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Democratic presidential candidate and billionaire hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer spent Saturday afternoon at McDougald Terrace.

Brittany Buss is one of the more than 300 McDougald Terrace residents who have been relocated to an area hotel because of the public health issues identified in the neighborhood, including carbon monoxide, mold, lead paint, and potentially contaminated water due to pervasive sewage problems.

Steyer and Buss come from very different worlds. But they were talking the same language about the issues that have beset the city’s largest and oldest public housing complex.

“The federal government has given up its responsibility to deal with affordable housing across the country,” Steyer said after visiting an apartment at Building 51B and pulling a black T-shirt over his blue button-down dress shirt and tartan necktie. The tee read “51B MAC UNITED.” “They’ve done it for decades, and it has to end. And you can see, we have deteriorating and inadequate public housing and affordable housing across this country. We’ve got to rebuild it. … Counting on the market to solve this problem and have the government absolve itself of its actual responsibility hasn’t worked. This is the proof.”

Minutes before, Buss stood in front of a microphone inside the auditorium at Burton Elementary School and spoke powerfully about living in the Mac to several hundred fellow residents, activists, supporters, and elected officials who had come for updates. In the last two months, three infants have died in the complex under mysterious circumstances; the state medical examiner has ruled out carbon monoxide as a cause of death but has not said what killed them. 

Buss said she’s worried about the mold, maintenance workers who paint over the lead-based paint on the walls, and sewage that she fears has leaked into residents’ drinking water. 

Carbon monoxide is in the air they breathe, she said, affecting residents’ behavior and perhaps responsible for much of the anger and violence in the community.

“It’s deeper than this shit,” Buss said of the updates provided earlier by Anthony Scott, the Durham Housing Authority’s chief executive officer, and other officials. “This is bigger than McDougald Terrace. This is happening on a global level. Why are y’all doing this to us? This is so, so deep. Why do you think people in McDougald Terrace are killing each other? It’s the gas. It’s the gas!”

While carbon monoxide is not typically linked to violent behavior, exposure to lead in childhood has been. Even so, Buss’s observation struck a deep chord with the capacity crowd, and as the residents stood cheering, an elderly resident in the front of the auditorium was so overcome that she fainted.

Before Buss spoke, Mayor Steve Schewel said Saturday morning’s meeting at Burton was “not an assembly any of us wanted to have.”

“What is happening with the McDougald Terrace relocation is a terrible thing,” Schewel said, “and I apologize. I’m sorry you’re going through this.” Schewel praised the residents for their spirit, dignity, and support for one another after having their lives upended.

Saturday marked the end of a week in which DHA officials relocated 270 households in McDougald to 12 area hotels while the agency inspected 243 apartments. On Saturday, Scott said inspectors discovered 35 furnaces or heaters, 34 water heaters, and 133 cooking stoves that were emitting carbon monoxide. In some instances, they found all three in one apartment.

And there are other issues inspectors found as well, including leaking gas valves and terra cotta pipes in the flues.

Scott said the DHA is “putting together a strategy and reviewing options” that include replacing gas-fueled appliances with electric ones. He added that the agency will spend this week obtaining estimates for repairs and begin mold inspections. Scott also promised to increase security after several residents reported break-ins at their apartments while they have been at hotels.

“We’re not patching up the problem,” Scott said. “We’re trying to solve the problem. It’s about fixing the problem, not patching up the holes.”

Like Steyer and Buss, Scott expressed frustration over federal officials’ decades-long inaction.

“This is a national issue,” he said. “The federal government has to do a better job.”

Minutes after the meeting ended, Steyer arrived at the Mac after attending a luncheon at nearby N.C. Central. The candidate, who is worth an estimated $1.6 billion, was accompanied by county commissioner candidate John Rooks, who persuaded him to visit the complex.

“I wanted him to have this experience,” Rooks told the INDY.

Steyer’s nearly two-hour visit included a walk down Ridgeway Street, where every few yards stood a location with an unspoken story. He walked past Building 41, where the INDY first reported about a corrupted manhole cover that had been leaking raw sewage for months, and where a stormwater pipe had been pouring raw sewage into a nearby creek.

He strolled past the apartment that houses Bull City United, an initiative to reduce gang activity. He stopped briefly in front of Building 27, where a child died of sudden infant death syndrome in the 1990s; the building was boarded and has sat unoccupied since. “Housing and race have always been at the epicenter of inequality in this country,” Steyer said.

He arrived at the intersection of Ridgeway and Wabash Streets, where Building 7 has been boarded up for years. He walked a few feet down the sidewalk and visited the home of Ashley Canady, the president of the McDougald Terrace residents council, who lives across the street from where a young man was shot to death in November.

“This is not an unknown story,” Steyer said. “This is a story about failure across the board. So that means housing, for sure. But it’s also about safety, [it’s about] poisoning, and there’s no way to look at this and not take race into account.”

The housing bond Durham voters approved in November allocates almost $60 million to renovate several DHA properties, including the Mac, over the next five years. So far, Steyer has spent nearly $120 million on advertising in his presidential campaign. Nationally, he is polling at about 2 percent

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at 

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