Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous called for an end to the city’s current public housing developments. Since then, Evangelous and other officials have been silent on the subject — except Mayor Bill Saffo, who weighed in on the future of public housing.
WILMINGTON — Earlier this month, Wilmington’s chief of police responded to the year’s third murder in Creekwood by calling for the end of the city’s current housing projects; since then both the chief and the head of the Wilmington Housing Authority have refused to comment. Wilmington’s mayor did, however, share his thoughts on public housing, saying that public housing projects aren’t going anywhere in the near future.
Calls to close public housing developments
On Saturday, May 18, 30-year-old Quinchelle Carr was murdered in her home, located in the Creekwood South housing development. Carr was the third person killed in a several-block radius since the beginning of the year. Zalleux Johnson, Jr. was gunned down on February 21. On April 4, 27-year-old Willie Lynell Sellers, Jr., was shot just one block away; Sellers died in the hospital from his injuries.
In response to Carr’s killing, Chief Evangelous told the Wilmington Star-News that the city’s public housing developments – like Houston Moore and Creekwood – were “past their time.” Evangelous said it was time to “disburse folks that are in poverty throughout the community.”
The Star-News’ editorial board called for the closure of the city’s housing projects, which it dubbed “public-housing killing fields,” (an apparent allusion to the murder of over a million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge regime). The editorial board called bloodshed in Houston Moore and Creekwood “inevitable,” saying law enforcement attempts to prevent violence were doomed to failure.
“In places such as Creekwood and Houston Moore, the chief’s best efforts have failed. We think they will continue to fail. We think the chief knows they will continue to fail. Something has to change. No amount of police patrols or security cameras will work. The bloodshed is inevitable,” the editorial stated.
While the editorial stated support for Evangelous, it remained unclear what, exactly, the chief of police was suggesting: Razing the projects and rebuilding mixed-cost options? Doing away with the housing project concept altogether in favor of in-fill government-funded units? Housing vouchers for new private developments?
For the next several days, repeated attempts to schedule an interview with Evangelous to clarify or elaborate on his comments were unsuccessful. Finally, last Friday evening, spokesperson Linda Thompson said Evangelous had “decided he doesn’t want to do an interview at this time.”
Wilmington Housing Authority (WHA) CEO Katrina Redmon was out of town last week, according to a spokesperson for WHA, but after returning refused to return phone calls or emails asking for comment. According to a spokesperson, Redmon was “not refusing to comment” but WHA had “decided to let this go.”
Wilmington City Council has also remained silent on the issue; emails were sent to each council member asking for their thoughts last Wednesday – none were answered.
Mayor Saffo said that while he understood safety concerns, projects like Houston Moore and Creekwood would not be closed or torn down anytime soon.
“That’s a theory, and I’ve got to deal in reality. The reality is that the public housing projects are going nowhere — not that I’m aware of,” Saffo said. “If someone says, ‘Bill Saffo go out there and tear these things down,’ where am I gonna put people? Right now we’re dealing with enough issues with affordable housing units because of people displaced by the hurricane. So where are you going to put them, number one.”
Saffo acknowledged the frustration of law enforcement.
“I believe what Ralph [Evangelous] was trying to say, and I can’t speak for him, is that the concern has been that a large concentration of people in poverty seems to be creating problems in these housing developments,” Saffo said. “He probably spoke out of a level of frustration — you’ve got repeat offenders that probably shouldn’t have been released and when they are, they return the community, where they probably shouldn’t be, and they commit crimes, you know, they kill somebody.”
Saffo said a more realistic approach, from his perspective, was focusing on the services needed by these communities. Saffo said the city has already stepped up police presence in public housing developments and credited WHA for improving management processes. He also said improvements in education, transportation, and infrastructure could help.
Finally, while Saffo reiterated there are no plans to do away with Creekwood, older housing projects – including Houston Moore and Hillcrest — will be redeveloped in the next five to ten years. Saffo pointed to a grant that city applied for in 2014, but lost out to a larger city, to redevelop Hillcrest. The city, he said, still has plans to overhaul the housing development.
When Houston Moore and Hillcrest are redeveloped, Saffo said it was important that both were “integrated with more market rates and different economic groups.”
“When these housing projects are redeveloped, how can we bring in those that are at the poverty line and those who are doing pretty well, that’s what we need to figure out,” Saffo said.”
Saffo said the city and WHA will have to decide between public housing – like Creekwood and Houston Moore – and private housing that utilizes housing vouchers – like Market North and Jervay. Saffo pointed to concerns over private housing, including former residents being priced out, and the city’s inability to intervene in issues — like residents who are still displaced from Jervay, seven months after Hurricane Florence.
“Now in the aftermath of the hurricane, seven months, and those people are still not back in their homes and those people are coming to us for help, even though those are private developments,” Saffo said. “And there’s a fear too, and we saw this when they redeveloped Jervay — and there was discussion of redeveloping Hillcrest — for people who live in public housing that are concerned about being displaced. They were afraid they wouldn’t be able to reapply and won’t be eligible to move back into the neighborhoods they’ve grown to love.”
Saffo said he understood concerns that private development would accelerate gentrification and displace people.
“You have to be sensitive to the issue — I don’t want to displace anyone. That’s where people grew up, that’s where they want to be. I get that,” Saffo said. “[For new housing developments] I would definitely say that the residents that live there would have the opportunity to stay there, I would say that was paramount, that would be the first and foremost thing we made sure of.”
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001