“When you open your door and you look outside, do you like what you see?”

This is how Tameika Richardson gets to know her neighbors in the Cornwallis Road public housing neighborhood in Durham. Richardson moved in about a year ago and began working as a community organizer with Durham for All, a group that advocates for bottom-up governance.

To learn about her neighbors’ needs, she goes from apartment to apartment asking this question.

So far, no one has said yes.

“A lot of people say no, they don’t. Some people just feel like nothing’s going to change, so there’s no point in going out to vote or going out to any kind of meetings,” she says. “They feel like Durham’s been like this, and these projects have been like this, for so long you just get used to it.”

A Durham native, Richardson had heard about Cornwallis before she moved in, primarily through news reports on shootings there. She feels lucky that she got an apartment on a quiet cul-de-sac and says the only major issue she’s experienced was in August, when “puddles and puddles of water” leaked through an air vent in her living room, leaving behind dark marks on the wall and floor.

But not everyone there has been so lucky.

Built in 1967, Cornwallis Road’s two hundred apartments are aging, just like many of the Durham Housing Authority’s properties, their slow decline dictated by the compounding of time and slashed budgets.

With an estimated $19 million in basic repairs needed in more than eighteen hundred public housing units across twenty-one neighborhoods, the DHA has embarked on what is likely to be a more-than-ten-year redevelopment of most of its public housing stock. Through the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration program, the DHA will convert its public housing units to the voucher program known as Section 8, borrow money, and, most significantly, partner with private investors to transform public housing into mixed-income and, in some cases, mixed-use neighborhoods.

Across DHA neighborhoods, residents are largely unaware of how the program will work and what their rights are; as with other redevelopment efforts in recent memory, they’re skeptical it will go as planned. But for the housing authority, this new strategy is a game-changer in addressing Durham’s affordability crisisand its only shot at saving Durham’s public housing from continuing deterioration.

“This is probably the only way we can survive in this changing environment,” says Tom Niemann, a DHA board member and former chairman.

Ask DHA residents about the condition of their housing, and you’ll hear some recurring themes. There are the roaches at McDougald Terrace, and the pilot lights that fill apartments with the smell of gas when they go out. There are the leaky ceilings and mold at Hoover Road, and the cracking, peeling floors at Cornwallis.

Not all residents have problems with their units. Others have simply grown accustomed to conditions largely unchanged for years or accept their surroundings out of gratitude for having a roof over their heads. But overall, DHA properties have not been spared from the deterioration of public housing across America. After all, some of the buildings are fifty or sixty years old and are almost entirely dependent on shrinking federal funding.

For the first three decades of the federal public housing program, which began in 1937, rents were determined locally, based on the cost to maintain the housing. In 1969, however, the government capped what tenants pay at 25 percent of their household income. The threshold was later raised to 30 percent, where it remains today.

“That meant that the housing authorities weren’t going to be able to make enough to cover the cost of maintenance,” says Bill Rohe, director of the University of North Carolina’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies. The federal government agreed to cover the gap, but funding for public housing has waned. On average, over the past ten years, housing authorities have received 84 percent of what’s needed for their operating funds and 46 percent for their capital funds, the primary sources of public housing dollars.

Over time, that has added up to what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates is a $50 billion backlog of repairs needed in public housing nationwidealthough, at about $42,000 per unit, many advocates believe this figure is too low. Each year, that total increases by $3.4 billion, and ten thousand units fall out of service because of their condition, HUD says. At McDougald Terrace, for example, 14 of 360 units are uninhabitable.

The funding cuts have also affected staffing. Over the past five years, the DHA’s staff has been reduced from 112 employees to 96, including 26 maintenance workers. The more DHA’s buildings deteriorate, the more expensive their upkeep gets, and the busier those workers are.

“We’re at the mercy of the money that Congress appropriates,” says DHA CEO Anthony Scott. “Our real fight is with Congress. Our intermediary fight is with HUD in terms of how they deal with their rules and regulations. But ultimately, it always starts with how much money does Congress fund us.”

The agency’s ability to maintain its buildings is critical as the cost of living rises across Durham. Not only is the DHA the largest provider of affordable housing in the city, it also serves some of the city’s lowest-income residents.

The DHA owns about a third of the income-restricted, subsidized homes in Durham, as well as most of the units accessible to the estimated twelve thousand extremely low-income households in the city. According to the housing authority, the average income of its 3,727 public housing tenants is $13,253. Between its public housing and housing voucher programs, the DHA helps house about 4 percent of city residents.

“If all of our nonprofit affordable housing builders do tremendously well and really up their production,” says Mayor Steve Schewel, who has served as the city council’s DHA liaison for six years, “it really doesn’t matter unless the housing authority succeeds.”


An INDY review of nearly twenty-eight hundred work orders submitted by DHA residents in August and September shows how the backlog of improvements is manifesting locally. While many of the work orders describe matters of routine upkeepchanging light bulbs and smoke-detector batteriesor damage caused by residents, as Scott says, “there are other things that fall squarely in our lap in terms of maintenance.”

Issues are also going unreported. Some residents say they don’t want to pay for repairs (DHA charges for materials to fix problems caused by residents) or have maintenance workers in their homes. Others don’t bother because they say it takes too long for work to get done.

Aging plumbing and roofs contributed to frequent clogs and reports of leaks in nearly every neighborhood. Residents in seven neighborhoods reported the presence of mold or mildew. There were twenty-six reports of backed-up sewer lines in residents’ apartments and seven reports of ceilings caving in. Among the more unusual complaints were two reports of bats at Liberty Street.

One twenty-five-year resident of Cornwallis Road says her upstairs toilet is leaking through the floor and into the insulation snaking through the laundry room below it. You can see where the floor had been patched under the toilet, and also where the insulation sags with liquid.

Though far from the most common complaint, these types of leaks were present across neighborhoods, with upstairs showers and toilets leaking downstairs into laundry rooms, living rooms, and kitchens.

At Hoover Road, a community of fifty-four townhomes built in 1968, flat roofs drip on rainy days. The work orders reviewed by the INDY included twenty-five reports of leaks and ten complaints about mold or mildew.

“Everybody talks about mold in their apartments,” says Regina Lowe, who has lived there about seven years. Lowe’s ceiling used to leak into her bedroom, living room, and kids’ room when it rained, but it has since been patched up, and Clorox has kept the mold at bay.

She would go stay with family just to get away from it. “I used to feel sick. My throat used to get locked up,” she says. “I can feel the difference when I leave the house.”

The housing authority’s five-year plan details $10.5 million in physical improvementsincluding HVAC replacements at three sites, roof repairs at four sites, and flooring at seven. Because money is limited, the DHA has to prioritize these needs based on urgency, resources, and how far in the future a site’s redevelopment may be.

If all goes according to plan, the redevelopment will address all of these issues. But it could be years before some properties see significant improvements.

The Rental Assistance Demonstration program, or RAD, was created in 2012 to help address the backlog of public housing repairs. By October 2015, 185 public housing developments had been converted through the program. Because Section 8 also caps rent at 30 percent of a tenant’s income, most public-housing residents won’t see their rent go up through RAD.

RAD allows housing authorities to borrow money and partner with private investors, leveraging low-income housing tax credits, land sales, and developer fees to complete work that would be impossible with federal funding alone. While private partners and managers can be brought in, a public or nonprofit entity must maintain a controlling interest in the property.

“We have to be engaged and involved,” Scott says. “I’m not going to have a situation where the housing authority is giving its full rights to someone else without us having a direct ownership role in it.”

The DHA was approved for portfolio-wide RAD conversion in 2015, beginning with the Morreene Road and Damar Court developments, which will be gutted but rehabbed instead of rebuilt. Those deals are expected to close by the end of the year, and renovations will take about fifteen months.

Initially, the agency intended to simply renovate its properties, but since becoming CEO in June 2016, Scott has taken a holistic view, looking for ways to increase density, introduce uses besides housing, and create mixed-income neighborhoods in an effort to deconcentrate poverty.

“We’re designing these financially so that these properties aren’t going to fall in the same old rut that they normally do,” Scott says.

For the most part, the DHA has to maintain the same number of units portfolio-wide, but it can increase and decrease the number at individual sites. Overall, DHA officials hope they can increase the city’s stock of subsidized housing through the RAD conversion. Density will likely be upped at Forest Hill Heights, for examplean underused fifteen-acre site with just fifty-five units on it between downtown and the redeveloped, mixed-income Southside neighborhood.

Laurel Oaks, which comprises thirty townhomes built in 2004, will see cosmetic repairs in 2018. Five newer developments won’t undergo renovations, but the administrative work to convert their 151 public housing units to Section 8 is expected to be completed around the end of the year. Specific plans haven’t been determined for other sites.

Planning for the redevelopment of Oldham Towers and Liberty Street, two adjacent developments downtown, is set to begin early next year. No other sites currently have a redevelopment timeline.

Properties near downtownLiberty Street, Oldham Towers, Forest Hill Heights, and J.J. Hendersonare being eyed for mixed use. Some Liberty Street units will likely be moved to not-yet-built affordable housing at the intersection of Jackson and Pettigrew streets, where the developer has already agreed to take housing vouchers from the DHA. The agency is also considering putting housing on the property where its Main Street headquarters sits.

“Our most valuable property is downtown. When you look at some of our other sites far away, they don’t have the same value,” Scott says. “The strategy is you leverage your stronger properties to help support your others.”

Because plans haven’t been finalized, neither have the costs. If each unit is redone to the level of those at Morreene Road and Damar Court, the redevelopment would cost $100,000 per unit, or about $168 million in total.

“HUD is severely underestimating the kind of work that is needed on these properties,” Scott says. “You can just look at the RAD conversions across the country and see what people are spending to get these buildings up to current, modern-day standards.”

The lack of specifics is contributing to skepticism and uncertainty among residents, who have been told they may need to move to some undetermined place at some undetermined date for some undetermined time. Over the years, they’ve gotten letters about RAD periodically but see no change in their neighborhoods.

RAD stipulates that residents have a right to return to their neighborhoods post-conversion. But the residents have heard that before in previous redevelopment efforts. The urban renewal projects of the sixties and seventies wiped out thousands of Durham homes and businesses, which weren’t replaced as promised. In the early 2000s, redevelopment of what had been the Few Gardens public housing neighborhood took years, and some residents moved on.

Peggy Davis sums up the sentiment best: “Right to return? Yeah, right.”

Suspicion of the RAD program is perhaps strongest at the DHA’s downtown properties, like the 1978-built J.J. Henderson, the senior housing where Davis has lived for thirteen years.

“This is one of the most prime market areas in Durham. We’re right in the center of everything,” says Rafiq Zaidi, who has lived at J.J. Henderson since 2006 and worries the propertyless than half a mile from the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the American Tobacco Campuswill end up in the hands of a private developer.

“They remember what happened on Pettigrew, in Hayti,” he says of his neighbors.

J.J. Henderson is in better condition than other properties, but it is still due for new toilets, kitchen renovations, floor repairs, new hallway and fire escape doors, and new ceiling tiles, according to the five-year plan.

Because its residents are elderly, and some disabled, fears about RAD are acute. Many rely on bus routes and doctors nearby. Even though federal law protects them from being permanently displaced by RAD, even being temporarily relocated would be significant.

“If it’s a different building, it’s going to be a better building,” Scott says. “If it’s a different neighborhood, that’s something I’m very sensitive to.”

The housing authority plans to move residents into vacant units while theirs are being renovated. So far, eighteen units are being held open at Morreene Road and Damar Court for residents there.

At other sites, Scott says the housing authority will first try to move tenants into vacant units in their current neighborhood. If those fill up, tenants will move to vacant units at other Durham public housing sites. He says it’s unlikely that relocated tenants will be given rent vouchers to use with private landlords, because that would cut into the agency’s current voucher allotment.


For Laura Betye, living at McDougald Terrace has been “a gift.” After Hurricane Wilma slammed South Florida in 2005, she came to Durham on a Greyhound bus in 2007. She was drawn to the city’s progressive politics, which she learned about through CNN’s coverage of the Duke lacrosse scandal.

As a single mother, the assistance she receives for rent at McDougald Terrace has helped her put four children through nearby N.C. Central and a fifth at Durham Tech. Many of the tenants here are single moms and kids, whom Betye met and bonded with through her own children and at the bus stop.

“I love my community,” she says. “It’s like they said on Cheers: everybody knows my name.”

Much of what she likes about the neighborhood, known as the Mac, reflects on her experience with Hurricane Wilma. The buildings are sturdy, she says, and the gas stove and heat work if the power goes out. There are wellness programs on-site and maintenance staff on call for unexpected issues. The place has given her so much, she has no complaints about the condition, although issues are well documented.

In 2012, the DHA received a grant from a RAD predecessor, HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, to plan a redevelopment of a swath of southeast central Durham, including McDougald Terrace. The grant application identifies structural deficiencies, inadequate ventilation, leaks, mold, sagging floors, “constantly failing” water and sewer lines that “cannot be easily repaired without causing further damage,” and “exposure to previously encapsulated lead-based paint and asbestos floor tile.”

Scott says no capital improvements have been made at McDougald since that application, but the development (like all of DHA’s non-senior housing) is certified lead-free.

In work orders reviewed by the INDY, there was just one report of roaches at McDougald Terrace, although residents say the pests are ever-present.

“It’s so infested with roaches, you can hear them under the floor,” says one resident who asked not to be named. (Many residents whose apartments are in poor condition requested anonymity out of fear of retribution.)

According to work orders, maintenance staffers spent hours reigniting pilot lights for residents’ gas-fired stoves and heaters, which are exposed in each unit. Twenty-nine reports explicitly asked for pilot lights to be lit, with more reporting no heat, no hot water, or the smell of gas. About a quarter of the work orders submitted dealt with clogged plumbing and leaks, including twelve reports of sewer lines backing up.

The city’s oldest and largest public housing development, McDougald Terrace was built in 1953, the African-American counterpart to the white public housing at Few Gardens. It sits in a sort of valley between N.C. Central and Durham Tech and is so big and devoid of trees that its footprint is easily identifiable on a map, forming an arrow that points up toward N.C. 147.

“It’s not normal. No benches, no open area, no flowers, no life,” says Ora Smith, who has lived there five years.

Although fourteen years younger, Cornwallis Road is often mentioned along with McDougald Terrace when residents talk about what they see as the worst neighborhoods. With two hundred units, Cornwallis isn’t as big, and mature trees break up the rows of orange brick buildings.

Leatrice Davenport was hesitant to move there at first. She’d been living in a studio apartment at J.J. Henderson and was offered a bigger apartment at Cornwallis. But she heard there was crime and that the development would soon be demolished anyway, so she turned it down. She reconsidered two years ago when a new unit that had been redone after a fire opened up. The only real issue she’s had is a leak under her kitchen sink. She can’t find the source, but the mildew smell is unmistakable.

“I thank God for what he brought me, because I never had something new,” she says.

The apartment is almost immaculate, and Davenport takes care to keep it that way. But as the former president of the Cornwallis resident council, she knows her neighbors’ apartments don’t all look the same.

“A lot of people’s apartments, the walls have holes, the floor is coming up, shaking,” she says.

The tiles at the top of one resident’s staircase are peeling up the perfect amount for toes to get hooked. A few residents say they don’t drink their tap water because it smells like sulfur. (Scott has asked for water-quality testing.) Others have cracks along their floors, walls, and ceilings.

“You can hear the house settling at night,” says one resident. “It sounds like someone’s making popcorn in the walls.”

Jennifer Hunt says residents are too busy with jobs and kids or too disenfranchised to insist on better conditions.

Hunt, a mother of five, and her family are often looking for ways to address repairs until maintenance can come. They’ve filled a grapefruit-size hole in the wall of her daughter’s bedroom with plastic, but it doesn’t fully stop the cold air from coming inside. She’s figured out just how to finagle the hallway switch so the lights don’t flicker out. There are cracks in the walls of her living room and daughter’s room, and three of her kitchen cabinets are missing doors.

Hunt moved to Cornwallis about six years ago after leaving Hoover Road because of mold in her apartment.

Asked about the presence of mold at Hoover Road, Scott says testing and remediation have been done where residents have reported it, and that “there does not appear to be a development-wide issue.”

On September 20, Delissia Tatum, a Hoover Road resident, reported a mildew smell under her sink and in one of her bedrooms and water coming up between the tiles in her kitchen. According to DHA records, this was checked out and the mildew cleaned up two weeks later.

By December 6, the mildew smell was back, and water squished underfoot in both her kitchen and bedroom.

“The water in front of my stove stays wet,” she says. Tatum, who moved into this apartment in March, says she had to throw out dishes she kept under her sink and uses the adjacent bedroom only for storage because of the smell. It’s half-filled with toys and other items, kept behind a door she prefers to keep shut. She worries about the effect the moisture will have on her daughter, who suffered from allergies and sinus problems before they moved in.

Four work orders at Hoover Road describe ceilings falling in.

“The plaster was off. The insulation was on the floor. I could see the two-by-fours in the roof,” says Angela Marshall, whose bedroom ceiling fell in while she was sleeping a few years ago. At first, she thought something had happened outside; she often hears gunshots and fighting. But then she got out of bed and turned on the lights.

Different shades of beige and white show where the damage was patched over, but when it rains, water sometimes comes in from the ceiling, around her bedroom window and leaks into a bowl-shaped light fixture in a room down the hall.

“I know it’s not just my unit,” she says.

Marshall, a Rockingham native, moved into this apartment six years ago because she could afford it. Mainly because of the crime (her apartment has been shot into), she wants to move, but despite working two jobs as a certified nurse practitioner and at a mall, she hasn’t been able to save enough money to afford rising rents in Durham.

Meanwhile, rent is due at Hoover Road, despite her leaky ceiling.

“I want to do better,” she says. “I know I can do better, it just may take a while.”

DHA officials believe they are primed to not only address the backlog of repairs at the agency’s properties but also to transform the housing landscape of the Bull City. The agency has new leadership, controls about fifty acres of valuable downtown real estate, and has the support of city officials, developers, and residents who want more affordable housing.

“It’s the perfect storm,” says Niemann, the longtime board chairman.

Still, there are concerns about the DHA’s redevelopment plans, both because of the agency’s past and the RAD program itself.

A 2004 audit by HUD found millions of dollars in questionable spending at the DHA, prompting HUD to recommend a federal takeover if the issues weren’t fixed. A few years later, the DHA was designated as troubled, primarily because of issues with its Section 8 program. The agency has been upgraded to standard performer status, but just last year a HUD audit found that some private housing units that accepted the DHA’s Section 8 vouchers “did not meet minimum housing quality standards” and that the violations weren’t caught by DHA inspectors.

The DHA has since hired a new Section 8 program manager (and a chief financial officer) and will be able to add to its staff under RAD. Scott also wants to explore new funding sources to aid redevelopment, like a trust fund to collect donations to build affordable housing.

“I think that with the support of the city, the housing authority has the capacity to do this,” says Schewel.

Although tenant protectionslike the right to return to a property, the right to organize, and the right to a grievance processare enshrined in RAD regulations, housing advocates say there is not sufficient oversight or transparency from HUD.

HUD has evaluated how much money the RAD program has been able to bring in, but the agency isn’t expected to release a study of how it is affecting low-income residents until next year. In the meantime, the federal agency is advocating that the cap on the number of units allowed to convert to RAD be eliminated.

Advocates like Jessie Casella, a staff attorney with the National Housing Law Project, rely on records requests and a network of local attorneys to find out what’s happening at RAD conversions around the country and step in when residents’ rights are being infringed upon.

“That’s been particularly challenging, to make sure that the RAD program lives up to the lofty goals it was created for,” she says.

The textbook case of RAD-gone-wrong happened in Hopewell, Virginia, where public housing residents alleged they were moved to units in poor condition, misled about their right to return to their old neighborhoods, and that families and people with disabilities were denied units when they tried to obtain them. In October, they settled a civil rights suit with HUD.

Tom Davis, who oversees RAD at HUD, says the agency scrutinizes conversion plans before they are approved to identify any red flags, and has also rolled out post-conversion reporting requirements.

“The implementation of these transactions is clearly the housing authority’s responsibilityto implement it according to the rulesbut we are not just relying on them to do it on trust,” Davis says.

Housing authorities must inform resident councils of RAD plans, but Casella says RAD doesn’t require frequent enough meetings or allow for adequate access to the program’s plans. The DHA is holding regular meetings that cover RAD, but they are mostly attended by people already involved with resident councils.

Scott previously worked for the Baltimore Housing Authority, where RAD plans were met with a backlash from residents and advocates. In Durham, he’s trying to bring more transparency to the process. He plans to hold community-wide input sessions and hopes to have a local university study the redevelopment.

DHA officials are excited about the potential for RAD to raise residents’ quality of life. But there are a lot of moving piecessecuring low income-housing tax credits, negotiating development deals, and doing it all within set deadlines to avoid an entire project being put back on the wait list. RAD regulations could change, and Congress could cut funding for Section 8. Republican tax proposals could undermine low-income housing tax credits by eliminating the private equity bonds they rely on or lowering the corporate tax rate, which companies buy the credits to offset. And RAD is currently only authorized through September 2020. The program has been extended three times so far, but any project without a financing plan in place by then could be in jeopardy.

“If any piece is missing,” Scott says, “it doesn’t work.”