It's been two years since the last residents of Lincoln Apartments were evicted, some of them around Christmas, yet the apartments are boarded up and unused. Now owned by the Durham Housing Authority, which bought the low-income housing complex from the Lincoln Hospital Foundation for $10, the buildings will remain boarded up unless the city receives federal funding to spearhead a revitalization project covering a large swath of Southeast-Central Durham.
"It's another bad by-product of the disaster that was Lincoln Apartments," said Durham City Councilman Steve Schewel, who advocated for residents at the time.
When DHA bought Lincoln Apartments, the agency was already considering a large-scale revitalization plan for the neighborhood. It viewed Lincoln, 150 units on 10 acres, as a strategic area for its housing goals. However, city inspections revealed that the apartments were in substandard, even unlivable condition, and that renovation costs would be too high.
The idea, Dallas Parks, DHA's Chief Executive Officer, explained, was to fold the estimated $2 million cost of demolishing Lincoln into a larger city project.
"If we could fix Lincoln as part of a larger project of $60 or $70 million, then it wouldn't be much at all," Parks said.
But that larger project could take years, even more than a decade.
In October 2013, DHA received a $300,000 planning grant to draft its urban transformation plan for Southeast-Central Durham. With additional funds from other sources, DHA received a total of $1.6 million for planning.
The proposed revitalization project targets Lincoln Apartments and the neighborhood hemmed between Highway 147, Roxboro and Bacon streets. Lincoln would be demolished, along with McDougald Terrace, a nearby public housing project with 360 apartment units.
In place of McDougald Terrace, where some of the apartments are more than 60 years old, DHA plans to build 1,000 new affordable housing units. Fayette Place, a former public housing project on Fayetteville Street near Umstead Street that was razed in 2009, would also be included in the proposal to build more affordable housing. (That year, DHA sold the land under Fayette Place for $4 million to Campus Apartments, a Philadelphia-based developer. It planned to build 168 apartments for low-income North Carolina Central University students, but the university, burned in a separate deal with the company, would not participate. The 20 acres, surrounded by chain-link fence and cluttered with concrete slabs, remains undeveloped.)
According to DHA's lengthy transformation plan published online, housing would be just one focus of the revitalization; streets, sidewalks, jobs and education also would be a part.
The Lincoln Apartments neighborhood is sorely in need of assistance. The median household income hovers around $20,000 a year, only 40 percent of Durham's overall median. Lincoln Apartments and McDougald Terrace are situated in what qualifies as a food desert, without easy access to healthy and affordable food. Residents are concerned about the high crime rate in the neighborhood, and many preschool programs are beyond the financial reach of most residents.
However, federal funding is tight; the grant process is competitive. Later this year, DHA plans to apply for another federal grant—worth up to $30 million—to implement the plan. "The bigger cities, places like Philadelphia, Chicago; they get first pick," Parks explained.
Even if DHA receives the funding it has requested, construction would not begin until 2017, and the neighborhood would not be fully rebuilt for at least 15 years. The total budget for the project is estimated at $167 million; the project would also need low income housing tax credits and city funding, always in flux, to complete.
Until then, the planned revitalizations remain in limbo.
Lanier Blum, who specializes in residential development and lending at Self-Help, said leaving Lincoln in such a dilapidated state does a "disservice to the neighborhood," and that a vacant lot is preferable to a vacant building. The lot, for example, could be turned into open green space, such as a community garden and a makeshift park.
From October 2012 to January 2013, about 200 Lincoln residents had to leave when foundation officials claimed that they could no longer afford to keep the complex open because operational costs had exceeded the amount collected in rent. Other financial problems dogged the property in its last years. Residents complained about financial irregularities, such as unrecorded rent payments and inconsistent lease agreements.
When the residents were evicted, several nonprofits, such as Housing for New Hope, and community advocacy groups like People's Durham, helped relocate them. Public housing was not an option—at the time, 1,200 households were on a waiting list for public housing and the Section 8 program was closed, with a backlog of 2,300.
The Lincoln situation is emblematic of a larger issue facing the city. Southeast-Central Durham remains undeveloped in a part of the city that needs not only affordable housing, but quality affordable housing. According to data in the Durham Neighborhood Compass, the Lincoln neighborhood has 32.1 minimum housing code violations per 100 dwelling units; the city average is just two.
Meanwhile, more than 3,000 high-end apartments and condos are being built in central Durham; many of them have been constructed as quickly as one year.
Residents of McDougald Terrace, which lies across the street from the Lincoln property, have grown impatient with the glacial pace of change. Over the past two years, they have seen minimal progress at the Lincoln site, which has become a burden on their neighborhood.
"They need to do something with it, put in something new," said Jonathan, a resident of 15 years who gave only his first name. "Sometimes you can hear weird noises, activity, people hanging out there."
Irvin Broussard, another long time resident of McDougald Terrace, warns, "It doesn't look good if you just leave [the apartments] boarded up. They're going to end up like Fayette Place."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Left behind"
Emily Feng is an INDY intern and a student at Duke University.