On a warm, sunny afternoon this week, a group of older men and women gathered behind Mamie Beal’s apartment at McDougald Terrace in South Durham. They talked about how Durham Housing Authority’s (DHA’s) recently announced “recovery agreement” with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) might affect their lives in the coming years.

Last week, Anthony Scott, the CEO of DHA, said the agency had entered into an agreement with HUD to submit a redevelopment plan that calls for the “repositioning” of McDougald Terrace by this time next year. If HUD approves the plan, local public housing officials’ options include “substantial renovation” of the property—a so-called “voluntary conversion”—based on a physical needs assessment, according to a two-page letter the DHA made public that outlines the terms of the agreement.

“Relocation will be necessary, phased at best,” DHA officials state in the letter.

The other option calls for issuing “tenant protection vouchers” to McDougald Terrace families and demolishing the city’s oldest and largest public housing complex, removing the property altogether from the federal housing program.

“In other words, HUD no longer wants McDougald Terrace in the Public Housing Program, which is not something we disagree with,” Scott told the INDY in an email last week. “The age and funding methodology does not serve a property like McDougald Terrace well. Other programs within the HUD tool box will allow much-needed renovations and/or redevelopment to benefit our residents.”

Scott says the cost for renovating McDougald Terrace has not yet been determined and “will be part of the planning process work forthcoming,” but he added that in consideration of the financially impoverished status of its residents, “any and every option that will be considered will have some or all replacement units included in what is to be done at McDougald Terrace.” He also noted that when residents are required to move, “DHA will provide all relocation assistance based on the federal Uniform Relocation Act,” meaning the families “will be given assistance to move, supplies and help with utilities that are transferred.”

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McDougald Terrace residents have endured a hellish litany of public health issues: generations of aching poverty and, in recent years, health-threatening living conditions that at one point forced the wholesale evacuation of hundreds of residents who lived for months in area hotels. There’s a level of gun violence, too, that has made it the most violent community in the city.

The full impact of the agreement won’t be felt until 2024. Still, for residents of a neighborhood frozen in poverty and with a dearth of resources, the news is unsettling. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, the per capita income in McDougald Terrace is less than $10,000 and the median household income is a little over $27,600.

So, even with tenant protection vouchers, what will happen to the 301 families and 807 people now living in McDougald Terrace? Will the vouchers provide enough to live in a city where, last year, the average rent for an apartment cost just over $1,400, which an adult with one child would have to earn a yearly income of $55,155 to afford?

In a Time magazine story published last month, Marcia Fudge, the U.S. secretary of HUD, encapsulated the existential threat that’s familiar for millions of Americans: Where can they find an affordable place to live?

“I need every single person in this nation to understand that homelessness is a crisis,” Fudge told a West Coast group in October, but “housing prices are a crisis,” too.

Members of the group behind Beal’s apartment included a couple of men who, now in their sixties, were born and raised in McDougald Terrace.

This week, others in the community voiced both concern and frustration. A DHA maintenance worker parked a company truck along the shoulder of Sima Avenue and used a metal grabber to pick up trash he collected in a plastic, navy blue bucket.

“They’re not saying anything,” the DHA employee responded when asked if McDougald Terrace residents are talking about the so-called recovery agreement the agency reached with HUD. “They’re kind of shook up,” added the worker, who declined to give his name. “But it’s been a long time coming. They need to shut it down.”

A woman who appeared to be in her late twenties or early thirties adjusted the pink bonnet covering her hair as she sat in the driver’s seat of an old pickup truck on Ridgeway Avenue, one of the old neighborhood’s major thoroughfares. The woman, who also declined to give her name, was angry because she was $2,800 behind on rent.

“They need to shut this shit down,” she said. “They don’t fix nothing.”

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Meanwhile, the group behind Mamie Beal’s apartment sat in worn patio chairs or stood around a clothesline, drinking cans of Miller and Bud Light. Their sentiments accompanied the rough, tender voice of Otis Redding, singing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” tumbling out of an apartment window.

