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This interview was conducted over Zoom with Dr. Robert Korstad, Emeritus Professor of Public Policy and History at Duke University and member of the DHRC@FHI Faculty Advisory Board, by Sarah Holehouse, a second-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. 


What led you to study the roots and implications of housing inequality in our community?

In the 1960s, a colleague of mine at UNC and I wrote a book on the War on Poverty in North Carolina. And when we finished that book, we wanted to try to use some of the lessons from the War on Poverty to address issues in Durham and Orange County. So, for a couple of years, we taught a course together that met alternately at Duke and UNC and we had the students working with various social welfare organizations. We did that for a couple years and had really good placements — nonprofits and government organizations. But, after a couple of years, we began to realize that all of the organizations in this were almost entirely focused on the individual behaviors of people in poverty or community behaviors, attitudes, and cultures. Nobody was really paying attention to the institutional structures and the institutional history that kept people in poverty.

One of the most important institutional structures was housing and how housing inequality just persisted generation after generation. So we decided to do a project that looked at the historical roots of inequality in Durham. We put together a team of young activists, now some of them scholars, who were involved in these kinds of issues and created something called Bull City 150, looking forward to the 150th anniversary of the founding of Durham. We planned on looking at a variety of different topics from housing to schools, education, criminal justice, and other other areas. The first one was looking at housing inequality, and the product of that was this exhibit Uneven Ground, which is now at the Rubenstein Hall in the Sanford Institute.

From your scholarship, what are the main takeaways that you hope students, faculty, or community members will understand?

I think there are a lot of takeaways from Uneven Ground. One is just understanding the long history of inequity that has been built into the whole system of housing, land ownership, and various forms of restrictions on that housing. For me, the most important thing was for people to be able to look at Durham as it exists today and understand the housing patterns. For example, why are some neighborhoods like Duke Forest, which was created with land from Duke University for Duke faculty, almost entirely white now? We're 50 years after the end of the Civil Rights Movement. 

One of the reasons is that all of those lots had racial covenants on them that prohibited owners from selling their house to someone who was African American. It also prohibited owners from allowing African Americans to stay at their homes unless they were domestic help. So, it's not just by circumstance that Duke Forest is almost all white. It's a historical reality. The same thing is true of the African American neighborhoods like Hayti. The racial housing patterns of 100 years ago are still visible in the housing landscape of Durham today. Now, that's starting to change as gentrification is gradually eating up the land of traditionally African American neighborhoods. But at the time, when we were doing this, the delineation of neighborhoods by race was still very clear, and very much rooted in history.


While still remaining grounded in the challenges that housing inequality poses for Durham, what do you see as opportunities for hope or progress in this field?

The housing situation is still very precarious for most people in Durham. With all the new skyscrapers, new apartment buildings going up, the people wanting to move to Durham, and a variety of high tech companies locating nearby, rent and housing prices have continued to rise. However, people's income hasn't for the most part, particularly with inflation and for people in the lower half of the income distribution. So, a major challenge is still there. 

But, I think there's a variety of things that have to happen. We need more investment in the public housing program. There are thousands of people who are on the waitlist to get into public housing. In fact, there's a whole public housing site that was torn down years ago that's not been rebuilt. And, the condition of most of the public housing is pretty bad. There's got to be some kind of public response to this. This is not new. Public housing in all kinds of forms goes back to the Great Depression and the pre-World War II eras. These were issues then. So, I think we haven't kept up with the times and found ways to make housing really affordable for people. I am still convinced that if you don't understand this history, it makes it very easy to say that these are just individual problems and people have to find their individual solutions. That's not how the problems got created in the first place.

How can Duke students with a passion for housing reform make a difference in local or university-based initiatives for influencing progress?

One thing that was very satisfying for these classes that we taught was that there were a lot of Duke and UNC students who felt very strongly about housing issues and saw that as a way for them to contribute. One of the groups that I think has done a really interesting job on that is the Community Empowerment Fund which has a Durham branch and Chapel Hill branch. In fact, the Durham branch was created in one of the joint Duke/UNC classes that I taught. Working in these local organizations has been a great learning experience for students because they're not just working on housing issues, they're working as advocates for low income people. They’re getting a better understanding of who they are, what their challenges are, what resources they have, and how they can come together. I think students can do something like that which is not just top down. I also think it would be great for students to be on housing committees in Durham. So there are a lot of things, but the most important is for students to study and learn. They need to know what the history of this is and how over time different strategies have worked and not worked, because housing has been an issue that students, faculty, and staff at Duke and in Durham have been interested in for a long time.