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Affordable housing coming soon to the heart of Durham, N.C.


Alliance of faith and civic leaders confident that ‘Durham CAN’

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Durham CAN, an alliance of nearly 30 congregations, associations and neighborhoods, have spoken up about the critical need for affordable housing in their community. Their collective voices have been heard. (Photo provided by Durham CAN)

LOUISVILLE — In Durham, N.C., downtown revitalization will soon get a collaborative kickstart through the construction of hundreds of units of affordable housing, which city and county officials agree is a growing need in the community.

What has been called a “landmark decision” and a “legacy” for the city and county of Durham owes much to the advocacy efforts of Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods), a nonprofit, nonpartisan, broad-based coalition of nearly 30 faith and civic organizations, including five large Presbyterian churches in Durham: Blacknall, Durham, Emanuel, First and Trinity Avenue.

For more than two decades, Durham CAN has focused its efforts on changing the conditions that prevent low- and moderate-income families from improving their circumstances. Organizing for access to affordable housing remains one of the coalition’s top priorities.

Durham CAN used its collective power to persuade various decision makers to use publicly- owned land to generate housing for those in the community less privileged. The affordable housing revitalization is now an effort for the City of Durham, which provided 82 units at two acres of publicly owned land downtown; Durham County government, which provided two parcels of land on East Main Street to build 305 units; and the Durham Housing Authority, which exercised its right to acquire 20 acres of abandoned and vacant land in the historic Hayti District. Construction is expected to begin in late 2020 and hundreds of affordable housing units will be part of this mixed-use development. 

More than 600 Durham CAN leaders met to ensure county commissioners fulfill their commitments toward affordable housing. (Photo provided by Durham CAN)

Affordable housing units will be offered to people who make up to 80% of the area median income, which for Durham is $37,750 for one person, $43,150 for two people and $53,900 for a four-person household. Units also will be offered to people making up to 30% and 60% of the AMI.

“Durham is quickly becoming a city with high rise, highly priced apartments, which, in turn, is making it more difficult for those on limited incomes to find affordable housing,” said the Rev. Theodore E. Churn, executive presbyter/stated clerk for the Presbytery of New Hope. “This [affordable housing] is just one ministry that CAN has committed itself to in providing a more just community.” Durham CAN received the Presbytery of New Hope’s Passion-Driven Ministry Award in 2017.

Durham CAN also has received a Congregation-Based Community Organizing (CBCO) grant (average $5,000) from the Presbyterian Hunger Program annually for three consecutive years. CBCO grant funds distributed by PHP are provided through a percentage of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.’s One Great Hour of Sharing offering.

“CBCOs provide a vehicle for churches, schools, unions and nonprofit organizations to carry their concerns and values into public life, as they create policy and hold those in power accountable for their decisions,” said Andrew Kang Bartlett, associate for national hunger concerns, Presbyterian Hunger Program. Over the years, PHP has been able to provide some grant funding for most of the CBCOs at work nationwide, either in the start-up phase or in their ongoing efforts with affordable housing and homelessness, Kang Barlett said.

“For the last 19 years CAN has organized successful campaigns in the areas of education, employment, health care, living wages, neighborhoods, opportunities for youth and services for immigrant families,” said Durham CAN development organizer Maria Calvopina. She added, “In addition to its successful affordable housing work, CAN’s impressive victories include boosting the wages of thousands of local workers employed by the city, the county, the public schools, Duke University and the Triangle Transit Authority; putting in place a coordinated provision of donated specialty care that benefits 3,000 low-wealth individuals every year; expanding the universal breakfast program to benefit 40,000 children in the Durham Public Schools; testing all children at elementary school level for lead poisoning; and organizing high school youth in Durham to win the hiring of three additional counselors in the three lowest performing schools.”

Durham CAN is an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the nation’s first and largest alliance of faith and community-based organizations. CAN has one Iron Rule: Never do for others what they can do for themselves.

“Our primary goal is to develop local leadership and organized power in middle- and low-income communities to fight for social justice issues,” said Calvopina.

One example of leadership translated into effective action is reflected in the efforts of African American homeowners on fixed incomes who have won concrete improvements for their community. “We have now a clear vision for rebuilding the Hayti community,” said Brenda McCoy Bradsher, a neighbor to the property to be developed. “Our dreams are becoming a reality, and nothing will be built on this 20 acres of land if it is not going to directly benefit this historic African-American community. Durham CAN training has been critical in helping all the residents of this community to become change agents; we are committed to keep our leadership and be part of these changes.”

Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods) got its start in 1997 when a diverse group of clergy leaders began meeting to explore the possibility of building a multi-faith social justice organization to address the root causes of problems and transcend the historic divisions that existed among communities in Durham. It took another couple years to coalesce the communities, incorporate the organization, raise sufficient funds, recruit and train leaders from each organization, hold listening sessions and build long-lasting relationships. Currently nearly 30 faith and civic organizations that cross religious, racial ethnic, class and neighborhood lines continue to sustain and strengthen the work of the coalition. CAN represents nearly 15,000 households in the Durham area. For more information, visit

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