The group, composed of working-class folk still in the uniforms they wear to work each day, are friends and neighbors whose resilience supersedes the tragedies that often happen in the community. Beal says she didn’t hear the gunshots that killed a boy a few doors down from her apartment a couple of months ago. She remembers the fatal police shooting of a young man in the front yard of a Wabash Street apartment several years ago.

“They say he’s back at work,” Beal says of the officer who shot the young man. “A lot of times when people get shot I don’t be here. It’s like God sends me away.”

There is a work ethic among Beal and her neighbors, a kindness, ready smiles, and good cheer that’s at odds with the neighborhood’s reputation as being the most violent community in the city.

Most are well aware of the community’s place in the Bull City’s history of white flight and the trauma that impacted Black people all over Durham during the 1960s and early 1970s with the misnamed urban renewal program, whose centerpiece was the construction of Highway 147 that cleaved the heart of the historically Black Hayti District and destroyed 4,000 homes and 500 businesses. Few remaining enterprises remained, in a place called “Tin City,” that sat behind Phoenix Square and the Hayti Heritage Center.

The way the folks behind Beal’s apartment see it, that generations-old urban demolition and displacement is part of the same canvas nowadays that accounts for the systemic neglect of affordable housing, gentrification, and its incumbent dislocation of Black families, along with the reverse flight of more affluent whites moving back into the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown core. The racially charged “inner city” is giving way to white-informed “center city.”

Months before Durham and the rest of the country shut down because of the coronavirus, the residents of McDougald Terrace were already enduring a public health crisis fueled by mold conditions, lead paint, pervasive sewage issues, and the unexplained deaths of three infants (according to the state medical examiner)* that, in January, prompted the evacuation of more than 300 residents after DHA officials reported a massive gas leak in the community.

Among the people gathered around Beal’s back door are Curtis Bright, who works in the facilities department at Duke University, and Derrick Kevin Smith, a strikingly handsome, dark-complexioned man with a full snow-white beard. Smith wears a black sweatsuit and looks like Harry Edwards, the famed sports sociologist and former Black Panther. He echoes a frequent question while sitting behind Beal’s apartment: Where will the people go if they shut McDougald Terrace down?

“McDougald ain’t as bad as they think it is,” Smith says. “Put your foot down in the places where the guns are. Ask the white people, would they put their children outdoors? Ain’t nothing but children out here.”

Beal quietly listens while sitting in one of her patio chairs. She and her husband were among the hundreds of families the DHA evacuated in early 2020 after officials detected high levels of carbon monoxide leaking from their kitchen appliances.

“I think they need to be torn down,” Beal says of the housing complex. “They’ve been here for a long time, from what I’ve been told. You just can’t keep fixing, fixing, fixing. At some point you just gotta let it go.”

“There’s no central air, no central heat,” Beal says. “They said they were going to get rid of the gas, but we still got gas heat. I still got a gas leak, but can’t nobody smell it but me. My husband smells it too, basically in the morning when we get up and walk downstairs and go into the kitchen. We can smell it in the kitchen pipes.”

Meanwhile, Bright wonders: After DHA spent $6 million to renovate McDougald Terrace during the carbon monoxide crisis, is the agency willing to spend millions of more dollars to meet HUD’s approval?

“If you can fix it, go ahead and fix it,” Bright says, before leaning out of earshot of the group and whispering that the “shootings and stuff” are worrisome.

“There’s a lot of death out here,” he says. “I’d rather have a nice apartment. Move me out of here.”

But he’s also worried about trying to afford a $1,500, one-bedroom apartment downtown.

“Then you have to pay for parking,” he adds. “I want to be there, but that’s a hell of a price. If they plan to move us out, how are we going to move back? To tell you the truth, it ain’t for us. They want the credit-card crowd downtown.”

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Scott says HUD admits that it has underfunded public housing authorities across the country by about $70 billion and that it’s “an indication of how bad the problem is with America’s public housing stock.”

