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"Immediate action is necessary": Mayor Saffo calls displacement of residents unacceptable, demands answers from WHA board

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
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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.

On the heels of WHQR's investigative series, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo is demanding answers from the Wilmington Housing Authority as WHA struggles to deal with a growing mold crisis. Meanwhile, county and federal officials are looking to find ways to help handle the situation.

In a letter acquired by WHQR, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo expressed “great concern” about the mold crisis based in part on "recent media coverage" and told the housing authority’s board of directors they had until December 1st to provide answers (you can find the full letter below).

"It is with great concern that I write this letter. It has come to my attention that there are potentially pervasive health issues at WHA properties, with scores tenants being exposed to mold in their units and subsequently being displaced with very little warning and limited communication," Saffo wrote, adding that the unacceptable situation was counter to the city's core values and that immediate action was necessary.

In his letter, the mayor reiterated that WHA operates independently of the city — and the mayor's office, which is responsible for appointing WHA board members. He pointed to "significant gaps in communication" between that board and himself, the general public, the authority's administration, and between WHA and its residents.

Saffo asked for a comprehensive report — including costs, units and tenants affected, a detailed timeline of how the crisis unfolded, and — perhaps most importantly — a forecast of when residents can return to their homes or new accommodations and a plan to accomplish that.

Saffo also asked WHA for a plan to communicate with residents — a proactive strategy to prevent future infestation — and a bi-monthly report to the city on the situation. He wrote that this information was crucial to "improve operations and repair trust" with WHA tenants.

In an interview last week, Saffo told WHQR that if WHA cannot bring the mold situation under control he would consider calling on the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) office in Greensboro to take over the authority, a process known a receivership. The City of Wilmington could also seek an agreement with HUD to bring the housing authority under direct city management as a department under the city manager. For the time being, neither option appears to be on the table.

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

The mayor's office — and by extension the city — is not the only government body watching the unfolding mold crisis at WHA.

According to emails between New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet and some of his top staff, the county is concerned about the situation. While the county has no direct relationship with or responsibility for the housing authority, Coudriet tapped staff, including emergency and health and human services leaders, to monitor the situation. According to a spokesperson, the county is currently is offering help with grant writing, temporary housing options, and mental health support for tenants over the coming holiday.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has also monitored the situation and, after WHQR contacted the department last week, said it was providing 'technical assistance' to WHA. HUD also issued this statement:

HUD takes the safety and wellbeing of residents very seriously. We have been in close communication with the Wilmington Housing Authority, including providing ongoing technical assistance to address reports of mold. Our most recent meetings with the housing authority took place on September 8, 2021 and October 5, 2021 to discuss the concerns raised. Families should not be subjected to issues like mold or other environmental hazards. That is why we have recommended the WHA seek Emergency Capital Funds to identify and address these conditions immediately. It is general practice to relocate the residents of a unit that needs work to a different unit, if available, and to remedy the situation of a unit within 30 days once an eminent health and safety threat arises. We have requested an update on each resident that is living in a hotel and the status of their unit.

It's worth noting that many residents who spoke to WHA had been displaced for far longer than 30 days — and most had no idea when they would be able to return home.