WRAL Investigates

A year after carbon monoxide crisis, some McDougald Terrace residents still live in fear

Posted January 18, 2021 5:40 p.m. EST

— Even with freezing winter temperatures, Tanya Kelley keeps the windows to her McDougald Terrace apartment in Durham open and her gas heater off.

Kelley and her grandchildren, ages 4 and 6, spent three months last year in a hotel because high carbon monoxide levels were found in dozens of McDougald Terrace apartments. She says now that she doesn't trust that the Durham Housing Authority fixed the problem, noting that her apartment wasn't upgraded to electric heat and appliances as many others were.

"There’s nothing changed. It’s just you put another heater in here, but nothing changed," she said.

DHA Chief Executive Anthony Scott acknowledges that many repairs weren't completed because of the coronavirus pandemic and staffing shortages, but he insists that carbon monoxide no longer poses a threat to any McDougald Terrace residents.

More than a dozen McDougald Terrace residents had to go to area hospitals with elevated levels of carbon monoxide between November 2019 and last January. Local officials ordered mass evacuations at the public housing complex so work crews could check the gas-powered furnaces, water heaters and ovens in the nearly 350 units.

Sixty-one percent of the units had at least one faulty appliance – 211 stoves, 38 furnaces and 35 water heaters – that needed to be repaired or replaced to eliminate the carbon monoxide issue.

"The CO work that needed to be done has been completed. All new heating systems, all new venting, new expansion tanks to the hot water heaters, all those things have been done," Scott said recently.

But the pandemic prevented the DHA from completing the transition to electric appliances. Scott said residents were moved back home as soon as possible last spring to limit their risk of contracting coronavirus, and all work, which would have required an extra few days' stay in a hotel, was put on hold.

"We will wait until the pandemic is more under control and we feel safer with residents going to hotels," he said.

Kelley said she's asked to move to a different DHA property where she can feel more secure for both herself and her grandchildren.

"We got to do better for the kids. All these kids deserve better than this," she said. "Something has to be done."

Scott said the DHA wants to do better, but limited funding makes it difficult. The agency has spent more than $9 million so far to address the McDougald Terrace carbon monoxide crisis, with $3.7 million going toward repairs and the rest to house and feed residents in hotels for weeks.

"That $9 million took up a significant chunk of all the money we had for all of our public housing communities," he said. "You have a deficit that has grown and grown, and that’s part of the challenge we have. We are dealing with repairs that should have been done 15 or 20 years ago, in some cases."

McDougald Terrace, the oldest public housing complex in Durham, scored 31 on a 100-point scale in a 2019 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development inspection. No federal inspection was done last year because of the pandemic, and Scott said, even with all of the repairs done, he's not sure the complex would pass now.

"The HUD inspections are not the standard that we actually want to have our properties held to. We think that the HUD standards are sort of minimal," he said. "I think McDougald would pass, but probably, if it did, it might be right around 60, which, again, is not where we want to be."

The score likely would remain low, he said, not because of carbon monoxide issues but because of other long-standing repair needs, from leaky pipes to holes in walls to broken door knobs.

But the DHA needs to balance the expense of repairs against a long-term plan to tear down the 58-year-old complex and replace it with mixed-income housing, Scott said.

"We want to deal with any repairs that are necessary when they are necessary. If something breaks down, we are going to fix it," he said. "We think that our public housing residents deserve to live in communities that anyone would want to live in."

Kelley agrees, saying Durham needs to do more for her and other McDougald Terrace residents.

"We can’t keep putting a Band-Aid over something that needs surgery – complete surgery," she said. "I understand that we live in the projects, but we’re still humans."

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