The Northside Initiative: How It Developed, How It Will Work

The Jackson Center’s Executive Director, Della Pollock said it better than I could in a recent letter to Northside neighbors and friends:

“Monday, March 9, was a historic day in Chapel Hill and the region.  The Chancellor of the University of North Carolina and the Mayor of Chapel Hill announced a major and innovative step forward in supporting the ongoing vision of multi-generational, affordable, diverse community in Northside:  a $3 million 0% interest loan to be held by our Self-Help Credit Union partners in Durham and administered in collaboration with the Jackson Center, community partners, and neighbors. This announcement follows three years of intensive community-first planning led by Northside resident leaders, and the involvement of over 35 resource partner organizations, including all of our local housing non-profits.  The funds will support our top strategy in neighborhood restoration and renewal:  acquisition of properties for sale or “at risk” in order to create opportunities for new homeowners and tenants who want to become part of Northside community.  Generally known as “landbanking,” this strategy is critical to getting a leg up on change in Northside—and making the kind of change that honors the legacy of the families who have lived here for generations and the community leaders who have set such a generous and challenging example for all of us.”

I keenly remember one day in the middle of our planning process in 2012-2013.  Compass Group members (neighborhood leaders on our “direction setting group”), community planners from Self Help, and Jackson Center staff were gathered around a table-size map of the Northside neighborhood. One of the long-time residents said: “We can find houses and we can find folks interested in living here. But even when we find out about houses early and families interested in those homes, we don’t have the quick cash that investors have, and neither do the families who are interested in living in the neighborhood.” In other words, we have developed these great strategies and partnerships that are going to help us through a long cycle of change, but how can any of them be genuinely effective if we don’t have the capital for land acquisition? With this question, we began to imagine possibilities of what a landbank strategy for Northside might look like if we had the capital:  purchasing, repairing, holding, and eventually selling, whether to affordable housing agencies or aspiring homeowners. Self-Help, a  Durham-based nonprofit, was critical to helping us work through the model: they had been implementing a collaborative landbank strategy in Durham (with a loan from Duke University) that has led to the acquisition of about 325 properties across multiple neighborhoods, which have been redeveloped for homeownership, rental housing, community space, and commercial uses in collaboration with community members, local government, and community development partners.   

We needed to build a comprehensive set of strategies for any such landbank to work, especially given that the core of any neighborhood stabilization strategy must be the retention of and support of long-time residents. That is what we have been doing these last three years. We started to work with partner agencies on critical home repairs for elderly neighbors (15 just this year!). We started a comprehensive set of student outreach strategies that have helped reduce noise and nuisance violations by 60% in the last three years. We started to identify at-risk properties, which has led to half a dozen new affordable housing opportunities and several new neighborhood families. We started to develop plans for historic gateways of Northside (visit us to see sketches!) to alert prospective residents to the living legacy of this community.   We developed a neighborhood “sound-walk” (an audio tour narrated by 15 oral histories that guides participants through the neighborhood – it can be found here) to help orient students to the history of the neighborhood. We organized free legal clinics to help residents draft wills, and developed a preservation toolkit to help prevent land loss. And we have been successful at connecting with several new families of diverse backgrounds who have made Northside home – a trend that had not been seen in ten years. Alongside these efforts, we kept developing the idea of a landbank—which increasingly seemed to be a critical tool for stabilizing properties in transition and allowing all of these strategies to flourish. The tool allows neighborhood residents to have a say both in what happens with community land, and in how individual properties fit into overall neighborhood vision.  The Neighborhood Compass Group will stay together and be charged with guiding strategy around these properties, and the Resource Group of partner agencies will be re-activated to provide critical support and collaboration. 

How will the loan be repaid and by whom?

Self-Help will pay the full loan back to UNC after 10 years.  This is one of many reasons UNC selected Self-Help to administer the loan: they have the experience and capacity to be good stewards of the investment.  Funds are revolved in and out of the landbank. For instance, if Self-Help buys a lot to hold for an affordable housing agency, that agency buys the lot out of the landbank, likely once the agency has lined up appropriate financing.  Self-Help then recycles the capital flowing back to the landbank to purchase and resell more properties.

Here are just a few examples of how the land bank has worked in Durham:

  1. An affordable housing agency finds a vacant lot suitable for development as an affordable home. The only problem is it is July, and the budget of federal and local funds toward housing development has already been set for the fiscal year. The landbank serves as an intermediary: buying and holding the property as the agency gets funding together without losing the opportunity.  This has helped affordable housing agencies like Habitat for Humanity of Durham and Durham Community Land Trustees access properties that otherwise would have been lost. 
  2. A property heir who lives out of town wants to sell his/her home and has been getting mail from investors and believes that selling to an investor is their only viable financial option. This heir wants to make the best of this financial asset but also would love to honor the legacy of his/her family in the future of this home.  The landbank offers an alternative through which this heir could sell the property for a fair price and have community aspirations considered as a part of that property's plan.
  3. A family is looking for a place to live in central Durham but does not have the ability to buy a home in poor condition given the extent of needed repairs.  Self-Help is able to purchase the property, partner with another agency to rehab it, and ultimately resell it to the family.

 There will be differences between the work in Chapel Hill, compared to what has worked in Durham, and the landbank tool is not the sole answer to addressing challenges facing Northside. But it is a critical tool on which a host of other housing strategies hinge. It relies on collaboration: between neighbors, affordable housing agencies, and a host of other partners. It provides increased housing options across the spectrum of incomes and gives neighbors a say in what happens to properties. This kind of neighborhood stabilization will greatly aid long-term homeowners who have struggled for the last decade with quality of life challenges and continued to hope for a neighborhood with "children, cats, and dogs." And, of course, it will rely on the continued commitment of all of us to upholding comprehensive, community-led strategies that make up the Northside Neighborhood Initiative.

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