“That [$70 billion] figure, by the way, equates to about $70,000 per [housing unit] that public housing authorities should have received, but that the U.S. Congress has chosen not to fund over the years.”

Last month’s Time magazine story notes that the $70 billion needed to repair government-owned public housing is more than HUD’s entire annual budget. And so instead of repairing public housing, the federal government has increasingly opted to “reposition” places like McDougald Terrace.

HUD authorities point to an upside of such a move. Repositioning, they say, gives local authorities more control over the use of public housing assets. Repositioning also moves the property from the public housing program to Section 8 assistance with the intent to preserve the properties as long-term affordable housing. HUD authorities also say that in some instances, repositioning can mean the conversion to tenant-based assistance or the sale of public housing units to low-income home buyers, according to A Guide to Public Housing Repositioning, which the federal agency published in March of last year.

One of the city’s foremost scholars on Black entrepreneurship and affordable housing posed the same uncertainties voiced by the residents.

“Where will they go when [McDougald Terrace] shuts down? What will be the impacts on their lives and well-being now and into the future—and even for generations to come?” asks Henry McKoy, who is director of entrepreneurship at North Carolina Central University’s business school and director of Hayti Reborn, LLC, a far-reaching project that envisions transforming the vacant DHA-owned Fayette Place into a hub of commerce, affordable housing, and education, without the trauma of gentrification and displacing Black families.

McKoy also wonders: What will become of the land where the public housing complex sits?

“Will it be sold off to the highest bidder as the folks in the community are scattered into the wind, or will more creative imagining take precedent and allow our leaders to think about how it can be leveraged to maximize the benefit of those living there now?” asks McKoy.

Last month, Hayti Reborn officials filed a letter of protest with DHA after the agency left them out of ongoing plans to build more affordable housing on the vacant Fayette Place property.

Last week, McKoy told the INDY that the future of the land where McDougald Terrace now sits must include “a real and serious debate about the highest and best use of public lands in Durham in contemporary times” as well as the land’s relationship to Black and other low-income communities.

“We must have that conversation immediately, or there won’t be a future Black and low-income community in Durham,” McKoy says. “It can’t be only about how we house them, but how to utilize available public property for ladders of mobility and wealth creation for our lowest-wealth and left-behind communities.”

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At the heart of DHA’s recovery agreement with HUD was a “troubled rating” that the agency received in 2020 from the federal Public Housing Authority Assessment System. The rating was based upon an assessment during the 2018 fiscal year.

The DHA letter noted that the “troubled” rating happened before the agency spent $6 million to address brick-and-mortar concerns, with $3.7 million spent on health and safety repairs since the 2020 carbon monoxide crisis.

But the rating includes all of DHA’s properties. In addition to the properties’ physical condition, the rating is based on the financial condition of the agency, management operations, and its capital fund program, according to HUD’s scoring guide.

Aside from McDougald Terrace’s repositioning, the agreement calls for the DHA to increase its occupancy rate to 95 percent and improve the conditions of all its properties over the next two years.

Still, the biggest concerns lie with McDougald Terrace.

Scott says he cannot speculate about HUD’s “decision process” when asked what will happen if the federal agency does not approve the plan DHA submits next year. However, he says, local housing authority officials will “seek input from the residents, engage our professional staff and potential development partner and put forth a plan that is achievable.”

And he managed to sound a positive note about the fate of McDougald Terrace, adding that DHA’s “most recent Downtown and Neighborhood Plan process and success in providing approval plans gives us the [optimistic] tone [on behalf of] the McDougald Terrace community.”

The group behind Beal’s apartment on Monday afternoon remains wary at best, and cynical at worst.

“You’re trying to take out a whole lot of families,” says Carlos, who declined to give his last name. “And that shit ain’t right.”

Editor’s note: Scott told the INDY this week only two of the infants who died lived in McDougald Terrace. This story has been updated to reflect that three infants died according to the state medical examiner, who performed three preliminary autopsies on infants who died at McDougald Terrace. 

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.