"When you open your door and you look outside, do you like what you see?"
This is how Tameika Richardson gets to know her neighbors in the Cornwallis Road public housing neighborhood in Durham. Richardson moved in about a year ago and began working as a community organizer with Durham for All, a group that advocates for bottom-up governance.
To learn about her neighbors' needs, she goes from apartment to apartment asking this question.
So far, no one has said yes.
"A lot of people say no, they don't. Some people just feel like nothing's going to change, so there's no point in going out to vote or going out to any kind of meetings," she says. "They feel like Durham's been like this, and these projects have been like this, for so long you just get used to it."
A Durham native, Richardson had heard about Cornwallis before she moved in, primarily through news reports on shootings there. She feels lucky that she got an apartment on a quiet cul-de-sac and says the only major issue she's experienced was in August, when "puddles and puddles of water" leaked through an air vent in her living room, leaving behind dark marks on the wall and floor.
- Photo by Caitlin Penna
- Tameika Richardson, who lives in the DHA's Cornwallis Road development
But not everyone there has been so lucky.
Built in 1967, Cornwallis Road's two hundred apartments are aging, just like many of the Durham Housing Authority's properties, their slow decline dictated by the compounding of time and slashed budgets.
With an estimated $19 million in basic repairs needed in more than eighteen hundred public housing units across twenty-one neighborhoods, the DHA has embarked on what is likely to be a more-than-ten-year redevelopment of most of its public housing stock. Through the federal Rental Assistance Demonstration program, the DHA will convert its public housing units to the voucher program known as Section 8, borrow money, and, most significantly, partner with private investors to transform public housing into mixed-income and, in some cases, mixed-use neighborhoods.
Across DHA neighborhoods, residents are largely unaware of how the program will work and what their rights are; as with other redevelopment efforts in recent memory, they're skeptical it will go as planned. But for the housing authority, this new strategy is a game-changer in addressing Durham's affordability crisis—and its only shot at saving Durham's public housing from continuing deterioration.
"This is probably the only way we can survive in this changing environment," says Tom Niemann, a DHA board member and former chairman.
Ask DHA residents about the condition of their housing, and you'll hear some recurring themes. There are the roaches at McDougald Terrace, and the pilot lights that fill apartments with the smell of gas when they go out. There are the leaky ceilings and mold at Hoover Road, and the cracking, peeling floors at Cornwallis.
Not all residents have problems with their units. Others have simply grown accustomed to conditions largely unchanged for years or accept their surroundings out of gratitude for having a roof over their heads. But overall, DHA properties have not been spared from the deterioration of public housing across America. After all, some of the buildings are fifty or sixty years old and are almost entirely dependent on shrinking federal funding.
For the first three decades of the federal public housing program, which began in 1937, rents were determined locally, based on the cost to maintain the housing. In 1969, however, the government capped what tenants pay at 25 percent of their household income. The threshold was later raised to 30 percent, where it remains today.
"That meant that the housing authorities weren't going to be able to make enough to cover the cost of maintenance," says Bill Rohe, director of the University of North Carolina's Center for Urban and Regional Studies. The federal government agreed to cover the gap, but funding for public housing has waned. On average, over the past ten years, housing authorities have received 84 percent of what's needed for their operating funds and 46 percent for their capital funds, the primary sources of public housing dollars.
Over time, that has added up to what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates is a $50 billion backlog of repairs needed in public housing nationwide—although, at about $42,000 per unit, many advocates believe this figure is too low. Each year, that total increases by $3.4 billion, and ten thousand units fall out of service because of their condition, HUD says. At McDougald Terrace, for example, 14 of 360 units are uninhabitable.
The funding cuts have also affected staffing. Over the past five years, the DHA's staff has been reduced from 112 employees to 96, including 26 maintenance workers. The more DHA's buildings deteriorate, the more expensive their upkeep gets, and the busier those workers are.
"We're at the mercy of the money that Congress appropriates," says DHA CEO Anthony Scott. "Our real fight is with Congress. Our intermediary fight is with HUD in terms of how they deal with their rules and regulations. But ultimately, it always starts with how much money does Congress fund us."
- Photo by Caitlin Penna
- Durham Housing Authority CEO Anthony Scott
The agency's ability to maintain its buildings is critical as the cost of living rises across Durham. Not only is the DHA the largest provider of affordable housing in the city, it also serves some of the city's lowest-income residents.
The DHA owns about a third of the income-restricted, subsidized homes in Durham, as well as most of the units accessible to the estimated twelve thousand extremely low-income households in the city. According to the housing authority, the average income of its 3,727 public housing tenants is $13,253. Between its public housing and housing voucher programs, the DHA helps house about 4 percent of city residents.
"If all of our nonprofit affordable housing builders do tremendously well and really up their production," says Mayor Steve Schewel, who has served as the city council's DHA liaison for six years, "it really doesn't matter unless the housing authority succeeds."