Throughout January and February, the Triangle was fixated on the unfolding public health crisis at McDougald Terrace.

Durham’s oldest and largest public housing complex was the focus of indignation and protests following revelations of elevated levels of carbon monoxide, lead paint, sewage problems, asbestos, mold, and the still-unexplained deaths of three infants within two months. 

On January 3, the Durham Housing Authority began evacuating 288 Mac families to area hotels while officials began remediating the myriad issues plaguing the community. Nearly three months later, life for many of those families was just beginning to get back to normal—and then the COVID-19 crisis hit. On Wednesday, Mayor Steve Schewel issued a stay-at-home order restricting travel except for essential activities. On Friday, Governor Cooper followed with a similar statewide order.  

Last week, DHA executive director Anthony Scott announced that nearly 200 of those families had or soon would leave the hotels and return home: 118 had already come home to the Mac, 24 more moved to other DHA properties, two others left for other housing providers, and 42 more would come back in the near future. The remaining families are staying at 10 hotels.

The DHA says that 139 of its units still need to be made safe. 

Scott says the repairs at McDougald Terrace haven’t been affected by the coronavirus. Because the city’s stay-at-home order exempts construction, “we can stay on pace to return all families home in early April.”  

The housing authority is still seeking donations for the residents who remain at the hotels, including bottled water, paper towels, tissue, cleaning supplies, non-perishable food, paper plates, plastic utensils, along with school supplies and educational activities to occupy children who are out of school.

As the coronavirus consumed the headlines, the plight of McDougald residents fell away. But the problems didn’t vanish, says retired chiropractor Allen Botnick, a housing advocate who helps residents navigate the Section 8 process. 

Botnick says he’s been in contact with McDougald residents nearly every day since they were evacuated. He’s heard from residents who returned to the Mac to find their TVs and PlayStations stolen and who complain about unqualified contractors making inadequate repairs. 

He points out that the pandemic poses a particular threat to public housing tenants. Many are elderly or don’t lead healthy lifestyles. They might be immunocompromised from living with mold, lead, asbestos, and elevated carbon monoxide levels. An outbreak could be devastating. 

Ali Byrd’s family is one of 34 DHA families who have stayed at the Hometowne Studios on N.C. Highway 55 for a month or longer. She doesn’t live in the Mac. Instead,  Byrd says, she and her children became homeless last year after an administrative mistake cost them a Section 8 voucher.

Now, Byrd says, she’s a week away from moving into the Valley Terrace Apartments on Chapel Hill Road.

Like Botnick, she says she’s heard about McDougald Terrace families returning to find “incomplete houses” where they smell gas and mold.  

“They are throwing people back into the apartments,” she says. “I’m telling you something is going to happen. They are glad to be home, but don’t nobody want to blow up either. You got people that still smell gas. They doing it too fast.”

She adds: “Can you imagine the PTSD that’s going to come from this?”

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at

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