Housing, NC Budget and Tax Center

Durham tragedy shows why we need to end the cycle of under-investment in public housing

The tragedies at McDougald Terrace, Durham’s largest and oldest public housing complex, have shaken the community. Authorities evacuated hundreds of families from their homes into hotel rooms after about 40 percent of appliances at McDougald Terrace apartments were found to be emitting carbon monoxide. Housing advocates in Durham have argued that one reason for these problems is inadequate federal funding. Unfortunately, the problem is much bigger than one housing complex. In fact, there are dozens of publicly supported housing developments throughout North Carolina that received failing grades according to inspections in 2019 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Real Estate Assessment Center.

Apartment complexes subsidized by federal dollars undergo physical inspections, which aim to ensure that these developments are safe and sanitary places to live. In 2019, 24 of the 227 developments that were inspected received a failing grade (below 60 on a 100-point scale). Reporting by ProPublica suggests that residents in many developments with a passing inspection grade still experience serious health and safety issues.

The map below shows the housing developments that received a failing grade in North Carolina in 2019.

Three out of the four developments with the lowest scores in North Carolina are in Durham County; McDougald Terrace tied for third lowest with a score of 31. The housing development with the lowest score is Hillcrest in Wilmington with a score of 27 out of 100.

It shouldn’t take three infant deaths to wake us up to the needs of our neighbors. As Samuel Gunter of the NC Housing Coalition said last week, “We have criminally underfunded our public housing system in this country for decades.” When we continue to neglect the needs of our neighbors, everyone suffers.

The community response to McDougald Terrace has been inspiring. This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, many will seize the opportunity to serve their community by donating supplies or volunteering their time. But if we want to build safe communities for the long term, we need to end the cycle of under-investment in public housing. That work may start in Durham.

NC Budget and Tax Center

So-called “mini-budgets” put NC’s fiscal health at risk

For the first time in recent history, North Carolina has failed to pass a final state budget. Absent a comprehensive budget, the state leaders are passing individual spending bills, or “mini budgets.” Comprehensive budgets are preferable to piecemeal legislation because they allow for greater fiscal control, oversight, and planning. Unifying state spending within a single document helps monitor performance over time, provide clarity to the public on priorities, and facilitate long-term sustainability. 

In 2015, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a set of budgetary principles imploring governments around the world to “present a comprehensive, accurate and reliable account of the public finances.” Without a complete budget, it is nearly impossible to achieve accuracy, clarity, inclusive participation, and transparency while maximizing value for money.

Ignoring these principles creates significant risks for duplicative spending, fragmentation, misinterpretation, inaccurate calculations, inadequate appropriations, and inaccessible documentation of expenditures. Together, these risks and realities compromise North Carolina’s fiscal health, undermine the credibility of the state, and “shake the foundations of our democracy.”

Failing to pass a comprehensive budget also restricts North Carolina’s ability to track how investments change over time. Even as GDP continues to rise, state investments as a share of GDP are at an all-time low. Research by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth confirms that low-income children and families are disproportionately harmed by under-investment in infrastructure, education, and innovation. 

Coupled with tax cuts for the rich, widening economic inequality keeps people from realizing their full potential and slows overall productivity. Now, when the economy is growing and interest rates are low, the state should be funding infrastructure projects that bring transportation to disconnected communities, public education initiatives that close the achievement gap, and research and development that can be used by businesses and entrepreneurs to spur innovation and growth. 

State budgets are important for many reasons, not the least of which is determining whether government spending is aligned with community needs and public priorities. Breaking the budget up into bite-sized bills makes it easier for special interests to influence spending decisions, increases structural inequality, and exacerbates socioeconomic disparities. If North Carolina wants to build a stronger, more vibrant, more inclusive, and more sustainable economy, it should pass a comprehensive budget that prioritizes public investments and cultivates shared prosperity.

Leila Pedersen is a Policy Analyst with the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the NC Justice Center.