Would a President Biden respond to this federal housing emergency?

North Carolina public housing tenants seek safe housing after years of federal underfunding

Published October 8, 2020 6:30AM (EDT)

Built in 1954, McDougald Terrace is Durham County’s oldest and largest public housing complex. (Abe Kenmore / Capital & Main)
Built in 1954, McDougald Terrace is Durham County’s oldest and largest public housing complex. (Abe Kenmore / Capital & Main)

This article originally appeared on Capital & Main.

Ashley Canady hoped for a better 2020. The North Carolina tenant leader dreamed of living in a complex "where the roof isn't leaking," one staffed to address the crises that troubled her Durham public housing complex.

"I just want to see my community happy, healthy and safe," she wrote in a letter published by the local paper, the Herald-Sun, in early January.

By the time the letter was published, the community was in a state of emergency. Canady learned on New Year's Eve that the complex's faulty stoves, water heaters and furnaces made it unsafe for the 325 families who lived there. They leaked carbon monoxide, and tenants would need to evacuate their homes in a matter of days.

For a moment, the plight of the McDougald Terrace tenants – and the dilapidated state of the nation's public housing stock – caught the attention of candidates for president. The tenants received visits from Tom Steyer, then still a Democratic presidential candidate, and former Ohio State Sen. Nina Turner, who served as Bernie Sanders' campaign chair. Canady appeared in an ad endorsing Sanders.

"[The Sanders campaign] seemed to be the only people who were really passionate about the work," Canady said. "Nina Turner pushed, really encouraged me to keep going."

At that point in late January, progressive candidates were still advancing ambitious plans to shore up public and affordable housing. Sanders proposed an investment of $2.5 trillion, with $70 billion going to repair public housing and build new units. 

That was before COVID-19 hit, before Joe Biden secured the North Carolina primary and protests against racism and police brutality rocked the nation. But the issues of public health, racism and public investment continue to play out at McDougald Terrace, and Canady sees this election as important to the fate of the housing complex.

"If Trump wins, we might as well move out of 'the Mac,'" Canady says. If Biden is elected, "I really feel a change will come, but I don't know," she said.

Biden's $640 billion proposal to address the housing crisis is a fraction of the size of Sanders', but includes far more money, with far more details, than Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign plan, which included no funding commitments and focused largely on supporting home ownership. Unlike the Republican platform, the Democrats include a commitment to increase public housing availability and upgrade existing housing. 

The Biden campaign has not pinpointed how much of its proposed policy would go toward public housing. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a solution to the housing crisis should include funding for existing federal policies, block grants to states and fair access to housing – all proposals that appear in Biden's plan.

The Republican party readopted the 2016 platform for 2020, and while Trump's campaign has also announced a list of priorities, none mention housing. They have invoked the Democrats' support for expanding "low income housing" as a racist dog whistle, warning voters that an Obama-era policy, Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, will lead to the construction of "low-income housing" in their communities. 

Ben Carson, the head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has attempted to eliminate antidiscrimination protections for public housing residents and repeatedly tried to slash funding.  

For the fiscal year 2020, HUD requested that Congress eliminate the Public Housing Capital Fund, which is used by local authorities for maintenance, and a 38 percent cut to operating funds. Congressman David E. Price (D-N.C.), who represents part of Durham and chairs the House committee that oversees HUD, said Trump's proposed national budget "betrays American values and mortgages our future." Congress restored many of the proposed cuts, and the Durham Housing Authority even received a slight uptick in federal funding in recent years, with about $35 million received in 2019.

The underfunding of public housing did not start with Carson, however, and has been a bipartisan effort.

"We have starved public institutions for decades," said Jillian Johnson, Durham's mayor pro tempore. "We haven't invested significantly in public housing since the '80s."

According to the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, between 2000 and 2018 funding for public housing maintenance fell 35 percent, while operations were only fully funded in three of those years. 

