While the days leading up to Christmas are often marked by celebration and warm memories, for residents of JJ Henderson Senior Apartments, Dec. 23 and 24 were spent in the dark and cold, without electricity. During a blackout at the affordable apartment community for seniors and disabled people, their health equipment stopped working, they said. And, no one checked on them for days.
At a City Council work session on Jan. 19, three residents of JJ Henderson described a Christmas blackout of about 35 hours. They lamented that their apartments were dark, their electric medical equipment stopped functioning, and the doors to the building were unlocked.
The outage happened on Dec. 23 and 24, but no one from California Commercial Investment Companies or Durham Housing Authority came to check on them until the following Tuesday, Dec. 27, they said. DHA renovated JJ Henderson in partnership with other companies and subsequently turned over management to CCI. As senior citizens and disabled people residing in a recently renovated affordable housing project, the residents wanted answers.
“We had no lights, we had no electricity, and it was cold up until December the 25th,” Rafiq Zaidi said. Zaidi is 78 and a 17-year-long resident of the building. “We refuse to accept this. These people demand reasonable accommodations under the Disability Act.”
“It hurts. It’s degrading, as a person that suffers with a mental health issue, right along with a building of other people that suffer with the same disorders or more,” Pearlie Williams, a resident and former vice president of the resident council at JJ Henderson, said.
Anthony Scott, chief executive officer of the DHA, said at the meeting that he planned to follow up with the residents at the 178-unit building. He had not heard of the outage previously, he said.
In response to the residents’ comments at the City Council work session, council member DeDreana Freeman said she plans to investigate.
“I had heard this had happened, and I had asked the question just to try and figure out what was going on,” she said. “I will be visiting over there at JJ Henderson because it is concerning.”
The Christmas Eve blackouts were widely publicized at the time. Yet no staffers came to check on the residents of JJ Henderson until the following Tuesday, Dec. 27, residents said.
In later interviews, residents clarified what happened during the blackout.
“I felt someone was going to come and check and, you know, let us know what was going on,” Daniel Marshburn, another resident, said. “No one came around. It was Christmas weekend, and they left on Friday and didn’t come back until Tuesday… No one ever came up there and made sure we had food, or made sure we had the things that people need.”
During the blackout, many of the residents could not use the equipment they relied on to help manage their disabilities, Zaidi said.
“People with COPD, which is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, were unable to have access to their equipment for oxygen and nebulizers,” Zaidi said. “Really, they couldn’t breathe.”
David McGhee, another building resident, said his electric heart monitor did not work during the outage. Williams said that other residents could not use their electric wheelchairs.
The doors to the building were also unlocked during the blackout, residents said. As a result, non-residents were able to enter the building.
Sheryl Smith, a friend of the residents, said that the building relies on an electronic lock system. But during the outage, the lock system failed.
“Anybody from off the streets could come in,” she said. “And they did.”
Williams also said that the building lacks security guards. When the doors to the building were open, she felt afraid.
“I was scared to death,” she said. “I was like, ‘Help me, what is going on?'”
The outage occurred only two months after the complex re-opened following $31 million renovations by the DHA in partnership with CCI and other companies. Funding included a $2.9 million loan from the City of Durham. Changes to the building were made as part of the DHA’s Downtown and Neighborhood Plan, which aims to increase affordable housing in Durham.
“We never took our eye off this ball,” Scott said at the ceremony, according to news reports. “We knew we couldn’t take our eye off the ball of trying to continue to redevelop our public housing communities because that’s how you avoid a McDougald situation.”
JJ Henderson, a nine-story building at 807 S. Duke St., has provided affordable housing for decades. With the renovation, new owners took over the building, a limited partnership called JJ Henderson TC Senior Apartments, LP. The housing authority still owns the land, tax records show. After the renovation, DHA turned management of JJ Henderson over to CCI.
The 9th Street Journal reached out to Scott after the meeting for comment on the residents’ complaints. In response, DHA communications manager Aalayah Sanders issued an emailed statement on behalf of DHA confirming that an outage occurred at the building over the Christmas holiday. According to the statement, the building’s emergency generator “performed as designed.”
“The generator does not provide full power to the building but provides power to the emergency lighting, elevators, and heating systems of the apartments,” the response states.
Residents paint a different picture of their experience during the blackout, however.
While the hallway lights worked, apartments were dark, Williams and McGhee said. Heat also failed in some apartments, according to McGhee and Zaidi.
DHA representatives did not respond to questions about the failure of the electronic lock system or about residents’ statements that their health equipment failed during the blackout. DHA also did not explain why no management came to check on residents until the Tuesday after the blackout. CCI representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Smith said she tried to raise awareness of the blackout through a Facebook livestream two weeks after the incident. She said she came with residents to the council work session to ensure that the incident was public knowledge.
“That way, if anything else was to happen, no one could say they didn’t know anything about it,” Smith said after the meeting.
At the meeting, residents said they hope their appeals will lead to changes in the way their building is managed.
“We cannot have our Black men, women, sitting in the dark for almost 37 hours, not having oxygen,” Zaidi said.
Williams echoed his sentiment.
“I’m appalled, I’m hurt, I’m angry,” she said. “As a person with a mental health disorder and an advocate for the state of North Carolina, this should not have happened.”
Above (from top): JJ Henderson residents Pearlie Williams, Rafiq Zaidi and Daniel Marshburn; Rafiq Zaidi, 78, has lived in the building for 17 years; ‘No one came around’ for several days, said resident Daniel Marshburn; Pearlie Williams described being frightened by the building’s unlocked doors; the JJ Henderson building at 807 S. Duke St. Photos by Abigail Bromberger — The 9th Street Journal