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A recent crisis in public housing led Sabrina Davis MPP’20 to wonder how she could leverage her position as a Duke student to support the residents.

The problems surfaced at the end of 2019, after two infants who lived in Durham’s McDougald Terrace public housing complex died. Meanwhile, about a dozen residents of the complex had been sent to area hospitals with elevated levels of carbon monoxide, which prompted the Durham Housing Authority to conduct emergency inspections on Dec. 27.

By Jan.  3, public officials began evacuating more than 270 households and moving families into local hotels. The inspections had revealed that approximately 60 percent of the apartments had serious problems including faulty appliances, mold or infestations. Six weeks later, a small number of families began moving back in.  

Students smiling
Left to right: Sabrina Davis MPP'20, Tamar Chukrun, 1st year MD, Allie Jaarsma MPP'20, Julian Xie MPP'20/MD.

Davis had been following the situation closely, and felt compelled to act. But at first she wasn’t sure how best to help. Via Facebook, she asked other students for help drafting a letter of support for the residents. Allie Jaarsma MPP’20, Julian Xie MPP’20/MD candidate and Tamar Chukrun, a first-year medical students all responded. 

All four students had experience working in the community through various programs. 

Davis was an intern with Durham County government last summer. Jaarsma is president of Bridging Communities, a Sanford-based student organization that seeks to connect students to the broader Durham community. Xie and Chukrun are co-presidents of Root Causes, a student organization to help students in the health professions get involved in addressing the social drivers of health, especially with heath care access and education about healthy eating.

While the story of the McDougald Terrace crisis was unfolding, Chukrun was learning in class about the impact of carbon monoxide poisoning.

“But no one mentioned the poisoning from carbon monoxide that was happening right down the road,” she said.

Jaarsma said, “I felt obligated as a public policy student to amplify the voices of the residents and hold government accountable.”

The four drafted a letter and asked for signatures. At first, Davis planned to ask just students, but faculty and staff soon joined. Within a couple of days, they had more than 280 signatures.

"It is unacceptable to allow human beings to live in the conditions many individuals have described, including being plagued by black mold, roach and rat infestations, and sewage leaks. Echoing the sentiments of a Durham resident who spoke at the last Durham City Council meeting, there is no way you would ever live like this," the letter said.

On Jan. 21, Davis and a few other MPP students attended the Durham City Council meeting, hoping to lend their voices in support of the residents. About 30 to 40 McDougald Terrace residents attended, only to discover their issue was not on the agenda that night. The residents went outside to protest. At the end of the meeting, Mayor Steve Schewel invited the residents back into the chamber.

The students emailed the letter to all city council members, to the Durham Housing Authority and to the Greensboro field office of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. On Jan. 30, the letter was printed in the Duke Chronicle.

“I see this letter as the beginning rather than the end of our involvement,” said Xie. There is still a lot of work to be done rehoming people, checking on lead exposure and continuing to pressure the responsible government agencies to improve public housing conditions, he said.