A year ago, hundreds of families were evacuated from a Durham public housing community just as the pandemic hit. The crisis caused some lasting impacts.
[Editor’s note: One year ago this week, as the COVID-19 pandemic exploded, Policy Watch reporter Greg Childress reported on the plight of some of the hundreds of residents of Durham’s McDougald Terrace public housing community who had been evacuated due to the discovery of several carbon monoxide leaks. It was an especially difficult and frightening time for families as they tried to cope with the pandemic while packed into inadequate hotel rooms across the city.
Recently, journalists at the Media Hub, a project of students at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, returned to the McDougald Terrace story to gauge how some of the residents impacted by the crisis are faring and how Durham Housing Authority officials have responded. The story below was written by Julia Masters. The graphic was prepared by Valentina Arismendi.
Note: the story has been updated since the original publication to remove language in a graphic which stated that an infant death had resulted from carbon monoxide poisoning. Arismendi reports that while she encountered reports of such an event, she never obtained confirmation that it had actually occurred. We regret the error. ]Freezing rain was coming down, and firefighters were going door to door telling residents of McDougald Terrace that they needed to pack some belongings and go to the office immediately. Carbon monoxide was leaking into the public housing complex in Durham, and they needed to get out.
Brittany Bass was one of the residents that January night in 2020.
“My first thought was ‘what in the world is going on’,” Bass said. “I was scared because if I pick up my stuff and leave, who’s going to watch my apartment, or who’s going to be around to make sure things are safe?”
She would spend the next three months in a cramped hotel room at the Extended Stay America on NC 54.
A traumatic departure
Though more than a year has passed, the people of McDougald Terrace still feel the effects of being displaced after eight carbon monoxide leaks forced them out of their homes.
The Durham Housing Authority focused on evacuating families with members 65 and older or with children younger than 2. Bass’s household qualified because she had a one-year old, in addition to her five-year old.
“My main concern was if I go back will I be safe?” Bass said. “Within that same emotion, I was feeling like I failed my kids because we were staying there, we were living there without even knowing.”
At first, Bass and her family tried to think of the experience as a little vacation, but that was quickly overshadowed by uncertainty and frustration. They were cramped into one room, sleeping, eating, working and learning.
“It kind of put me in the mindset of being homeless again, because I didn’t have access to the sort of things that I had access to before,” she said.
They were now more than 15 miles from her oldest daughters’ school and Bass’s workplace. She is a peer support specialist for people with mental illness and substance abuse issues. Her youngest daughter had to start going to childcare services and both children had to have foster care to make ends meet.
An eye-opening experience
Tanya Kelly, a McDougald resident for four years, remembers the rain, too. She had just begun to take a nap when firefighters knocked on her door. Frantic and in a hurry, she only grabbed tops for her two grandkids, three and five.
Traditionally a loner, Kelly said the experience opened her eyes to the issues in her community and allowed her to find her niche in helping those around her.
“Ms. Tanya,” said a group of kids as they passed through the hallway of the Motel 6, “we are glad to be at the hotel. We don’t like that we ain’t got no space, but we glad that we don’t hear no gun shot, I sleep good every night.”
“Me too,” Kelly said, sharing that she cried the day she had to return to McDougald.
The stay at the hotel was some of the children’s first experience outside of McDougald and away from the sense of violence they had grown accustomed too. Kelly said parents spent time with their kids and interacted with them in ways many hadn’t before.
When she returned home she noticed that so many children did not have beds or places to do their online education.
She started coordinating “community giveback days” during which she collects donations and works with local churches to provide children with the basic comforts of home. In late February, she organized a day that focused on getting kids tables and chairs for remote learning.
“The experience has opened my eyes and made me realize that we cannot sit back and watch people suffer; that’s not why God created us,” Kelly said. “It’s easy to sit back and not do anything because it’s not our life, but it’s somebody’s life, somebody’s child.”
Repairs while residents were displaced went well beyond carbon monoxide issues. The Durham Housing Authority is still not where it would like to be in the repair process, however.
“Much of what we had anticipated being able to do has really been thrown off because of our grappling with COVID,” said Anthony Scott, executive director of the Durham Housing Authority. “We were only able to address emergency and urgent work orders during the period from March until August.”
Since August they have been able to deal with more routine work orders, however, they still have an outstanding backlog of orders to address—prioritizing health and safety concerns first, Scott said.
Lasting personal and systemic impacts
On April 3, 2020, Bass and her family were able to return home, but she couldn’t bring herself to go back permanently, feeling that doing so might jeopardize the future safety of her children. She requested a transfer to another public housing complex.
“I don’t think I even slept there when I went back..so I was never able to really return back home,” Bass said.
Though she likes her new apartment at Oxford Manor better, the experiences of the past year have caused her to plan to move out of public housing for good.
“I learned from this experience that things can change in the blink of an eye and to always be thankful and grateful because the people affected by the carbon monoxide could have been me and my family,” Bass said. “For us to be able to just be out of our homes and forced to go and stay in a hotel or any kind of situation, it just me more aware of things and it made me a lot more mature.”
The last family returned to McDougald Terrace on May 3, 2020, and the total expenses emanating from the crisis amounted to $9,066,649, but reforms of affordable housing in Durham are far from finished, Scott said.
“Our overall goal is to replace all of our public housing properties with new mixed income and mixed-use communities,” Scott said. “That creates a more conducive social, economic environment for families to be more successful and for children to be raised in kinds of communities that give them the supportive atmosphere they need.”
This replacement has already started in DHA’s downtown sites and is funded by a portion of Durham’s $95 million housing bond that was approved by 76 percent of voters and passed in November 2019, the largest housing bond in North Carolina history.
“My goal is that no child of public housing should ever be a public housing adult,” Scott said.
The McDougald Terrace crisis heightened tensions between the Durham Housing Authority and public housing residents.
Bass has suspicions that local officials only expressed concern over McDougald residents when the crisis hit national news.
“It’s almost like they want to keep a certain amount of people living in those conditions, no matter if you’re white—it’s really not a race thing—it’s a poor-rich thing. If you’re poor you get what is thrown at you,” Bass said, adding that she would like to see public officials have more conversations with public housing residents about job training, education, and opportunities to look for other housing.
Ashley Canady, president of the McDougald Terrace Resident Council, said she wants to see more compassion around the subject of public housing and doesn’t think local government understands what “affordable” really means.
Scott addressed the tension, agreeing that affordable options are limited.
“It’s directly tied to the economic health of a community,” Scott said. “Affordable housing is always an important ingredient. That’s why if we think about housing first and foremost as shelter and then second about how it ties into the economic vitality of a community, you can understand how those two are intrinsically linked,” Scott said.
He wants to see downtown Durham become a place accessible to all people, but this may take time as the Durham Housing Authority is federally funded.
The events that took place at McDougald Terrace last year changed the hearts of the community, Bass said.
“We can come together, this neighborhood doesn’t have to be violent, we don’t have to deal with crime; people were looking at the bigger picture which was their health and their safety. There was almost a standstill in time where everybody came together—people looked out for each other,” Bass said.
“I am proud of my community, too see how many of them have stepped up, to see the relationships that they have built, too see how our property managers are actually going above and beyond,” Canady said. “Let’s keep working together, let’s keep up the good fight and most of all, let’s not give up.”