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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

WHA makes progress and promises full update soon, but challenges still remain

Dozens of housing authority residents had to leave this hotel on short notice this week. It's the kind of challenge WHA is still facing in the mold crisis.
Benjamin Schachtman
Dozens of housing authority residents had to leave this hotel on short notice this week. It's the kind of challenge WHA is still facing in the mold crisis.

The Wilmington Housing Authority is making progress reopening units at Houston Moore and getting more contractors on board — but serious challenges remain as many tenants face another holiday in hotel rooms.

On Tuesday evening, the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners met at the Hampton Inn because, apropos the ongoing crisis at WHA, its usual meeting space has been contaminated with mold.

Vernice Hamilton, who took over as interim head of the agency when former CEO Katrina Redmon resigned in the middle of the mold crisis, gave an update on WHA activities. Her presentation included the authority’s ongoing work to remediate units throughout the city — and she had some good news.

According to Hamilton, five units will come back online this week, and four more are expected to pass their final inspection next week. Hamilton said the contractor promised that it will have a total of 21 units, all located at Houston Moore, back online by the end of its contract on December 21 — that’s hopefully 21 families who can return home before Christmas.

Hamilton said of the contractor, “they’re pushing it,” adding, “and our staff is staying on them.”

Challenges remain

There is still funding available for the current contractor — and the contract can be extended to do additional work. But, according to WHA Board Chair Al Sharp, in order to do that their current work has to be evaluated and approved. It’s not a major hurdle but it is an added step at a time when WHA is looking to move quickly to get families back home.

WHA is also working to surmount another challenge, getting construction work done on units after they are remediated for mold. To do that, WHA will enter ‘cooperative purchasing agreements’ -- sometimes known as ‘piggybacking’ -- that allow quicker turnaround on contracts.

According to WHA, “We will enter into a contract with a firm/firms that has/have a competitively-solicited contract with a local government agency. The procurement process has already been done and we are ‘piggybacking’ off of that procurement process.”

There is still a considerable amount of remediation left to do. Rhino Demolition and Environmental Services Corp is still WHA’s only remediation contractor and there is still work to do on units in Houston Moore — and then there's Creekwood, Hillcrest, and other locations.

So when will families who are still displaced be back in their homes? That answer will hopefully come early next week when WHA delivers a full report to Mayor Bill Saffo.

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

The mayor demanded a clear accounting of the situation — including the total number of families still displaced, a concrete plan to get them home, a timeline on when that will happen, and some better logistics to communicate with them in the meantime.

According to WHA Chair Al Sharp, the city granted an extension from the Mayor’s initial December 1 deadline. The city noted it was happy to share the results when they were delivered.

In the meantime, families don’t have a clear idea of how much longer it will be before they’ll be able to return home — or, in some cases, moved to a different hotel.

For displaced residents, housing remains precarious

Case in point, on the day of the WHA meeting, 23 families from the housing authority tenants found out they would have to leave the Holiday Inn Express off Medical Center Drive.

According to several residents who spoke to WHQR, including former residents of Creekwood and Houston Moore, the hotel had notified them on Tuesday afternoon with a letter under the door that they would have to check out on the next day.

On Wednesday morning around 10:30 it was 52’F and raining. Several families gathered in the lobby, with their belongings in suitcases and trash bags. Some had found family members to live with, others were trying to track down their own hotels, still others simply had no idea what they were going to do.

It appeared the displacement was due to a large wedding party, though hotel management declined to comment, forwarding questions to its parent company, InterContinental Hotels Group. WHQR spoke to a representative and explained the situation, but didn’t receive a return call.

However, none of the residents WHQR spoke to seemed to blame the hotel, instead voicing frustration that there had been no communication about the pending displacement from WHA.

Ultimately, after what one WHA employee called an “all hands on deck day,” the authority was able to relocate all 23 families.

That’s good news, but it’s indicative of the struggles WHA — and more importantly its tenants — will continue to face until the housing authority families can leave their hotel rooms for good and return home.

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.