"I think it's pretty clearly documented – Congress has underfunded public housing," said Dan Hudgins, chair of the board of the Durham Housing Authority.

*  *  *

Like many policies highlighted during this summer's Black Lives Matter protests, public housing is inextricably linked with the country's history of racial discrimination. The first public housing in Durham was for white residents, and a couple years later in 1954, McDougald Terrace was built as the "local Negro project." Now Durham's public housing overall is 94 percent Black, more than twice the national rate. 

"I feel personally, if it was a bunch of white people living out here, they'd make sure that this was up to code," Canady said. "And pretty much they don't care because this is already labeled a bad community, when it's really not."

Despite the many challenges, the community at McDougald has been a source of stability. Public housing typically charges 30 percent of income or a minimum monthly payment of $50, which is all some residents can afford. This is no guarantee against evictions – in 2019 Durham Housing Authority had almost 850 filings, although actual evictions fell significantly – but it does allow flexibility for low-income residents.

Laura Betye, who is on the resident council along with Canady, moved to Durham from Florida in 2006 after Hurricane Wilma displaced her and her five children.

"FEMA actually offered me a relocation or going into a trailer, and we had no electricity for three weeks in Florida and every other week there was a hurricane, so I was like, 'Yeah, I'm going,'" she said. 

Betye's youngest is now 21, but McDougald Terrace met their needs as they grew up.

"The most important thing for a child, I think, is development. And Durham Housing has provided that," she said. "Look, they're not luxurious apartments, but they do their job. There's running water, there's electricity … it's a tremendously creative community."

Durham Housing Authority relocated almost all of the residents to hotels while it made repairs to the buildings. At its peak, 500 people were displaced. The last of them did not return until May 1.

During the evacuations, resident organizing focused on their temporary living conditions. Many hotel accommodations lacked kitchens or even microwaves. Instant macaroni and cheese cups became a symbol of the residents' displeasure with the high-sodium, low-quality food they were eating. During some city council meetings, they rattled the cups to indicate their displeasure. 

Residents crowded into the council chambers to describe roaches falling on their heads and asked the city council to step up, according to Sabrina Davis, a Duke graduate student who organized support for the tenants. Canady led protests of the council and Durham Housing Authority.

Some of the responsibility for the neglect of McDougald Terrace belongs to the Durham Housing Authority, according to former and current officials. Wib Gulley is a former mayor of Durham who still does volunteer work around housing. He is very complimentary of Anthony Scott, the current CEO of Durham Housing Authority, but says the authority's previous leadership has not been strong.

Hudgins, of the Authority board, agreed, adding that there wasn't strong property management before Scott arrived.

"We just haven't had the resources to maintain it and we probably have not prioritized the things that should have been done," Hudgins said.

Speaking in September, Canady thinks the pressure she put on the city council was appropriate. 

"When you have a mayor or someone come out and acknowledge for 40 years these problems have been going on at McDougald Terrace, that doesn't make you look any better, because you just openly acknowledge that there's problems and you didn't fix them," she explained.

But McDougald Terrace is also a story of a city with limited options to avoid a crisis. Johnson said she understood residents' frustration, but for any city to contribute to the federally funded public housing is an "extraordinary act." Johnson said Durham provided $7 million to $8 million in funding to the Durham Housing Authority over the past few years.

Durham voters also approved a $95 million housing bond in a 2019 referendum, raising property taxes to provide more affordable housing. According to Hudgins, it was the largest public housing bond in the state, and $60 million was supposed to go to Durham Housing for renovations.

Federal policy is moving away from publicly run housing. The only option to rebuild dilapidated projects is often the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD). Begun in 2012, it provides federal support for public-private redevelopment of public housing, replacing housing units at a one-to-one rate with private, voucher-subsidized apartments and, in Durham, additional mixed-income units.

