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.

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