Durham Housing Authority officials held a ceremonial groundbreaking this week for the first phase of a multi-year effort to redevelop most of its public housing stock.
Wednesday's groundbreaking was symbolic because, unlike other DHA properties slated for redevelopment in coming years, Morreene Road and Damar Court won’t be torn down and rebuilt. Instead, the fifty-plus- year-old buildings will be gutted.
Morreene Road's 224 units will see extensive interior renovations, including new layouts, appliances, roofs and flooring, as well as the addition of a walking trail and grilling area. The 102 units at Damar Court will be completely gutted and given new windows, roofs, plumbing, electrical wiring and appliances. Damar Court will also get a vegetable garden.
Renovations are underway in about half of the buildings each at Morreene and Damar. Most residents in those neighborhoods have been moved into other units on-site that were intentionally left vacant after their last tenants moved out. When that phase of renovations is complete, residents will move back to their previous units and the vacant ones renovated. About ten families have been moved off-site, according to development director Meredith Daye. The work is expected to be done April 2019.
It’s part of what will likely be a more than ten-year process to transform Durham’s public housing
into mixed income and in some cases mixed use neighborhoods through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Rental Assistance Demonstration program, which allows housing authorities to partner with private investors.
"This is not just a minor development," said Congressman David Price. "These are hundreds of units, hundreds of people who will have safe, affordable housing because of the efforts of the people here."
Price, the ranking Democrat on the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees HUD's budget, says the shortage and condition of America's affordable housing stock is "not something any of us should be comfortable with." He praised those involved with Durham's RAD conversion as making creative use of limited funds from the federal government.
"There's not a single account at HUD that isn't under-resourced," he said.
On average, over the past ten years, public 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. The RAD program lets housing authorities supplement their operating budgets with money from private investors, developer fees and loans.
The under-funding of housing authorities has added up to what HUD estimates as a $50 billion backlog of repairs and maintenance needed in public housing nationwide. RAD was created to address this backlog, and by October 2015, 185 public housing developments had been converted through the program.
Locally, DHA estimates $19 million in basic repairs are needed across eighteen hundred public housing units, but those units need more than basic repairs — new roofs, plumbing, flooring and HVAC systems. An INDY review
of work orders submitted by DHA residents found reports of leaks, caved-in ceilings, mold and backed-up sewer lines.
Renovations at Morreene and Damar will cost an estimated $100,000 per unit.
Through RAD, housing authorities convert public housing properties to the Section 8 program, under which residents get a voucher to subsidize market rate rent. In the case of RAD, those vouchers will be tied to a particular development rather than free to use with any private landlord who accepts them. While private partners and managers can be brought in, a public or nonprofit entity must maintain a controlling interest in the property.
Because Section 8 also caps rent at 30 percent of a tenant's income, most public-housing residents won't see their rent go up through RAD. But critics of the program say there isn't enough oversight to ensure that tenant protections written into RAD — like the right to return to a property, the right to organize, and the right to a grievance process — are upheld.
To pull off the portfolio-wide conversion, DHA will need to secure loans and low-income housing tax credits, negotiate development deals, coordinate construction timelines to ensure residents aren't displaced, and stay on track with tight HUD-prescribed deadlines.
"Our DHA residents are the sole reason that we are here," said DHA CEO Anthony Scott. "I think it pales in comparison the effort it took us to get here versus the struggles that they face everyday. Our DHA residents have an average income of around $12,000 per year. That is about 16 percent of the area median income. So at minimum, we are dedicated to providing them with housing but we are also working and struggling with helping them find on-roads to better their personal lives, their economic lives, their social lives."
Between Section 8 and public housing, DHA supports the housing of about ten thousand Durham residents.
"When we talk about affordable housing in Durham I think this is the most important work," said Mayor Steve Schewel, who served as the City Council liaison to DHA for six years. "This is where the largest number of people are. This is where the greatest need is."
DHA plans to redevelop all properties but Morreene and Damar as mixed-income developments in an effort to de-concentrate poverty. Properties downtown — Liberty Street, Oldham Towers, Forest Hill Heights, J.J. Henderson and Fayette Place (which is currently an empty lot) — are also being eyed for uses in addition to housing.