After McDougald Terrace residents were displaced in early January, Durham Housing Authority executive director Anthony Scott blamed decades of failed federal policy for the issues plaguing the city’s oldest public housing complex.
From the beginning, Scott told the INDY last week, public housing was designed to be uncomfortable so that residents would want to move out. But in Durham, “that [didn’t] work for black folk who [had] limited places to go. White folk could get on their feet and move out. Black folk faced restrictive covenants and redlining, so they couldn’t get [housing loans].”
Over the years, public housing was chronically underfunded, and housing complexes became hives of crime and poverty. They were viewed as something separate from the rest of their communities and left to decay.
No one lives at McDougald Terrace or anyplace like it by choice, Scott says, pointing out that the city’s average public housing resident earns less than $10,000 a year. The situation has only become more tenuous under the Trump administration.
Every one of the president’s budget proposals has sought drastic cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency that funds public housing. His most recent budget called for eliminating the Public Housing Capital Fund, which goes toward the upkeep and maintenance of communities like McDougald Terrace, and cutting the Public Housing Operating Fund by 38 percent.
“Public housing’s allocation is less than what it should be,” Scott says. “It’s been going on for years. Housing authorities have pushed back time after time for more capital funds.”
As with most presidents, Congress hasn’t taken Trump’s budgets as gospel, especially after Democrats took the House and Representative David Price, who represents parts of the Triangle, became chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development. On December 20, Trump signed a funding bill that included more public housing money than his administration asked for.
On January 3, the DHA began relocating 280 McDougald Terrace households to area hotels after inspections discovered dangerously elevated carbon monoxide levels from gas stoves, furnaces, and water heaters. (From November to January 1, three infants died at the Mac; their causes of death are unknown, though the state medical examiner ruled out carbon monoxide.) With the media’s attention focused on the complex, residents also pointed out a host of other longstanding but unaddressed issues, including lead paint, mold, sewage problems, crime, bed bugs, and roaches.
Last week, tensions boiled over. Led by residents council president Ashley Canady, about 50 Mac tenants disrupted a Durham City Council meeting on Tuesday and then another on Thursday. Canady has called for Scott’s removal and the resignation of the DHA board.
“I understand the anger and frustration they have,” Scott says. “I understand that it comes to me. But I also want them to understand that it’s bigger than the Durham Housing Authority, too.”
What’s happening at the Mac parallels the public health challenges facing public housing communities across the United States, says David Weber, a policy analyst with the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association, whose members represent 3,200 housing authorities nationwide.
“There are many, many, many public housing communities facing these problems—New York City in recent years, Wellston, Missouri, and Cairo, Illinois, where there have been deaths due to carbon monoxide,” Weber says.
Aside from addressing these crises, however, federal officials have squelched funds for the kind of normal repairs that any homeowner would do on aging properties, Weber says—things like roofs, furnaces, windows, and plumbing and electrical work.
“The situation in Durham underscores the result of years of underfunding public housing,” Price told the INDY. “These hazards arise as a function of poor maintenance. The need is great. Public housing in general really needs to be more generously funded.”
He admits that there’s “very little money for new public housing,” and existing housing is perpetually underfinanced. At current funding levels, Price says, the DHA and other housing agencies don’t have enough money to do what they need to do.
In March, Scott shared his concerns about funding with Price’s subcommittee, telling members that “we are now at a critical stage for needing aggressive action to undertake affordable housing production and preservation.”
A month earlier, the House Committee on Financial Services had received a memo calling for greater investment in affordable housing infrastructure, including the 1.1 million public housing units that are home to 2.6 million people. The memo pointed to a 2010 study commissioned by HUD that estimated that needed public housing repairs will cost $70 billion, and because the work isn’t being done, housing authorities are losing 10,000 units a year.
Price says the bill Trump signed in December set aside $45 million in grant funding for housing authorities to combat hazardous materials in their communities. He also points to the Emergency Capital Fund, which has about $30 million that can be used to address health and safety issues.
These resources are relevant to the crisis at McDougald Terrace, Price says. “We need to be pushing on both fronts.”
Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at email@example.com.
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