The Wilmington Housing Authority is still struggling to deal with displaced families whose homes are awash in mold. Late last year, the WHA delivered a status report to the city of Wilmington, predicting that the process of returning more than 100 families to their homes would likely take a year and cost more than $8 million.
Related: Wilmington Housing Authority’s Mold Crisis Has Worsened; authority officials say they are taking proactive steps
The WHA faces two main shortages: funding and contractors. The Authority can handle mold inspections and “repair” (i.e. mold removal), but it is falling behind on “rebuilding”, i.e. putting the units in condition for families to return home.
WHQR’s Kelly Kenoyer and Ben Schachtman have the latest on this story.
- This conversation also appears in the latest edition of The Newsroom, which airs Friday, February 11 at noon and Sunday, February 13 at 1 p.m. You can also find it here.
- Learn more about the WHA mold crisis here
Kelly Kenoyer: Hi Ben.
Ben Schachman: Hi Kelly.
K: So you continued our accountability report on the Wilmington Housing Authority [WHA]. What’s happening this week?
B: Well Kelly, I went to the last WHA meeting – then sat down with the chairman of the board, Al Sharp, the next day. The WHA is basically still in the same position, battling two main issues: one, they don’t seem to be finding enough contractors to help get units back into service that have had their mold removed – basically rebuilding to put them back together. . And second, they lack money to house the displaced tenants. We don’t have exact numbers – WHA has refused to discuss it until they run for city council, which is due to take place on March 1, although that’s not set in stone. Not knowing these numbers is frustrating as a journalist, but you can say that there are still around 100 displaced families, maybe more. And in the end, the situation is not tenable.
K: I mean, even the cheapest hotels cost at least $80 a night, and hotel room prices have actually skyrocketed lately – it’s not going to get any better as we enter tourist season.
B: It’s true, and WHA has confirmed that hotel managers are sometimes hesitant to rent to large numbers of WHA tenants – there’s the same problem with commercial apartments, which WHA says is where they would prefer to place displaced families. To me that seems patently discriminatory – since WHA’s money is as good as anyone else’s and they pay market rates – but since [apartments and hotels] are businesses, WHA cannot force them. This leaves WHA in a bind as to where to place them next.
K: So what’s the plan?
B: WHA is asking the city and county, as well as those in the development community, to rely primarily on hotel and apartment management companies. But even if it works, they need the money — they’ve requested nearly $13 million in emergency funding for HUD, but even that might not be enough.
It’s already a crisis – but we’re reaching a tipping point for something even worse. No official wanted to say that officially, but we could be looking at trailer parks or some sort of tent city. I don’t want to sound drastic, but we’re headed for a cliff.
K: It’s just… incredibly awful. What is the city doing about it?
B: Hopefully we’ll see a discussion of this in March when the WHA presents to the board – at the moment there have been discussions about renting places from Cape Fear Collective, but there just isn’t. not enough. In the meantime, WHA has discussed the use of housing vouchers. Basically, WHA is restructuring the scoring system to allow displaced families to advance on the waiting list – even if they are already on this last. The WHA should announce it soon, and we’ll have coverage of it when they do, but the vouchers might not solve the problem either.
K: Why this?
B: Well, the housing market is booming, which means the good ones just aren’t that competitive. Rents are up 23% over the past five years, and a ton of that increase happened last year. As [WHA Board Chair] Al Sharp told me that when the market is down, the good ones work very well. When it’s booming, not so much.
K: Yeah, my landlord threatened to raise the rent by $400 at the end of my lease, so I know that’s super competitive. How do the good ones work now that they can no longer compete?
B: Well, when many people are trying to rent the same apartment, a landlord may be more inclined to choose a tenant that requires less paperwork. HUD has specific guidelines on acceptable housing, and during downturns and low demand, getting a tenant can make those hoops worthwhile. But when the market is so competitive, it’s a disadvantage.
K: Aren’t they also quite limited?
B: Yeah. The way it works is that these vouchers are essentially a grant, but the family still has to pay the difference. This means that any significant increase in rent is largely left to the family, and they just have to try and scrape together that extra $200. This would not happen if they lived in the usual public accommodation.
K: What a difficult situation, and it’s hard to see clearly how to get out of it. There are so many ways this tragedy interacts with the affordable housing shortage – and there are certainly policies that could help.
B: Like what?
K: We’re running out of time, so you’ll have to listen to the latest episode of The Newsroom to find out!
B: Haha, that’s fine! Thanks Kelly.
K: Thank you Ben.