At last, McDougald Terrace residents might be going home soon.
McDougald Terrace residents were evacuated out of their public housing units into cramped hotel rooms and survived on meals of instant macaroni and cheese. They protested in the streets and at City Council meetings, demanding swift action to move them back home.
Almost 900 residents, or 280 families, of one of Durham’s oldest and largest public-housing communities voluntarily evacuated their homes in early January after two children were hospitalized with high levels of carbon monoxide. Before these hospitalizations, two infant deaths at McDougald Terrace rang the alarm bells about possible carbon monoxide poisoning, although initial testing indicated this wasn’t the cause of death.
Last Friday, residents got the news they wanted—everyone should be home by the first week of April. The Durham Housing Authority made the announcement Friday, after a hopeful progress update at last Wednesday’s DHA Board of Commissioners meeting.
DHA Chief Executive Officer Anthony Scott explained that work on the first 261 apartments should be completed by March 7, with the final 85 to follow by early April. As of last Wednesday, 28 families had already moved home, another 16 had relocated to other properties and 35 never moved out in the first place, Scott said at the Wednesday Board of Commissioners meeting.
But that still leaves 245 families, housed in 14 hotels across the city.
Ashley Canady, president of McDougald Terrace residents council, said the DHA’s timeline was reasonable given the amount of work required to ensure resident safety. She also praised renovations for progressing more smoothly than they appeared to be back in January.
“They’re focusing. I can’t say they’re not, because I see them out here working every day,” Canady said of the contractors and DHA staff. “Everything we’ve had problems with, Mr. Scott has changed within 24 hours.”
That’s a change of tone for Canady, who at a January town hall called for Scott’s resignation if DHA and the city didn’t take meaningful action to fix the public health crisis.
Although nearly 280 other families chose to stay in hotels, Canady and her children initially chose to remain in their home during the crisis. Still, as president of the residents council, she was on the front lines in January with fellow residents to protest the temporary hotel housing.
Canady sat in a cardboard box to demonstrate how cramped hotel rooms are, especially for children. They shook macaroni and cheese cups like maracas and chanted, “Back to the Mac!”
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Last week, Canady and her children finally had to move to a hotel when maintenance began in earnest on her building.
Hoping for a fresh start
Besides having an end in sight for hotel life, McDougald Terrace residents received two other pieces of good news. To start, the DHA’s Friday statement exempted residents from paying March rent.
Meanwhile, there’s potential help with employment options. After three failed tries, DHA recently received approval for a $2.3 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Jobs Plus program. The program helps public housing residents find job placements and develop professional readiness and technology skills.
“We’re very pleased that it finally came through for us this year,” Scott said at Wednesday’s meeting. He also noted that only McDougald Terrace residents would be eligible for benefits, as no other DHA properties qualified.
According to the DHA’s grant application, the unemployment rate at McDougald Terrace hovers around 66%, with an average earned income of only $9,303 per year.
The Jobs Plus program also lets McDougald Terrace residents avoid paying more rent when their incomes increase. Normally, a resident in government-subsidized housing pays 30% of their adjusted income in rent. The more income they make, the higher the rent. But the moment a resident enrolls in this new program, their rent freezes and stays that way for all four years of the grant period.
Residents thus have a chance to set money aside in a savings accounts, according to Melvin Green, DHA resident services program manager.
“But it will take them being willing to come out and participate in and get involved in the program,” Green added.
Jobs Plus program
As part of the program, DHA will work with a team of partner organizations to provide resources including job training, health screenings and childcare. For example, partner organization StepUp Durham committed $75,000 to provide 50 residents with a 32-hour soft-skills and resume training, $45,000 to provide an employment counselor for up to 30 residents who complete the training and $6,000 for up to five residents who want to complete additional skills trainings after finding a job.
The grant program also emphasizes building a community to support working families. According to HUD’s description, this “community support for work” relies on building trust between residents and housing authority officials.
During the grant application process, DHA conducted initial surveys to test what work-related activities appealed to residents, but response rates were low. Green sees the HUD-mandated “community coach” role as a way to boost resident participation. Residents with previous work experience can apply for the role and earn a small stipend if selected.
The exact timing of the project’s launch will depend on reaching a written agreement between HUD and DHA.
“That’s kind of on HUD’s timeline,” Green said. “But we’re hoping that it will be very soon.”
Once the grant money is released, there will still be more delays. Staff will need to be recruited and hired before job training can begin, as the program calls for two case managers, a project director and a job developer. Green hopes to fill the positions within 60 days of signing the documents.
“We won’t start engaging our residents until we have staff hired and boots on the ground,” he added.
Canady supports the concepts and goals for the program and encourages residents to sign up, noting that the resident council had been asking DHA for job assistance for years.
“Hopefully people will take advantage of this opportunity so they can get themselves out of McDougald Terrace,” she said.