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January 9

DHA vs. Everybody, Everybody vs. the DHA: Durham Public Housing Tenants Get Organized Against Monoxide Poisonings & Mass Displacement

Report from Durham, North Carolina about how residents at a public housing complex are organizing and fighting back against systematic attacks on their health and housing.

In the face of a public health crisis of massive proportions and a systemic pattern of neglect, indifference, and state-sanctioned poverty, residents of Durham, NC’s oldest public housing complex, McDougald Terrace, are pushing back.

The crisis was catalyzed by a recent spate of carbon monoxide poisonings and gas leaks: Since November two infants have died at the housing project (both deaths’ causes are still being investigated), and eleven residents have gone to area hospitals with highly elevated levels of CO. Gas leaks have been reported repeatedly, and a funny smell is immediately obvious in many of the units.

On Thursday January 2nd, residents marched from McDougald to a nearby meeting hosted by Durham Housing Authority (DHA), furious with years upon years of neglect and horrible living conditions. McDougald Terrace recently received a federal inspection score of 34 out of 100; four other projects in Durham also received less than a passing score of 60.

Evictions from DHA housing are also extremely punitive: DHA attempted to evict about 40 percent of its households last year, filing seven times more evictions this year than Greensboro Housing Authority, twenty times more that Charlotte and thirty-five times more than Raleigh

In view of the imminent threat of CO poisoning, on Friday January 3rd DHA moved 171 families into seven different hotels in the surrounding area. This move was “voluntary,” if it can be called that, and was prioritized for families with children under two and elders over 65.

This represents a huge level of displacement, precarity, and panic for a tremendous number of families, many of whom were left with no way to get to work, school, or healthcare appointments. Aside from a single $50 stipend, the DHA has provided virtually no support for an entire community of people who, at the drop of a hat, has been left with no transportation, no childcare, no hot food or even a way to do laundry.

Project residents and supporters rallied outside of a city council meeting on Monday, January 6th, threatening to disrupt and shut down government meetings until their concerns were addressed. People screamed for hot water and working AC units, an end to gas and water leaks and black mold, and then marched into the city council meeting. Ultimately more than a hundred residents and supporters overflowed the chambers and filled the lobby. Inside the chambers people held small signs that read “MAC lives matter,” “Show us the Money,” and “This is what classism looks like.”

For over three hours, McDougald residents shared heartbreaking stories while city politicians sat in stony silence: stories of moldy water leaking into styrofoam cups for years, of toilet water backing up into bathtubs, of nauseous headaches caused by gas leaks, of an infant grandson dying in the middle of the night, of freezing cold, of parents staying awake all night to check on their kids’ breathing.

And at the end of it, the politicians responded mostly with empty apologies, with re-pledging their loyalty to the reasonable bureaucrats of the DHA, with self-praise for a recently passed housing bond, that will likely do little to alleviate project residents’ systemic concerns and for which public housing was only a minor footnote until residents began protesting.

Mutual Aid Pushes Back

Contrasted with the impotence and indifference of Durham’s progressive political class is the self-organization of the residents themselves: in the face of DHA’s abrupt and unsupported removal of 171 families, residents have organized a donation and distribution center to accept and dole out crucially needed supplies to the seven or so hotels in which “Mac” residents are now staying.

In a busy 2-story apartment at McDougald Terrace, residents and supporters flow in and out constantly, sorting supplies, sharing meals, and coordinating which kinds of materials—diapers, toiletries, clothes, non-perishable food, school supplies—need to go to which families at which hotels. Some work to organize collective childcare options. Others contact friendly food trucks in search for hot meal delivery—hot meals have been an obvious difficulty, and at one of the few hotels that has kitchenettes, the management removed pots and pans from the rooms “so they wouldn’t be stolen.” Pictures of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X hang on the doors. A child is sitting on the floor with a local union guy, organizing specific numbers of Tide detergent pods into sandwich bags so folks can do laundry. Some anarchist comrades carry boxes of diapers up the stairs to a spare room in assembly-line fashion, while others rush out into the rain to unload the next car.

Several faces are familiar from local radical circles, and at least a couple of the MacDougald residents here have been involved in struggles against the police and in particular against medical neglect at the jail, where there have been numerous deaths over the past few years.

It is the height of irony that, because one of the many women so selflessly at the center of this struggle against DHA, Ashley Cannady, is president of McDougald’s resident council, DHA has actually claimed credit for all of this mutual aid work as their own. But it is obvious here that all of this activity is directed and initiated by residents themselves, in opposition to and distinct from the power, control and engineered neglect of Durham County’s bureaucrats. The vocal contempt for City Hall is neither subtle nor subdued.

This is self-determination in action. At the moment it feels unclear where this energy will go—DHA may return the 400 and counting displaced residents to their homes in seven days as promised, but it feels clear that not even a hollow rubber stamp of inspector approval could be achieved in that time. Certainly none of the fundamental issues will be fixed on this scale—all of these buildings are literally falling apart, gas leaks will likely persist, and the apartment complex is massive.

In light of this, what’s next? Will residents collectively stop paying rent altogether? Will they seek more influence and accountability from DHA’s board, on which no resident currently has voting power, or will they look to create their own, more direct self-governing control over their housing project? At the rally on Monday, one speaker talked about marching to other projects and getting them on board—what does that look like, and how will the City of Durham, so obsessed with its (meaningless) hollow progressive image, respond to this threat?

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In addition to materials and supplies, financial donations are crucially needed right now by the residents whose lives have been upended. If you, or your organization, collective, union, etc. can send funds, please send them by paypal to [email protected]

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