Travis Mann is sick of this shit. 

For more than a year, he and his neighbors in Building 41 at the Durham Housing Authority-owner McDougald Terrace apartment complex say they’ve have to contend with raw sewage pouring out of a sanitary manhole—and it’s not the first time this has happened. In 2017, in fact, the city’s public works department discovered sewage running from a stormwater pipe at McDougald into a nearby creek. 

The leak, which has not yet been repaired, remains an “open investigation,” says public works official Michelle Woolfolk. “We will close the investigation when there are no more developments from that particular location.” 

The corrupted manhole is located behind Building 41, in a grassy rectangle that anchors a row of tiny rear porches and concrete steps leading from each apartment. Residents first noticed it last year, but its stench was especially pernicious in the summer, when heavy rainfall and hot, humid days produced a smell from hell that saturated the air. 

“It’s been fucked up since last year, and they didn’t do anything about it,” says Mann, a twenty-nine-year-old who was watching his toddler son last Thursday afternoon. “Kids play back there, playing in feces.”

When city officials began their investigation in early August, they found a stormwater drain near the manhole that had been buried under dirt and feces. The mess had denuded the grass surrounding the manhole, turning the topsoil a dull grayish-white.

The city got tired of that shit, too. 

On October 2, the Department of Public Works fined the DHA $47,250 for ten violations associated with the agency’s failure to fix the noxious problem, according to a penalty assessment submitted to DHA chief executive officer Anthony Scott. 

“Evidence supports that sewage has been illicitly discharging into this stormwater drop inlet for an extended period of time,” according to a notice of violation filed with the city manager’s office.

The city ordered the DHA to “immediately and completely” stop the raw sewage leak, immediately remove the soil that has been saturated by the sewage flows, and identify the cause of the leak and repair the underlying problem. 

More than a month later, the DHA was not in compliance. 

“As of [November 8], we continued to see sewage being discharged,” Woolfolk says. “The soil had not been touched, and sewage could be seen bubbling out of the manhole.”

Woolfolk says she doesn’t know how long the leak has existed, but she notes that the problem has been there “for a while because the soil is contaminated, and that takes months, weeks.” 

She also unsure whether the DHA has identified the source of the leak, but she says DHA officials have told her the authority has a plumber who now “regularly works on the site.”

Over the next five years, the authority will receive nearly $59 million to renovate five of its public housing projects, including McDougald Terrace, after Durham voters overwhelmingly approved a $95 million bond to fund affordable housing efforts—the largest ever in North Carolina—earlier this month. 

On Friday, Scott told the INDY that McDougald Terrace—the city’s oldest public housing complex, built for poor African Americans in 1957—has been beset by a deteriorating sewer infrastructure that has to be addressed over the long-term, even as his agency deals with immediate issues like the raw sewage problem behind Building 41. 

“We are trying to get the issue resolved and resolved quickly by putting our heads together with the city’s engineers,” he says. The manhole cover repairs alone, he adds, will be “extensive and expensive.”

Because he hadn’t conferred with his staff, Scott declined to answer questions about the stormwater pipe leak from 2017 that the city says is ongoing. 

“I recall problems in another area earlier this year, or late last year,” he says. “The infrastructure is old, and it seems to be failing in certain places.”

As for the manhole, Scott said he expects a contractor “to get to it in the next few days to get the work done.”

Briana Holloway, a twenty-five-year-old single mom who moved into Building 41 this summer with her toddler daughter, says things have improved recently. 

“I just came outside one day, and I quit smelling it,” Holloway says. 

Mann says the toilets still clog in the apartments, and other Building 41 residents say the problem becomes particularly acute on rainy days when sewage overflows across the grass to the sidewalks about thirty yards away. The mess also seeps down a small hill where a retaining wall is located behind the building.

Children who live in the neighborhood avoid the rear of the building, but they can be heard out front complaining about the stench, their parents say.

McDougald Terrace was a tough neighborhood to live in before the sewage leaks made it all the more aggravating.

“I was sick of the smell,” Holloway says. “But we just stay inside because there’s so much going on,” she adds, referring to a drive-by shooting in the neighborhood earlier this month, one of four across the city in a forty-eight-hour period in which two people were killed and eight others were wounded.

At least the hill that slopes down to the retaining wall has been cleaned. Before that, Mann says, the area was strewn with discarded high chairs, strollers, trash, and sewage. He describes it as a gathering place for “crackheads” and “dope fiends.”

“It’s like a big dump,” Mann says. “One kid, we had to go down there and pick him up out of there. He was covered in shit.”