Sunday, August 14, 2022

WHA mold crisis makes some progress with improved housing vouchers, still shuffling families

WILMINGTON — Earlier this week, HUD officials visited Wilmington to see the Wilmington Housing Authority crisis with their own eyes. Hundreds of families and children have been displaced, some for as long as a year, due to prevalent mold in neighborhoods such as Creekwood, Houston Moore and Hillcrest. The visit took place one week after elected local leaders traveled to the nation’s capital to advocate for emergency funding to address the “dire” situation.

“They witnessed firsthand the magnitude of the problem,” Mayor Bill Saffo said of HUD’s visit. “They understand why the authority is asking for the money that they are in an emergency appropriation to try to get these units fixed as quickly as possible.”

HUD agreed to increase the subsidies of the Housing Choice Voucher Program, previously known as Section 8 vouchers, to 120% of market value. WHA authorized the subsidies to be 110% but raising it the extra 10% required HUD’s go-ahead. The extra assistance will help the authority compete in the rental market.

“The rental market in this area is extremely tight and there are not a lot of units available for rent,” Saffo said. “And those that are available, the amount of money HUD is allocating for housing, is not enough.”

The Wilmington Apartment Association has extended assistance. It was able to make 20 units available to WHA residents, which is still 30 less than was requested to house displaced families. The association is at 98% occupancy, Saffo said. According to internal emails, units do not need to be near public transportation to be considered, and Saffo said they are also open to residences in Brunswick and Pender counties.

HUD has not yet awarded any emergency funding. The city has asked for $13 million to start — while $32 million is the long-term need — and Saffo is optimistic he will hear an update in the coming weeks. Federal money is often allocated from various pots, he added, so it may take a little time to figure out what’s available.

“We have people and we have companies that are ready to put these units back in working shape, but we are going to need money to be able to do that,” Saffo said.

In the meantime, many already displaced families are at risk of being displaced again. Of the more than 140 families and 300 children out of their homes, a minority are living in apartments or with family, but mainly these residents were relocated to hotels. Interim WHA CEO Vernice Hamilton said tenants move in and out of the communities daily.

“For example, last week we had 12 families return to their units but identified nine that had to leave units,” Hamilton said.

HUD and WHA are paying market rates for seven different hotels and apartment rentals. Many of these hotels are already reserved for the approaching summer season. Saffo said in one instance, this past winter, multiple families were moved out of lodging to make room for a wedding with a large number of reservations.

“We’re definitely running up against tourist season and rate increases, a lot of rooms being booked,” Hamilton said. “We’re definitely working very hard to find alternatives, so one of the ways of doing that, which is preferable for Wilmington Housing Authority and residents, is market-rate apartments for rent. We’re pursuing those and have a few leads on getting some more of those under lease.”

The constant shifting of locations is impacting the lives of the 300-plus children. Schools are able to provide steady transportation, but at the end of the day, the students do not have a consistent place to call home.

“For these kids to be able to get back into their community or to their neighborhoods that they have been living in, I think it’s critically important. Obviously when they come home from school, if they want to go outside, if they want to go play, if they want to go see their friends, it’s much easier as opposed to when you’re in a hotel,” Saffo said. “You’ve got strangers coming in and out of the hotel that are vacationing or coming here for business. I just don’t think it’s the proper environment for people to live in for long durations of time.”

The actual estimated cost of fixing the entire problem is more to the tune of $32 million. There are likely more units with mold that have yet to be identified.

Currently, WHA is paying $6,000 per week per family for hotel rooms. It is also covering roughly $61 in meals per day, per person while the residents do not have a kitchen to cook in or store food. The WHA has $5 million in operating reserves it’s pulling from to house residents displaced from their permanent homes and pay per diem costs, but it’s not sustainable.

On top of housing, WHA pays to protect residents’ personal belongings in climate-controlled storage units. Previously, WHA used non-climate-controlled PODS to store household items. But Saffo said this aggravated the mold, which spreads quickly, and some residents lost everything.

Nonprofits have been donating new and slightly used furnishings to those residents for when they get rehomed.

WHA is still interviewing candidates to replace its former CEO Katrina Redmon. In the fall, many of WHA’s other leaders resigned, leaving a skeleton crew and board members to rectify the situation in light of new media attention and pressure from the community.

WHA is narrowing down the applicant pool and will present the top two to the board. Saffo said a decision should be finalized within the first two weeks of April.

“At least it looks like everybody’s on the same page, working in the same direction. Now it’s just a matter of when do we get the money to get these units back online as quickly as possible,” the mayor said. “We have a number of contractors who have stepped up that are ready to go.”


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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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