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Housing in Durham: Who's Missing?

Housing in Durham is a multi-part series exploring the issue of affordable and workforce housing in Durham. "Who's Missing?" is the first of the series.

I often joke that my husband and I are the only post-college, childless young people living in Durham. This likely isn't accurate, but it sometimes seems that way. In part, this is because Durham's housing stock caters to students at the University of NH and traditional families. Those of us in between tend not to find what we are looking for in Durham.

The issue of housing in Durham is certainly a personal one to my family and me. We moved into our quirky one bedroom on Main Street about a year and a half ago and fell in love with Durham. Durham has something to offer that other surrounding downtown areas can't: proximity to essentials of daily living. From our Durham apartment, we can walk to the pharmacy, the bank, the post office, the grocery store, and a slew of other amenities, including an array of affordable eateries. So, why aren't more young people living in downtown Durham?

Durham's housing stock lends itself well to four person plus families and students at the University of NH. There isn't a lot left for those of us in the middle.

We recently wrote about economic development in the downtown in Al's piece "Can Durham Find Balance?" Consider the relationship between housing and our downtown businesses. Where do the shop owners live? Their employees? Those are the people who are missing from Durham. Creating places for these individuals to live in the community in which they work is part of the solution to our economic development woes.

Anyone running a business in Durham will tell you that catering only to students is not a recipe for success, so why do so many Durham businesses close or shorten their hours during academic breaks? My guess is that staffing is at least part of the reason.

When we talk about workforce housing, we often talk about teachers, police officers, and health care workers. These people are, of course, key examples of the type of people we need to retain in our communities. But, what about baristas, food service workers, and shop owners? In Durham, these are the people who keep our downtown businesses buzzing.

The Town of Durham recently passed zoning ordinance amendments to this effect. The changes limit the residential component in the Central Business District to smaller, two-bedroom units in hopes these units can be occupied by the non-undergraduate students we hope to attract.

Undergraduate students bring a wonderful energy to the town, but their tenure is often fleeting. When we allow young professionals to put down roots, they create community. They run for local office, sit on local boards, patron local businesses, and generally participate in their community. These are the people who are missing.

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