Local News

'We're fed up. We're tired': McDougald Terrace residents demand action from Durham officials

Posted January 6, 2020 5:49 p.m. EST
Updated January 6, 2020 10:31 p.m. EST

— Residents of the McDougald Terrace housing complex complained to the Durham City Council on Monday night about their living conditions, including high levels of carbon monoxide that have sickened several people and forced scores of families out.

Chanting "We're fed up. We're tired" on City Plaza before the council meeting, the residents then packed the meeting, with 40 people signing up to demand action.

"Have you ever had to look in your baby’s eyes and fear death because of your living situation?" resident Samantha Crowder asked council members. "Please, you guys, help us, please."

"I just want the city and everybody else to figure out what we can do to get our loved ones home in a safe and clean environment because, guess what, y'all wouldn't want to live there," resident Ashley Canady said.

More than a dozen residents were sent to area hospitals since late November, including two children last Thursday, with elevated levels of carbon monoxide. Authorities are also trying to determine whether carbon monoxide is to blame for the deaths of two infants in McDougald Terrace apartments.

A third infant died on New Year's Day in a rooming house above the McDougald Terrace store, which isn't part of the complex, authorities have said. The cause of that child's death also hasn't been determined.

Since Friday evening, Durham officials have moved 172 families from the complex to local hotels, and they are seeking space for 10 more families.

The Durham Housing Authority inspected more than 320 units at McDougald Terrace in the days after Christmas and replaced or installed 228 carbon monoxide detectors and 417 smoke detectors.

Six apartments had elevated levels of carbon monoxide, and the source of the gas was repaired, authorities said. Another 13 units reported gas leaks, and those also were repaired.

DHA Chief Executive Anthony Scott said Monday that more thorough inspections will start Tuesday, with work crews checking heating systems, stoves and hot water heaters for carbon monoxide leaks.

"We're contracting with at least one company. We're also getting other resources, hopefully, to come in and help as well," Scott said, urging residents to be patient as inspections take place and authorities try to improve living conditions.

But living conditions at McDougald Terrace and several other DHA properties have been unsafe for years, according to federal inspectors.

Half of the complexes operated by the agency failed their most recent U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development safety inspections, records obtained by WRAL Investigates show.

HUD inspects more almost 6,800 public housing complexes across the United States, checking issues ranging from tripping hazards on sidewalks to damaged doors and walls to gas and electrical problems.

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Recent inspection reports show a pattern of problems at a number of complexes in Durham. Seven of the 14 DHA properties scored below 60 on their most recent HUD inspections. McDougald Terrace was one of four that scored in the 30s, joining Hoover Road, Cornwallis Road and Oxford Manor.

By comparison, all 16 of the Raleigh Housing Authority's complexes passed their HUD inspections, including eight that scored 90 or above.

Laseanda Ormond said the results for McDougald Terrace don't surprise her. She and her three children are among the residents who are now staying in a hotel because of elevated carbon monoxide levels in their apartments.

"The upkeep of the apartments are not being done," Ormond said. "I was worried about whether my children were going to wake up in the morning, whether I was going to wake up in the morning, with two of them having asthma, whether it would affect them."

WRAL Investigates found McDougald Terrace barely passed its 2016 HUD inspection, but then the bottom fell out in subsequent years, with failing scores of 21, 34 and 31 in the next three years.

Ormond said the sequence of low scores amounts to negligence.

"Once again, someone bigger should take the responsibility," she said.

"If we don't get immediate changes, we're asking for resignations," activist Rachel Cordero said before the City Council meeting on Monday.

Councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton called the situation at McDougald Terrace "a clear and present danger to the lives of our children" and said the city needs to "act in a substantive way" to address it.

"It would cost less to build something new than to repair," Middleton said.

Scott said the DHA has been in talks with Congress about providing federal resources to help rebuild the local housing complexes.

"It is no secret that DHA has felt strongly that we need to rebuild all of our public housing communities," he said.

Retired Superior Court Judge Howard Manning said he hopes DHA learns from mistakes Raleigh officials made decades ago.

More than 200 people reported health problems from low-level exposure to carbon monoxide at Raleigh's Walnut Terrace complex between 1987 and 1992, and a woman and her son died there in 1992.

The deaths launched investigations and lawsuits related to faulty gas-fired boilers used for heat.

Manning was an attorney at the time who led the investigation into the problem. He says now that the Raleigh Housing Authority knew of elevated levels of carbon monoxide but didn't adjust the boilers until it was too late.

Raleigh settled a lawsuit with 122 residents for $400,000 in 2005.

"When I wrote that report, I was mad as a hornet because it was just inexcusable," Manning said.

After his report, RHA's director and other employees were fired. Walnut Terrace was eventually demolished and replaced in 2015 with a mix of apartments and townhouses.