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Part V - WHA is plagued by mold and has lost its leaders. What can be done to fix the mess?

Wilmington Housing Authority
Creekwood is one of the newest housing developments WHA owns- having been built in the 1970s.

Wilmington Housing Authority is in the midst of a crisis in leadership on top of a long backlog of maintenance work that has left some apartments almost unlivable. But there are solutions: it's just a matter of willpower.

This story is part 5 in WHQR’s investigative series on mold in the Wilmington Housing Authority. You can find the rest of the series here.

It seems like an avalanche of insurmountable problems: The mold plaguing the Wilmington Housing Authority, the numerous families stuck in hotels, and the lack of leadership remaining at the organization. But there are some options on the table that could help solve all of these.

Option 1: Hire a really good CEO

Hiring a quality CEO might be difficult given what they’d be walking into a WHA. But the right hire could help solve the crisis and strengthen WHA as it addresses future challenges, like the redevelopment of Hillcrest.

Paul D’Angelo is a former WHA employee and the Community Development Program Director at Asheville’s housing authority. He’ll soon be starting a new job as the CEO of a public housing authority in Colorado. He says dealing with the mold crisis starts with getting more contractors working on remediation. WHA still hasn’t posted a request for proposals for mold remediation — when WHQR asked for a link to the bid, WHA instead provided a link to the request for qualifications related to redeveloping the Hillcrest property. WHA did not respond to a follow-up email requesting the correct bid for mold remediation.

“You have to develop a plan of action with the ultimate goal of protecting your residents from a potentially deadly situation,” D’Angelo says.

While remediation is ongoing in the currently vacant apartments, D’Angelo says the authority should develop a system for testing other apartments in the contaminated buildings.

“You're looking for trends,” he explains. “If it was just concentrated in three units, or three apartment complexes where a majority of the complaints were happening, I would either test every unit, or make an announcement at one of their monthly meetings, and put fliers under the door.”

The housing authority was caught off guard by the sheer volume of residents in need of hotels while their apartments are cleared of mold. But the build-up could have easily been prevented by proactive building managers tracking trends. D’Angelo says using a system for tracking complaints could make it easier to find those problems.

It would be as simple as keeping a spreadsheet. It could categorize complaints as they come in, by community, by building, by floor. Each complaint could be tagged with the cause: mold, faulty appliances, water damage. D'Angelo says that kind of tracking would prevent a build-up of undocumented maintenance needs. And it would help track whether a contractor did a good job.

“If people start coming in to say they're dining room fixtures stop working after a month, we might have gotten some faulty dining room lights here, because I've gotten complaints that four of them are broken,” he said by way of example. Knowing that it’s a pattern allows the authority to call a contractor or manufacturer and get free replacements, or address bad repairs.

“These aren't difficult decisions,” D’Angelo says. “It's called doing the right thing. Being an effective leader, caring about your residents, developing plans of actions and figuring it out.”

Option 2: Housing and Urban Development takes over

It’s possible for the federal agency in charge of public housing to take over administration of a failing local agency. Mayor Bill Saffo suggested it as a good solution if things don't improve.

“If they need help from us, we would help them in any capacity that we can,” Saffo says. “HUD could always step in here from Greensboro, Greensboro is the head office there. And if things got that out of hand, or got that chaotic, HUD could come in here physically and take over that operation, and get it back on its feet at some point in time.”

William Rohe, a City and Regional Planning Professor at UNC Chapel Hill, says that kind of takeover is called a receivership. It’s a program meant to deal with housing authorities that fall out of compliance with their contracts.

“The housing authorities that have been in receivership have normally come out and may not be perfect, but they’re in a much better situation,” Rohe says.

Getting WHA into that relationship with HUD might take time. It’s an option of last resort for housing authorities with “serious financial, physical, management or ethical problems,” according to the HUD office of Prevention, Recovery and Transformation, which oversees receiverships. Hud takes over when the local authority is “determined to be in substantial default of their Annual Contributions Contract with HUD.”

Were that to occur in Wilmington, Rohe says HUD would hire a consulting firm to take over the operation of the housing authority, effectively supplanting the CEO — although, at present, though there is no CEO in Wilmington so supplant (and, as of Friday morning, no job posting on WHA's website).

The consulting firm is “basically in control,” Rohe says. “I don't know if they actually disband the board. I suspect, they just kind of strip it of its authority, and then the board can make comments to them.”

But the receivership option isn’t perfect. In Wellston, Missouri, HUD kept control for more than two decades before closing up public housing there completely. And in New Orleans, local authorities eventually gave back control, but it took 12 years. Still, Rohe says it’s more common for the process to take just a few years.

Option 3: The City of Wilmington takes over

Wilmington could follow in Chapel Hill’s footsteps instead, and take over control of the housing authority itself.

Rohe is familiar with the case, since he works at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“A number of years ago, our town manager was really frustrated by the underwhelming performance of the housing authority,” he says. “So he said to the council, ‘Look, if you put the housing authority under me, i.e., make it a department of the city. I'll deal with the problem. I will straighten this out.’ And they did.”

The city would still receive HUD funding, but it would have more direct control over the housing authority. It could fold WHA into its existing bureaucracy, which could save money with synergies in communications, payroll, and legal representation. It would also give Mayor Saffo more power than just appointing the WHA board — which is still short two seats.

“The city's fallen down really on its responsibility, and then the board is falling down on its responsibility,” Rohe says. “It's not at all surprising that you've got a mess on your hands.”

Option 4: The city and county provide financial and logistical support

D’Angelo hopes things get better for the Wilmington Housing Authority. He believes every resident has a right to safe and healthy housing. But with limited funding from HUD, dealing with deferred maintenance is challenging.

“You've got to prioritize life and health emergencies, versus another maintenance fix that maybe isn't as life threatening,” D’Angelo explains.

But the city and county could use some of their budgets to address the deferred maintenance at WHA, and it would help with their goals of providing more affordable housing in the coming years as the need continues to rise.

Mayor Saffo suggested the city might use some of its American Rescue Plan Act funding to help address the crisis — it did receive $2.5 million from HUD in April.

The authority could also look into the Rental Assistance Demonstration program, where public housing buildings are moved to a voucher-based system.

“By converting your public housing units to RAD units, you were solidifying the funding that was coming into your agencies, for better upkeep,” D’Angelo says. “That program was specifically to shift the budget in DC away from the public housing budget, which is the part of the budget that keeps getting shrunk.”

Tenants within the housing authority’s buildings essentially end up using Section 8 vouchers, and the authority sells the building to another public agency or to a non-profit.

Rohe says that the program has another benefit. Banks don’t typically work with housing authorities, but they’re willing to work with other public agencies and with non-profits. RAD converted properties therefore stand a better chance of addressing deferred maintenance needs.

Ultimately, fixing the problems at WHA comes down to willpower and care, D’Angelo says. “When you don't have leadership at the table, and what clearly seems like a lack of concern for your residents, this is the type of thing that happens. It’s terrible.”

Regardless of which path WHA takes, it will be a long while before displaced residents are back in their homes, and residents living with untested mold infestations are able to get the remediation they need. Years of neglect guaranteed that.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on 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.