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Work orders pile up as Durham public housing faces ‘system breakdown’

In Sasha Pass’s three-bedroom unit at the Hoover Road public housing community, toilets keep clogging. Because of a broken showerhead downstairs, Pass must trek upstairs every night after caring for her seven children, an inconvenience, but one of many in a long day.

Then there’s the ceiling, still leaking after three repairs, a constant reminder of the Durham Housing Authority’s failure to help her.

“It’s a blessing to have this, but at the same time it’s stressful,” Pass said of her housing.

She isn’t the only resident trying to get help. The housing agency, which oversees almost 1,900 public housing and subsidized apartment units, has struggled for years to fix issues ranging from old appliances to pests and mold. A January 2021 report from the agency reveals a backlog of hundreds of maintenance requests across the agency’s 17 properties. 

DHA leaders pinned delays on the pandemic and a persistent shortage of maintenance staff. But activists and some residents contend that there are long-standing breakdowns in communication and accountability between residents, property management staff, and agency leadership.

Deteriorating conditions

Residents of Durham’s public housing have long struggled with deteriorating conditions. DHA properties have failed more federal Housing and Urban Development physical inspections than public housing agencies in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, and Greensboro. The problems are exacerbated by the sheer age of some DHA properties. Hoover Road, located in East Durham near North Carolina Central University, was built in 1968, making the 54-townhome complex one of the agency’s oldest sites.

In November 2020, the housing authority removed a storage trailer infested with rats near the homes of some Hoover Road residents. Pass and her neighbor Shaneeka Marrow, who lived next to the trailer, said at the time that they first called Hoover Road’s property management office for help in July. But Emanuel Foster, DHA’s housing operations director, said he was not aware of the rat problem until Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods activists advocating for residents emailed and called him in October.

According to a January 2021 report prepared for the DHA board of directors, the agency counted 776 pending maintenance requests, called “work orders,” at the end of December 2020. 219 of them had been pending for over three months.

DHA CEO Anthony Scott attributed the backlog to the agency’s decision to suspend most maintenance work in March 2020 after difficulties getting protective equipment as the coronavirus first hit Durham. Staff worked only on emergency repairs and didn’t tackle non-urgent requests until August, he said.

Clothing lines stand outside of McDougald Terrace, a 360-apartment DHA public housing complex.

Data from DHA is not always publicly available or clear. Several DHA reports from 2020 were only made available on the agency’s website after The 9th Street Journal requested them. Some totals appeared to not add up in several monthly work order reports from the summer. Other figures were repeated from one month’s report to another without explanation. Foster and Scott did not answer questions seeking to clarify the data.

Durham CAN, the activist group, carried out an informal survey about conditions at Hoover Road and sent DHA feedback and photos it collected from 16 residents. Mold, electrical hazards, and ceiling leaks were the most commonly reported problems, and nine tenants said they or their children had respiratory problems or felt sick. At the end of 2020, when DHA staff surveyed Hoover Road residents about work orders, five of the 11 households that responded said there were still health and safety issues that hadn’t been properly fixed, and three said they were waiting on repairs.

Communication breakdown

Hoover Road residents say there’s a recurring pattern. When mold spreads, vermin move in or door hinges break, they are told to call their property management office to report issues. But residents are concerned about a lack of documentation of these requests, said Regina Mays, a volunteer with the city’s Partners Against Crime program who talks with residents weekly and assists them with DHA matters.

“Some of them don’t get any type of feedback,” Mays said. “How can you give me a date if you say you don’t even have documentation?”

Pass, who has lived at Hoover Road since February 2019, said property management does not give residents receipts or tracking numbers for their requests. Maintenance staff have come to work on her unit without giving prior notice, including when she is homeschooling her children during the day, Pass said.

Some residents received repairs after speaking to local media about their struggles, Mays said. Others have resorted to asking family or friends to help them with fixes.

When asked about residents’ communication concerns, Scott acknowledged that the agency needs better channels for feedback and concerns.

“We have some system breakdowns,” Scott said. “You’re trying to fix a system breakdown, that’s not going to happen quickly.”

DHA officials told CBS17 in January that the agency plans to start a hotline for work orders. In the meantime, Scott said residents should contact his office directly if they don’t get a response to an urgent work order.

But Pass said it was unlikely she would have the time or desire to do so. “Why would I talk to him?” she said, adding that when Scott visited Hoover Road in 2019, she had shown him her leaking ceiling.

Next steps

To address the backlog of work orders, DHA is bringing in 30 to 35 temporary contractors, CBS17 reported. Once those are fulfilled, Scott said the agency’s own maintenance crews will keep work orders from piling up again. Although he acknowledged complications with scheduling repairs, including families homeschooling children, Scott was firm about the agency’s goal.

“This year, we want to clear our entire backlog,” he said.

Scott also said rebuilding trust and increasing resident engagement would be part of the solution to communication problems. He said DHA would prioritize efforts to revive each property’s resident council, an elected group of residents who he said would facilitate complaints and create a sense of community. As a public housing agency, DHA is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to maintain a Resident Advisory Board composed of resident council members.

Scott said many resident leaders step down due to health issues, death, or other circumstances, and that having resident engagement in public housing is not easy because people are busy.

But he could not identify more specific reasons why DHA faces challenges with resident engagement.

“It’s been a big mystery for me,” Scott said.

At top: A storage trailer infested with rats sits by the Hoover Road public housing complex in October, before it was removed. Photo by Henry Haggart.

9th Street Journal reporter Charlie Zong can be reached at