Duke University has some answers for a question echoing around Charlottesville and Albemarle County: What is the role of universities in making housing affordable?

Stelfanie Williams, vice president of Duke’s Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, told attendees of the Tom Tom Festival’s Civic Innovation Conference on Wednesday that the university’s approach to strengthening Durham, North Carolina, has been to concentrate investments in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“Duke only owns one small property in downtown that was originally part of the campus. The approach has been to be an anchor tenant and to lease space so that those properties remain on the tax books and that the county is able to continue to receive some revenue,” Williams said.

However, Williams said Duke’s approach is changing with the times in downtown Durham.

According to DataWorks NC, which draws data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of downtown Durham nearly doubled between 2000 and 2017. Meanwhile, the total number of African American residents has stayed about the same and the number of Hispanic residents has more than halved.

“How do we also make sure we’re investing and supporting the most vulnerable populations in the region? Because those populations are no longer completely situated within this zone,” Williams said. “We’re going to have to do both/and — the neighborhood infrastructure, as well as figuring out some metrics that will allow us to make investments beyond this perimeter.”

Related Articles:

The Tom Tom talk comes at a time when regional collaborations to address housing affordability are gaining momentum and when the University of Virginia has shown renewed interest in contributing to solutions.

Several affiliated with the area’s new Regional Housing Partnership attended Williams’ talk, including Keith Smith, who represents the Thomas Jefferson Area Planning District Commission on the RHP.

Smith and Albemarle Supervisor Rick Randolph said the talk emphasized for them that their current efforts are in the right direction.

“Everything we’re doing, we’re doing right. It took us about 10 years to get UVa at the table, and they are at the table,” Smith said. “They realized that they’re part of the struggle and they realized they’re part of the solution.”

Williams described other new directions her office is taking, such as shifting from constructing new housing to focusing on housing affordability more broadly. The office also plans to spend more time researching and tracking Duke’s impact on its five priority areas, which, in addition to affordable housing, are education, food security, workforce development and nonprofit capacity building.

The priorities identified by UVa President Jim Ryan’s University-Community Working Group are jobs, affordable housing, health care and education, in that order.

So far, the working group’s report has resulted in Ryan raising the minimum wage for university employees to $15 an hour. On Thursday, UVa COO Jennifer Wagner Davis told participants at a rally led by the Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together that the university is identifying ways to expand on-Grounds student housing and contribute to housing affordability.


Emily Hays grew up in Charlottesville and graduated from Yale in 2016. She covered growth, development, and affordable living. Before writing for Charlottesville Tomorrow, she produced a podcast on education and caste in Maharashtra, India.