Adequate housing is a human right and should be accessible to all folks, regardless of socioeconomic status. 


by Maximillian Matthews

It was a nightmare, worse than pictures of a war torn or burned out riot area.” – Barbara Perry, a Durham, NC resident reflecting on returning to her neighborhood

Horrified and traumatized, Black residents of Durham, NC surveyed the remains of their neighborhoods and businesses following the urban renewal of the late 1960s-early 1970s. The majority of Durham’s Black residents supported urban renewal, after promises of financial assistance, new housing and infrastructure improvements were made by the city government.  Unfortunately, these promises never materialized. 

Under the Housing Act of 1949, the urban renewal policy gave local governments large federal loans to obtain and eradicate “slums,”a class biased term. These areas were to be sold to private developers who would construct new homes, buildings, and highways in their place. Between 1949 and 1973, 2,500 neighborhoods were demolished and a million people were displaced by urban renewal. 

For every one new low-income housing unit built, four units were destroyed. Over two-thirds of the displaced were Black or Latinx. In Durham alone, over 4,000 families and 500 businesses were displaced. Less than 1 percent of federal spending for urban renewal went towards relocating displaced people, with Black families being its primary casualties.

The intention of urban renewal was to attract investors and middle class folks into cities by eradicating decaying neighborhoods. Shopping centers, parking garages, stadiums, and political agendas took precedence over helping the poor. And urban renewal’s dark legacy manifested in the 2016 election when Trump stated he and Ben Carson, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary, discussed his “urban renewal agenda.” 

As current inaction from HUD regarding public housing demonstrates, the federal government’s tradition of ignoring the poor continues.

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Last month, residents at McDougald Terrace, Durham’s oldest public housing complex that houses 325 families, were warned about carbon monoxide poisoning. Emergency responders identified at least 15 people, including infants, with high carbon monoxide levels. Numerous hazardous conditions, including malfunctioning carbon monoxide detectors and defective appliances, were identified, but the city of Durham was already aware of the deteriorating conditions. 

The complex’s 2019 HUD inspection report had more than 1,800 health and safety violations, resulting in McDougald’s 2nd inspection failure since 2017. While the McDougald units are repaired, displaced residents have been vocal in advocating for transparency and holding local officials accountable. Their efforts resemble the work of past activists who sought to avoid the housing crises seen today.

Black folks in Durham have been fighting for better housing conditions for decades. My father worked for the DHA and was friends with Ann Atwater, nationally renowned Durham community organizer. Atwater empowered poor folks to speak for themselves and taught them how to get their landlords to repair their homes. She refused to allow local officials to overlook their needs and was instrumental in the formation of neighborhood councils. 

Last November, Moms 4 Housing, an Oakland, CA based group of working mothers fighting houselessness, occupied a vacant home. They were forcefully removed from the home owned by Wedgewood Properties. Their charges were resisting arrest and obstructing their eviction, with bails set at $5,000.

Carroll Fife, regional director of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, said the arrests were a victory because members of the group had brief housing and critical awareness was raised. Moms 4 Housing recently reached an agreement with Wedgewood, and will be purchasing the home through a Community Land Trust.

While this is a tremendous victory, adequate housing is a human right and should be accessible to all folks, regardless of socioeconomic status. 

RELATED: LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately vulnerable to homelessness and survival sex work

The crises in Durham and Oakland highlights America’s disgraceful legacy of failing to meet the housing needs of its citizens. America, the country most ruled by capitalism, determines who has value according to classist benchmarks and whose needs are met as a result. Capitalism continues to serve the interests of white supremacy, purposefully excluding the Blackest and brownest amongst us. 

A study published by the Public Library of Science found that hospitalization rates for mental illness are two times as high in displaced folks compared to those who remain in their neighborhood. They also found that the top conditions driving displaced folks to hospitals were alcohol and substance abuse, schizophrenia, mood disorders, and anxiety. 

On its website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges “displacement has many health implications that contribute to disparities among special populations, including the poor, women, children, the elderly, and members of racial/ethnic minority groups.”

As Bree Newsome says, “I want everyone to understand that homelessness is a feature of the housing market. Not a bug. Not an unfortunate byproduct. It’s a deliberate process of denying people access to a basic necessity of life in order to create false scarcity in the market & enrich the ownership class.”

Recently, a close friend of mine revealed he’s been sleeping in his car and struggling with his mental health. As more developers invest in Durham, the city is becoming almost unrecognizable. Our communities are bravely fighting against the privatization of land, echoing that we will not leave without a fight.

Maximillian Matthews (non-specific gender pronouns) is a Black queer writer based out of Durham, NC. Maximillian’s work has been featured on Black Youth Project, Blavity, Afropunk, The Body Is Not An Apology and RaceBaitr. Maximillian has worked in higher education administration for ten years and is currently working on a collection of essays. Twitter: @maximillijamaal