Friday, June 14, 2024

City officials visit DC, solicit HUD for $13M in emergency funds for WHA crisis

Contractors on standby, waiting for money to get housing units livable for displaced residents

Hillcrest is one of multiple Wilmington Housing Authority neighborhoods facing mold issues, causing at least 150 families to be displaced. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

WILMINGTON — During his trip to Washington D.C. this week, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo called the Wilmington Housing Authority’s mold crisis “one of the biggest issues of all housing authorities in the country.”

In November 2021, WHQR launched a five-part series investigating the ongoing mold crisis in WHA units, which began in 2018 following Hurricane Florence. The outlet reported WHA leadership knew about the issue by 2019. 

To date, 161 adults and 315 children are displaced from 150 units, according to a Mar. 1 city council meeting. The housing authority neighborhoods affected include Creekwood, Woodbridge, Houston Moore and Hillcrest.

WHA told city council $32 million is the ideal number to remediate the units and ensure all displaced families are back in a suitable living environment. 

“I asked WHA to give me the worst-case scenario, understanding there will be more residents displaced due to mold issues,” Saffo said during a media briefing Tuesday. 

Council members Luke Waddell and Clifford Barnett traveled with the mayor to the nation’s capital to meet with federal officials over three days at the National League of Cities’ annual Congressional City Conference. Communities across the country, of all sizes, come together and discuss policy issues affecting their residents. 

Saffo also met with Sen. Thom Tillis, Sen. Richard Burr, Rep. David Rouzer and Rep. David Price. According to Rouzer’s communications director Erin McBride, Rouzer coordinated the conversation between local government and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials to explore all possibilities of receiving assistance from existing HUD programs. Saffo and council members were asking for $13 million in emergency appropriations.

City spokesperson Jennifer Dandron said city officials “hope the response will be as urgent as the need is.”

Not only is the mold crisis an issue, there has been leadership turnover compounding the situation. Former WHA director Katrina Redmon announced last August she would be resigning, breaking her contract set to expire in 2023.

“It’s just time,” Redmon told WECT last year. “And if you look at where things are right now, everything has been built up ready, but not yet started. So, it’s more fair to the Housing Authority if I leave now, rather than be in the middle of something and then make a decision that it’s time for a new chapter in my life.  

Since then, WHA has displaced more than 150 families from their homes who have been living in hotel rooms for the last year, according to WHA interim CEO Vernice Hamilton.

“All of us feel 300-some kids living in hotels is not a good thing,” Saffo told reporters from D.C. Tuesday.

He also indicated a new WHA director would be in place within the next two weeks.

The first phase of requested money would allow five contractors, already on standby, to complete renovations on 100 units. Those residences have been remediated of mold and need to be reconstructed to appropriate living conditions. The funds would help cover six months of hotel bills and per-diem costs, as well as mold-testing and remediation of roughly 50 remaining units.

During a Mar. 1 council meeting, WHA board chair Al Sharp said Phoenix Environmental is testing 100 units for mold and Rhino Services has corrected 112 out of 150 apartments — or about 80%. WHA hired a construction manager, which it did not have previously, to oversee the remediation process. 

Sharp also said WHA instituted a mold protocol with creation of a hotline and training staff on mold detection and prevention. Typically WHA handled mold concerns on a case-by-case basis and did not have a system in place. There was also no organization for tracking complaints, WHQR reported last fall.

Sharp said WHA spent approximately $75,000 of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act money to permanently place dehumidifiers in as many housing units as possible. 

Fifty families have been rehoused since March 2021 and 10 are living in market-rate apartments; however, WHA officials said they would like to get at least 50 displaced families situated in apartments as soon as possible.

Hamilton and board chair Al Sharp said it is four times more expensive paying nightly hotel rates and offering daily stipends than leasing an apartment for families. WHA reported it’s spending roughly $8,000 per month on hotel rooms and per diem expenses.

“The displacement of families from their homes has had a severe impact on them and their life circumstances,” Hamilton said. “Hotels and motels were not made for long-term living.”

Saffo agreed it was not a sustainable solution, especially as peak tourist season approaches.

“[R]oom rates continue to go up,” he said. “Some hotels have already booked summer reservations.”

WHA is paying a significant amount of money — roughly $450,000 per month, Hamilton said — out of its general budget for meals to those living in hotels, since most do not have kitchens.

Saffo said Tuesday, during the media briefing, discussions with D.C. officials were “promising.” All indicated they would help in whatever way possible to rectify the issues, he added

Waddell said they were able to drive home the severity of the situation.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to advocate with key decision-makers about how crucial this situation is with WHA and leave people [in D.C.] understanding how serious it is — folks who can make decisions and make things happen,” Waddell said. “It’s been the most beneficial part for all of us.”

Meetings will continue next week as well, as HUD officials from the regional office in Greensboro will be in Wilmington for two days. They will evaluate the housing authority units and aid in formulating a plan.

Following the visit, city officials will continue to advocate for necessary funding as WHA continues the work remediating units, according Dandron.

“These people want to get back to their homes and to their neighborhoods,” Saffo told media.

Incorporated in 1938, WHA is the oldest housing authority in the state. It manages two forms of public housing: 1,246 units and 2,070 housing-choice vouchers (based on qualifications). Currently, 80 more families remain on the housing authority’s waitlist. 

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