“I want to empower people, not just real estate profit:” Nate Baker running for Durham City Council

Nate Baker sees a problem with Durham city development and is running for City Council to fix it.

Born and raised in Durham, Baker is a product of the Durham County public school system. He is 34 years old and the youngest candidate in the running.

Baker holds an undergraduate degree from Cornell University in urban and regional planning, and a master’s degree from UNC-Chapel Hill in city, community and urban planning. He has served on the Durham Planning Commission for five years and is the senior-most member. 

His work planning in Durham, across the East Coast and in the Southwest has influenced Baker’s platform in defining issues such as zoning, city-walkability and environmental responsibility. 

“That perspective has given me the opportunity to see what many other cities are doing and working with,” he said.

Baker feels that his experience has helped him see the disparity between Durham’s possibilities and actual practice in planning and development.

An issue he has not seen anywhere else is SCAD. The Simplifying Codes for more Affordable Development is an 87-page proposal which recommends loosening zoning regulations to spur housing development. Supporters say this will help small developers to build more affordable housing, while opponents argue it is not the developers’ place to draft widespan city recommendations. 

Baker’s viewpoint on the recommendation is that even though the proposal has good ideas, it has been poorly implemented because it was written by developers, not city planning staff. 

He also said that the recommendation removes leverage from the city to control development through regulations. Baker also mentioned that most proposals are one page documents only requesting minor changes. There is also a 3,800 fee for submitting proposals to change zoning regulations.

“It’s a bad proposal on one hand, and on the other hand, it is an indicator of the broken nature of Durham legislating and policy making and how it works,” he said, “It represents how we’ve been doing things for a long time in Durham.” 

Baker believes issues such as transportation and walkability, should be more prevalent concerns than the main recommendations in the proposal.

Only 4 percent of the Durham population can access their place of work without relying on a personal vehicle. Car transportation is, on average, the second largest household expense. 

Walkability is important to Baker for both environmental and climate reasons, but also because he said traffic accidents are one of the largest killers of young people. 

Baker’s website says that he plans to improve walkability by implementing better transit infrastructure and creating more wide sidewalks, bike lanes and parks.

He said the most obvious and easiest way to do this is to stop “urban sprawl,” which is development expansion typically requiring personal vehicles to access. Baker said this is a way to keep development on the outskirts of Durham sustainable and walkable.

Durham has expanded ten percent in the past five years, which created a ten-mile radius of land yet to be developed. North Carolina allows for cities to require developers to build parks, yet Durham did not choose to adopt this law.

Baker said Durham rejects this law because the city would rather have private spaces and does not want to build new parks.

The city council regulates 50 billion dollars worth of real estate, Baker said. He believes that this can be better used to create a community that people want to live in. 

Baker has rejected campaign donations from real estate companies in order to retain the power to make land decisions and is endorsed by The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the Sunrise Movement Durham PACs.

“I want to empower people,” Baker said. “Not just real estate profit.” 

Published 10/3/2023

Edited by Lauren Baddour