent an email to the mayor: would he read a picture book over video for the kids? It would be part of a weekly series of summer videos for the children.  

The reply arrived in her inbox the next evening. Yes, of course. The video would be made, the picture book read. Life would go on. 

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