WILMINGTON — Leaders of the Wilmington Housing Authority were pressed for answers and an update at the city council meeting Tuesday evening, as the authority seeks federal funding to reckon with a years-long mold crisis that has forced the displacement of residents from their homes and into hotels.
The scope of mold issues in WHA’s properties quietly ballooned after Hurricane Florence, made worse by the authority’s inability to identify the problem and act quickly. The prevalence of mold in Wilmington public housing was first reported by WHQR last November. Residents were hard pressed to convince the authority to test potentially contaminated units, and lengths of stay in hotels for displaced residents have been long and unpredictable, according to investigations that caught the attention of city politicians and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Also straining the authority is a void in senior leadership that opened at the end of summer: two vice presidents were removed, another resigned, and former CEO Katrina Redmond left in August. Now helming WHA are interim CEO Vernice Hamilton and the authority’s nine-member volunteer board, appointed by Mayor Bill Saffo.
“Hotels are reluctant to rent to us on a long term basis,” Hamilton told city council. “Right now it is beginning to be the upcoming tourist season, so we are having difficulties finding suitable housing for our residents.”
As of Tuesday, 155 families under the wing of WHA — 161 adults and 315 children — are currently displaced, Hamilton said. Fifty of those families are living in other housing units, and 10 are in market-rate apartment complexes (WHA would like to have at least 50 displaced families living in apartments).
Of the residents in hotels, 10 need to be moved out by Friday, Hamilton said at the authority’s board meeting Tuesday, held ahead of the council meeting.
Hamilton and board chairman Al Sharp asked city council to support WHA in an appeal for federal dollars — to continue paying for new accommodations and unit rehabilitations. They also asked city leaders to urge local apartment players to lease units to the authority for displaced residents.
Lodging residents in hotels with per diem is about four times more expensive than leasing an apartment for families removed from their homes, according to WHA officials.
“Within the current budget there is not a sustainable way of maintaining residents in hotels,” Sharp said. Nor is there available money for widespread reconstruction of contaminated units, he added.
The housing authority has asked HUD for $13 million in emergency funding, enough to pay for six months of hotel bills and per diem for displaced residents. It would also fund mold testing, remediation and renovations to all affected units. Though officials told to council that settling all displaced residents could take a year or longer.
Through the Greensboro office of HUD, which oversees all programs in the state, there appears to be far less than $13 million available, officials indicated to council. WHA officials said the Greensboro office told them north of $7 million exists in emergency funding, but $5 million in applications from other housing authorities are pending.
WHA currently spends $450,000 per month housing displaced residents. The authority’s finance director emphasized that leasing apartments would significantly defray costs (the per diem, given to displaced families because there are no kitchens in the hotel rooms, would not be provided to families moved into apartments).
Mayor Bill Saffo is scheduled to meet soon in Washington, D.C. with HUD staff and federal representatives. He asked Sharp and Hamilton to pin down the amount of money needed for a one-time ask.
“Is this 13 million dollars that you’re asking for also taking into consideration the 450,000 a month that you’re going through right now to help keep these units and help keep these people in some shelter?” Saffo asked. “Because if it’s not, I need to know what the full amount is before we go to D.C. next week to ask for this money.”
Saffo also asked Hamilton to provide his office a list of all apartment complexes WHA had reached out to regarding housing residents.
A few hours before the city council meeting, WHA rolled out a new uniform procedure for mold testing, designed to complete the testing process, and contractor assignment if necessary, within 48 hours. A resident hotline will be in place Apr. 1, though council members told Sharp and Hamilton it should have been online sooner.
Councilman Kevin Spears criticized Sharp and Hamilton the harshest. WHA had failed to explain how the mold situation became so extreme in the first place, Spears said. He added the leadership vacuum could only account for some of the authority’s troubles, and that communication with WHA has always been a source of complaints from residents.
“I think we’re just not willing to be truthful about how bad this situation is,” Spears said.
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