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Part III - WHA is in 'a tailspin.' Residents are paying the price. Who's responsible?

WHA admin sit in on the Resident Advisory Board Meeting, Nov. 10. On the left is Al Sharp, WHA Board Chair. In the middle, Interim Director Vernice Hamilton. And on the right, Communications Coordinator Julia Shaw.
Ben Schachtman
WHA administrators sit in on the Resident Advisory Board Meeting, Nov. 10. On the left is Al Sharp, WHA Board Chair. In the middle, Interim Director Vernice Hamilton. And on the right, Communications Coordinator Julia Shaw.

The third part of WHQR’s investigative series explores how the Wilmington Housing Authority fell so far behind in maintenance, and how the oversight board in charge of the authority only found out six months into the crisis.

This is Part 3 of an investigative series on mold problems in the Wilmington Housing Authority. You can find the rest of the series as it publishes here.

The Wilmington Housing Authority is marred by institutional failures and opaque communication, and these systemic problems are now exacerbated by a power vacuum. What’s more, it’s difficult to ascertain the truth about who knew what and when, as the leadership that is likely to blame have all left the authority.

Who knew what, when?

Inspectors and even community members outside WHA knew about severe mold problems in WHA housing projects as early as 2019.

NAACP President Deborah Dicks Maxwell said she first heard about mold in Creekwood in 2019. “Right after Florence I was contacted initially by someone about mold out there,” she said, adding that she notified WHA at that time.

WHQR has also reviewed documents that show pervasive mold problems in the Hillcrest development in 2019. These include a report signed by then-CEO Katrina Redmon.

WHQR reached out to Katrina Redmon, who has since resigned, for comment, but she directed questions to the current board.

It’s evident that staff, tenants, and even some members of the public knew about the mold for a long time, but WHA board chair Al Sharp says the administration didn’t know until more recently. Sharp, who joined the board in 2017 and became chair this summer, blames COVID for that failure.

“This got more complicated during COVID, because the authority did not send maintenance people into the units because of the possibility of contamination,” Sharp said. “So what does COVID have to do with mold? It's an inattention thing, but that’s been rectified.”

WHA also stopped its regular, bi-annual apartment inspections during the pandemic, and Sharp said residents are partially to blame because they didn’t bring information to the administration during that time.

But WHQR has records of mold inspections that came back positive as early as 2019, which did not receive any remediation. And the resident in that case, Erieka Lamberth, wasn’t informed about the positive test. Residents routinely weren’t informed about test results for tests they requested unless they also asked for the results themselves. In Lamberth’s case, she didn’t find out about the first mold report’s results until she requested a second test in 2021, which showed the problem had worsened. Another resident, Latorche Jones, also said she only received the results of her mold test after asking — she wouldn't have asked, except that a family member, who works for WHA, told her it was the only way she would get any information.

Some staff certainly knew about general mold concerns for a long time, but perhaps didn’t recognize it as an emergency until last winter. It’s unclear what the catalyst was for WHA to act, but it’s around that time that the authority began providing hotel rooms for displaced residents in January of 2021.

Disconnect and dysfunction

Even then, it took six more months for WHA’s administrative staff to notify its oversight board about the crisis.

Asked repeatedly what took so long for the administration to tell the board about the mold situation, Sharp said, "I've been on the board a while but I've only been chair since July" and, later, "I don't know. I don't have an answer for that."

No one currently or formerly involved with WHA has been willing to go on the record about the major disconnects between WHA staff, administration, and board members. However, a former WHA employee said it was common practice for former CEO Katrina Redmon to only tell the board what she wanted them to know about; others familiar with the situation put it another way, saying the board 'put their faith' in Redmon to handle the housing authority.

[Disclosure: WHQR board member Terri Everett, is also a member of the WHA board. She directed questions to Board Chair Al Sharp.]

In the summer of 2021, Redmon partially cleared house at WHA. Two vice presidents lost their jobs for 'financial reasons. Then, Redmon left the authority in August — resigning abruptly and without giving any reason of substance. However, several familiar with the situation, including Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, said they believed Redmon left due to a power struggle with the WHA board.

A few weeks after Redmon's departure, another top leader left the housing authority. Now, in the midst of a crisis that’s left 78 families without permanent homes, WHA is left with very little in the way of leadership. The Human Resources Director, Vernice Hamilton, was forced to take over the rudderless ship.

“Ms. Hamilton was the personnel director, and the board tapped her as the interim CEO,” Sharp explained, but acknowledged, “Ms. Hamilton can’t do three jobs.”

The lack of clear leadership and institutional memory makes accountability difficult, Maxwell said. “We may not find out who's the responsible party since the top three who were in control at that time are no longer here.”

There still aren’t systems in place to prevent these failures in the future. There is no system for tracking resident complaints, there’s no plan to test apartments for mold beyond the word-of-mouth strategy residents use to ask for tests. And there’s still no plan of action for making sure the board knows what’s going on within the administration.

Sharp said, “we are working very much to provide oversight and operational cooperation between the interim director and the full staff. We had a meeting with our attorney a couple of weeks ago, and full staff, to make them fully aware of the conditions and what we're wrestling with.”

But he didn’t provide more specific details than that. And, as WHA struggles to provide even basic documents to reporters, it appears to be internally disorganized.

Mistrust and miscommunication

A former WHA employee told WHQR that low-level workers felt afraid to speak up, as they might lose their jobs — and that the resulting silence might be why the administration didn’t acknowledge the extent of the mold problem for so long.

And that culture of fear extends to residents, who fear speaking up about problems in their housing might leave them on the streets.

Creekwood resident Sonya Muldrow confronted WHA leadership at a Nov. 10 Resident Advisory Board Meeting, and ended up in a shouting match with WHA Board Member Joan Johnson, a resident of Rankin Terrace.

“I’m tired of it. I’m displaced out of my home and I’m having mental health issues,” she shouted.

“You’re in a hotel?” Johnson responded.

“You should know!” Muldrow said. Then she left the meeting to calm down, and Johnson told other WHA residents that they should follow a “chain of command” in order to share their concerns. But there’s no system in place to get those concerns to the head of WHA.

And even at the Resident Advisory Board, where representatives of each housing community are meant to have a voice, no one made mention of the mold problems.

Where does responsibility lie?

While Mayor Bill Saffo is the man in charge of appointing the WHA board, he blames WHA for the institutional failings, and suggests he doesn’t have enough power over WHA to be held responsible.

“I expect the board to do their job and I expect the board to hire good people,” he said. “And if they see a problem, I need for them to fix it as quickly as possible. And if they see a problem that is persistent, that they need to come to me and talk to me about it also to keep me abreast of what the heck's going on.”

That communication did not happen in this case: Sonya Muldrow is the one who notified the mayor about the mold problem on Nov. 5, 2021.

Saffo said the WHA is really verging on crisis. “The resignation of Mrs. Redmon, I think did put them into a tailspin. And a certain group of those folks that I've worked with in WHA have left.”

He suggested that Housing and Urban Development, the federal department that gives WHA its funding, could step in to clean up the mess if the situation does not improve.

Freelance reporter Kevin Maurer contributed to this reporting. Check back on Friday for a story that explores possible solutions to the intractable mold crisis in WHA.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant new to the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.
Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature.