This weekend, Durham Housing Authority officials began relocating more than 300 residents of McDougald Terrace into hotels because of concerns about potentially dangerous levels of carbon monoxide in their homes. 

But a question lingers among residents of the 67-year-old housing complex, the city’s largest: Did carbon monoxide poisoning kill two infants? 

On Thursday, a day before the DHA announced the voluntary relocation, residents and community advocates gathered at Burton Elementary School for a Q&A session with DHA officials, who were joined by EMS and Fire Department officials who had spent the previous week checking apartments’ carbon monoxide levels. Those inspections found six units with elevated carbon monoxide levels and 13 more with gas leaks; in addition, paramedics reported four residents with elevated carbon monoxide levels, two of whom required hospitalization. 

Despite those results, Fire Department assistant chief Andy Sannipoli told The News & Observer that “there was no indication” that carbon monoxide led to the deaths of infants on November 20 and December 8. 

But at Thursday’s meeting, not everyone accepted that assurance. 

Victoria Peterson, a former city council candidate, told DHA executive director Anthony Scott she wanted to “cut to the chase and through the rumors. I heard that two children died. I don’t know if that’s true or not. So I would like you gentlemen to speak on that. I would like to know, have any children died? Have any children gone to the hospital?”

Scott called the notion that infants were dying at McDougald “a rumor that’s been out there for a while,” before adding that he was told by the fire department that there was no indication that the deaths stemmed from carbon monoxide poisoning. 

Peterson pressed. She asked Scott and other officials if they’d seen the autopsy reports. Told the reports hadn’t been completed, she said, “So there’s a possibility that [carbon monoxide poisoning] could be what happened?”

“Yes ma’am,” answered assistant EMS chief Lee VanVleet. 

Scott assured residents that addressing the carbon monoxide scare was his highest priority, but that’s just one issue among many. To live there, current and former residents said Thursday, is to be subjected to a barrage of “Third World” conditions. 

“That place needs to be shut down,” a former resident said. “What I’ve heard today is unfathomable. You need to contact Washington. It’s an emergency.”

The residents described hearing rats in their walls and smelling mold in their kitchen cabinets and showers, dealing with rusted window sills and rickety outside porches that pulled away from their unit’s exterior, and witnessing gas leaks repaired with duct tape. Tub faucets couldn’t be turned off for days, creating more mold. Paint peeled from their walls and tubs, and ceilings cracked. 

And then there were the sewage problems

“Every other day, I’m unclogging my toilet,” complained a resident of Building 16. “I even switched toilet paper.”

Equally aggravating, the residents said, are the indifferent property managers.

A resident of Building 41 said that when she calls to report a problem, no one answers. 

“My door has been messed up for over a year,” she said. “When I call for a work order, they add to the rent [for the work], but they don’t actually do the work.”

The residents grew testy, but not disrespectful, throughout the nearly two-hour meeting. They wanted to be heard.

“We all are somebody!” one resident said. 

“We are more than our address!” added another.

One wondered whether the DHA would have held the meeting if two children hadn’t died.

A resident of the JJ Henderson Towers housing complex accused the DHA of “the cover-up of black babies dying.” He also accused the city of coveting the East Durham land McDougald sits on. 

“What you’re doing now borders on environmental racism,” he said. “Make the conditions so bad that it’s unlivable. We will not stand for another baby to die in McDougald Terrace. The blood is on your hands.” 

Scott denied that the DHA wants to repurpose the land. The renovations the DHA plans as part of the housing bond Durham voters passed in November “include building on the same site.”

Ashley Canady, the McDougald residents council president, told Scott her biggest worry was that residents who spoke out would be evicted for doing so. 

Scott promised that there would be “no retaliation.” He also said that “over the next several weeks,” he wanted to match residents’ work orders with the work they said wasn’t being done. 

That night, a building at McDougald was evacuated after someone smelled gas. 

By Friday evening, the DHA was making arrangements for all 348 tenants to relocate “until carbon monoxide risks have been eliminated.”

Forty McDougald residents and their supporters spoke at Monday night’s Durham City Council meeting to voice their concerns about living conditions at the housing complex. 

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at Additional reporting by Sara Pequeño and Jade Wilson.

Correction: Due to an editing error, this story originally said that the city council awarded Urban Ministries $90,000 to assist McDougald residents. Instead, the city extended and amended an existing contract; this vote was not connected to the recent crisis at McDougald Terrace.

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