Durham nonprofits work to repurpose land, combat rising housing prices

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

By Mary Mungai

Reinvestment Partners renovated apartments on Holloway St

Reinvestment Partners renovated apartments on Holloway St | Photo by Mary Mungai

A patch of land next to Durham’s Mount Vernon Baptist Church remained almost vacant, aside from serving as a parking lot. Today, Habitat for Humanity is going to repurpose this land to house people, not cars. 

As both prices and conversations about housing reach new heights in Durham, some non-profit organizations are finding creative ways to make housing affordable.

Over the past ten years, accelerated appreciation in Durham has caused the prices of houses and rents to rise, according to Peter Skillern, CEO at Reinvestment Partners

“Here’s an example: we purchased an affordable housing complex for about $50,000 a door a unit, and now similar type of housing is going for $150,000,” he said. “So, the comparables have tripled in just five years’ time.”

Skillern explained that while Reinvestment Partners cannot change the market prices of housing, they can purchase and renovate multi-family housing to keep rent affordable. 

This acquisition strategy is accompanied by other important services, such as housing counseling to prevent people from losing their homes and policy advocacy to push for subsidies that make housing affordable. 

“We purchased and renovated 16 units at 2733 Holloway Street, and they’re affordable to those earning 50% of area median income, or $750 for a two bedroom apartment,” Skillern said.

Similar strategies from Habitat for Humanity also make housing more affordable. However, their work often involves building and renovating homes, which introduces additional challenges regarding land acquisition and the price of building materials. 

“As land and real estate has become more expensive in Durham and also harder to get, it’s a challenge for us that we’re always looking for new ways to overcome and to continue to build,” said Durham Habitat for Humanity’s Communications and Brand Manager Shannon Massey. 

Massey explained that many people may not know that they even qualify for Habitat for Humanity housing. Despite the  organization’s reputation for giving away free homes, the reality is that they sell homes at a more affordable rate and with little to no down payment. 

“We are also, again, not working on the lowest end of the housing spectrum. I think I mentioned this earlier,” she said. “We kind of like to call it workforce housing, you know, the folks that may be police, firefighters, teachers, a phlebotomist at Duke Hospital, just throwing out a few examples.”

For both Habitat for Humanity and Reinvestment Partners, successful affordable housing projects rely on a strong network of community partners. 

Skillern said that just one project in North Durham, a 42-unit development on Ross Road, involved the help of the City of Durham, Self-Help Credit Union, the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency, Alliance Health, Soil & Water Conservation District, and Congressman David Price. 

A variety of federal and local sources also provide funding for Reinvestment Partners’ redevelopment work. 

“So in acquisition, we have used the Durham Affordable Housing Loan Fund,” he said. That’s a product of the City of Durham, Duke and Self Help Credit Union which has lent Reinvestment Partners $4 million at a low interest rate to purchase a 72-unit hotel for redevelopment.” 

As for Habitat for Humanity, community partners have been especially helpful in the search for land to build homes on. For example, the Durham Housing Authority, the City of Durham and individuals looking to sell their property serve as partners to Habitat for Humanity.

Recently, Habitat for Humanity’s close connections with Durham’s faith communities have helped the nonprofit negotiate for land to build on as the land use of these churches change, Massey said. 

“I think the way that the entire city has changed has created these new opportunities for everyone,” she said.

Edited by Carly Breland and Micah McLaughlin