Concerned About Her City's Lack of Affordable Housing, a Councilwoman Decided to Build Some

Blueprints for Jillian Johnson's proposed "micro-development" project, a two-unit duplex that will serve as affordable housing in her Durham neighborhood.

Blueprints for Jillian Johnson's proposed "micro-development" project, a two-unit duplex that will serve as affordable housing in her Durham neighborhood. Jillian Johnson

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Jillian Johnson, mayor pro tem of Durham, N.C., is constructing a duplex next to her house with the goal of renting its two units to low-income families who need stable housing.

As a community organizer and a member of the Durham City Council, Jillian Johnson has for years advocated about the need for more affordable housing in her hometown. In November, two weeks after getting re-elected to a second term, the mayor pro tem broke ground on her own affordable housing project: a duplex, constructed on the vacant lot adjacent to her home.

“I’ve always wanted to put my values into practice,” Johnson said. “Being in elected office for me is part of putting my values into practice, and building affordable housing next to my home is part of that as well. I want to be someone who contributes in a positive way to my community.”

Johnson sees the “micro-development” project, which will most likely be completed by the end of next year, as a tangible way to encourage city residents to employ creative solutions to the shortage of affordable housing in Durham. According to data from the city, Durham currently has about 8,600 income-restricted affordable units. It would need more than 16,000 affordable housing units—nearly twice the existing supply—to meet the needs of low-income households that are spending more than half of their income on housing.

“That number will likely increase as housing costs in Durham continue to rise, given that the majority of low-income households in the city need to live in privately owned, non-income restricted units that may become increasingly expensive over time,” the city’s Department of Community Development wrote in an informational document for residents ahead of a November vote on a $95 million affordable housing bond referendum.

Voters passed that referendum, which will fund a host of measures, including the construction of 1,600 new affordable housing units, stabilization of existing low-income renters and homeowners and moving 1,700 homeless households into permanent residences. That large-scale initiative is a step in the right direction, Johnson said, but it’s unlikely to solve the crisis on its own.

“We are not going to be able to meet the needs of all of our residents just with city resources, or the resources that we can provide to nonprofits,” she said. “We need to make it easier and we need to encourage residents to do these types of projects—to build on land they own, to put an affordable home on their lot or construct an accessory unit on the back of their house. Doing this sort of urban in-fill project in our neighborhood is really critical to meeting our affordable housing goals.”

By developing her own small-scale affordable property, Johnson hopes to inspire other residents to do the same. But the project is not without headaches, even for someone well acquainted with local government bureaucracy. 

Johnson’s home is located in a historic district, so the project design required approval from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. The lot is adjacent to an abandoned right-of-way, which also meant extra red tape. All told, Johnson spent several years designing the duplex and going through the proper channels to be able to start construction.

“The main challenges have been how to figure out the various regulatory processes, which is good for me—to be able to experience that the way a developer would,” she said. “It’s given me some insight on how those processes work within the city.”

There’s also financial risk, Johnson said. She hopes to offer the completed property—two 1,300-square-foot three-bedroom, two-bathroom units—at rents that would be affordable to a family of four making a combined $68,000, or 80 percent of the area’s median income. That target means she will likely lose money on the duplex for the first few years it’s rented, she said.

“I’ve never owned a rental property before, so I am definitely going to be learning as I go about how to do that. There’s a financial risk, and a risk that this will consume a lot of my time,” she said. “But I had this resource, this land, and wanted to put that to work in a way that reflected my values and my goals for my neighborhood, and for the Durham community more broadly.”

To promote the project, Johnson plans to post Twitter updates under the hashtag #skinnyduplex, a term coined by her 13-year-old due to the long rectangular shape of the lot. She’s posted three updates so far, including a short video of a backhoe moving earth and a screenshot of the building’s blueprints.

In addition to chronicling her progress, Johnson is hopeful that the tweets will help drive the larger conversation about creative solutions to housing problems, particularly following recent zoning changes that should make it easier for residents to pursue similar projects.

“I hope we’ll see more and more people doing this now that the housing situation is getting increasingly scarce and since we’ve made it easier via the zoning code,” she said. “I want to be a part of the solution and to encourage other people to do the same.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

FEATURED CASE STUDIES
Powered By The Atlas
Erie County, PA offers all local restaurants free digital tools to plan for safe COVID reopening
Erie County, PA, USA
Online permitting and approval process during COVID-19 exceeds in-person performance numbers
Markham, ON, Canada
Chula Vista creates a Digital Equity and Inclusion Plan
Chula Vista, CA, USA

NEXT STORY: Almost 700,000 to Lose Food Stamp Benefits Under Finalized Trump Administration Rule

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.