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Durham mayor pledges full support to McDougald Terrace residents
 
Published Wednesday, January 15, 2020
by Lori D.R. Wiggins, Correspondent

Durham officials publicly pledged support to residents and the Durham Housing Authority as it works to assess and address uneasiness over possible carbon monoxide exposure and overall unsafe conditions at McDougald Terrace and other public housing communities.

For about two weeks, nearly 200 residents of McDougald Terrace, Durham’s oldest public housing complex, have been displaced, living in hotels paid for by DHA while it scrambles to identify problems and eliminate risks.

Concerns have mounted among residents, public health officials, city and county leaders, community advocates and lawmakers since before Christmas when emergency calls from the complex pointed to exposure to toxic gas. Since November, officials have identified at least 15 people with elevated levels of carbon monoxide. The alarm also has renewed and heightened the call for federal guidelines that would require carbon monoxide detectors in all public housing. Although McDougald Terrace has CO detectors, many did not work and were not routinely checked during inspections.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said he “understands the depths of the difficulty that people are facing,” and accepts the importance of a united front of acknowledgement, apology and urgent response. “For 40 years, our community has failed these people and the people that lived in this housing community and others before, and we’re here now to tell them that they are not alone,” he said. “We will do everything in our collective power to make this right. Our community is responding to this as the full-fledged emergency that it is for 270 families.”

But to respond effectively, Schewel said, noting federal dollars from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have consistently dwindled over the years, the DHA will now need local resources and federal emergency funds, resident education,  tenant protection vouchers, and the full capacity of its emergency management capabilities to fix the growing problems.

“Everyone in Durham who is paying attention has known that the McDougald Terrace and other housing communities have been deteriorating for decades and have been patched together,” Schewel said. He applauded DHA Executive Director Anthony Scott for being the director who is committed through action to “doing something about that.” Already, he said, the DHA has completed rehabilitation and new housing projects.

Schewel said $60 million of the $95 million bond passed in November is earmarked for the DHA “to change the lives of our residents in public housing.” McDougald Terrace is not on the first round of scheduled repairs, but plans are underway to find ways to redirect monies in the DHA budget to the community’s needs.

Although the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reportedly gave McDougald Terrace failing grades from 2017-2019, Schewel said Scott learned of the problem only recently. When asked by a reporter whether he believes someone should be held accountable for failing to address those federal reports three years ago, Schewel said the most immediate focus is on the emergency at McDougald Terrace and the future of all Durham public housing.

“Accountability is important,” he added. “There will be a time for that.”

Meanwhile, over the past 10 days, Schewel said efforts to solve the problem have included conversations and planning with HUD, and state and national partners, including the offices of Congressman David Price, who oversees the U.S. House committee that oversees HUD, and Congressman G.K. Butterfield, among other local and state officials.

Durham’s woes are deja vu for Raleigh. In 1992, Lorraine Hinton and her son were found dead in a Walnut Terrace apartment above the boiler room. The cause of death: CO poisoning. At McDougald Terrace, hundreds of residents feared they, too, had symptoms of CO poisoning.

After weeks of long days helping her neighbors navigate problems, Ashley Canady, president of the McDougald Terrace Resident Council, said, despite the disheartening sadness, “We have become a community that stands together.”

She also urged the support to continue and any past judgement about her community and its people to stop. “I want you guys to remember us after this,” she said to the city and county officials flanked alongside her. “Continue to stand with us. We’re going to get through this. Come back to our community once the cameras are gone. Don’t be afraid of us. Everybody’s in McDougald now. I want to see everybody in McDougald when the community comes back.”

 

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