"The RAD program is a privatization effort for public housing," said Johnson. "It is very much in line with the tendency of the U.S. government to find the most pro-capitalist way to do social policy possible."

Eventually Durham Housing Authority wants to rebuild all its units under RAD, but because it requires private investment, the program has focused on sites in Durham's booming downtown for the first round. McDougald, according to Gulley, was too far outside town to attract financing.

This left Durham Housing Authority scrambling to pay for the McDougald crisis, which cost at least $9 million. They managed with emergency money from HUD, which was only available because of the crisis, $1.4 million in funding from the city and pulling from Durham Housing Authority's capital budget — limiting its ability to make repairs in future. 

In the meantime, residents have tried to take care of their community. Canady barely slept during the initial evacuation. Betye would wake up at 5:30 a.m. to get the kids at her hotel on the bus, and got permission to leave work early and help them with homework. The rest of the city showed up as well; Leonardo Williams, a local restaurant co-owner, estimates he coordinated about 45,000 meals to residents. 

Betye is very positive about the reaction from Durham – unlike some other residents, she does think the city council and the Housing Authority responded well.

"The whole community came," she said. "I am not sure if it was another city in North Carolina if the outcome would have been the same."

*  *  *

McDougald Terrace has not quite returned to normal. It has escaped the worst of the pandemic – there have only been three self-reported COVID-19 cases at McDougald, according to the Housing Authority. New appliances have been installed in most of the units. There will be no evictions for people who cannot pay rent – on average, $237 a month – through the end of the year, per CDC guidance. But the issues that troubled the apartments prior to the evacuation remain.

McDougald Terrace is large – 360 apartments spread over multiple blocks, more like a suburban development than a centralized project. In early September, Ella Toomer sat on the front stoop of her apartment, one in a collection of the two-story brick row houses spaced around wide grassy common. Toomer doesn't trust that the carbon monoxide is gone.

"That's why I sit outside from morning to night," she said.

She also thinks the water tastes funny now, and says she can't cook with it. "I can't even use my ice," she added.

Toomer said she was evacuated in the spring after firemen came to inspect her apartment for carbon monoxide and thought she looked ill. She lost weight, was sick for a while, and requested to move to Liberty Street, another public housing unit. 

Toomer moved back to McDougald in the meantime, despite her mistrust. Durham Housing Authority said in an email that while they have tried to move residents who requested transfers, Liberty Street is not an option for her – it is slated for redevelopment under the RAD program. She says she will move elsewhere.

McDougald is still receiving food distributions from local businesses. On September 8, Canady and Betye worked together distributing boxes of produce for residents to use on their new stoves, Betye in a pink "Black Lives Matter" shirt. Residents kept coming over to ask Canady questions, exchanging a quick greeting or a joke. Canady said she has not been asked about any "get out the vote" efforts for residents, but she is still looking to run for a seat on city council at some point.

There are just a handful of states that will likely decide November's election, and polls are showing North Carolina could still go either way, although it is leaning slightly toward Biden. 

The nation's housing crisis has gained more attention from presidential candidates in this presidential election than in past elections. So has the federal government's role in addressing it  – from Carson and Trump's incendiary promise to "defend the suburbs" to Biden's proposal to make Section 8 rental assistance voucher an entitlement.

Public housing residents are only half a percent of North Carolina's residents, but the effects of the McDougald evacuations have rippled across Durham – in city council meetings, in the increased property taxes of the housing bond, in the lives of local business owners who helped during the evacuation, in the uprooting of residents. Even as the city tries to expand affordable housing in the face of rising gentrification, it has spent much of 2020 fixing things in public housing that should never have been allowed to break.

People at McDougald know what is at stake. Betye said there are often large voter turnout events at McDougald, and she will be involved this year.

"It's pivotal, it's really a pivotal election in the whole country, so I am sure that I will be working on that, absolutely, to ensure that people go and vote," she said.

Copyright 2020 Capital & Main.

By Abe Kenmore

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