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After meeting with HUD, Wilmington Mayor cautiously optimistic about addressing WHA mold crisis

 Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo following a meeting with HUD Greensboro officials on Monday, March 21.
Benjamin Schachtman
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo following a meeting with HUD Greensboro officials on Monday, March 21.

After a trip to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Washington, DC, office, HUD’s Greensboro state-level office sent two officials to Wilmington to further discuss the mold crisis plaguing the Wilmington Housing Authority. Following those meetings, Mayor Bill Saffo said a number of key pieces were moving into place, including increased Section 8 funding and support from apartment companies. But officials are still working on the most important part of the solution — $32 million in funding.

On Monday afternoon, Saffo met with two representatives from HUD Greensboro — Sheila Hester and Roosevelt Grant — along with New Hanover County Chair Julia Olson-Boseman, WHA Chair Al Sharp and commissioners Hollis Briggs and Jeff Hovis, interim WHA CEO Vernice Hamilton, and city and county staff.

Boost to voucher values

A top piece of good news, Saffo said, was that HUD agreed to increase the level of subsidies from the Housing Choice Voucher Program (HCVP), often referred to as Section 8, to 120%. Because of the booming housing market, these vouchers had been less effective, since landlords can rent to non-subsidized tenants without dealing with HUD paperwork.

"What we came out of that meeting with HUD just now was the fact that HUD will increase the amount of rental assistance to 120% of whatever the median rent rents are in this community, which will make it a lot more competitive and a lot, hopefully, easier for potential residents or residents to get vouchers to get additional units or apartments," Saffo said.

The Wilmington Housing Authority recently restructured its HCVP program to allow families displaced by mold to effectively get higher on the waiting list. Officials hope the increase will help the vouchers be more competitive, Saffo said, especially since it allows tenants to take voucher checks and rent in Brunswick and Pender counties.


Saffo also said he had a meeting last Thursday with members of the apartment community. Management companies told local leaders that they’re near capacity — roughly 98% occupied — but still pledged to accept displaced families, offering at least 20 units and possibly more. Saffo said that WHA would be signing the leases, backed with guaranteed payments. A "big win," Saffo said, was that apartment complexes would be offering one-year leases. Importantly, if families’ homes were restored, they could return home and WHA would be able to move other displaced residents still waiting to return home into apartments — as opposed to staying in hotels.

Money and labor

Ultimately, navigating out of the mold crisis comes down to money and labor. For much of the early part of the crisis, not enough contractors were available — or interested, given a mixed history of worked for WHA — to get units ready for families to return after they had been remediated of mold.

Now, Saffo said, there is a general contractor in place who can handle all of the work, which leaves the question of money.

In Washington, Saffo helped back WHA’s request for a $13 million emergency grant — that’s what the housing authority thinks it will need to get the currently displaced families home into restored homes.

But the total cost of getting through the mold crisis is expected to be closer to $32 million. WHA expects there will be many more housing units contaminated by mold, which will mean more displacements, more hotels and apartments, more per-diem costs, and more remediation and reconstruction contracts.

Asked how HUD reacted to the $32 million number, Saffo said “very quiet" — adding that HUD officials and staff have been following news reports from WHQR and WECT of the mold crisis and were largely up to speed when Saffo visited Washington, D.C. along with city council members Clifford Barnett and Luke Waddell. Still, Saffo acknowledged it will take HUD some time to figure out how to generate the funding — and where to generate it from. Funds will likely need to come from multiple sources, even possibly money from other agencies, like FEMA, since some of the mold can be traced back to hurricane damage from Florence.

Saffo was also optimistic that WHA and HUD could find a way to work within federal regulations to free up more funding for per-diem spending — money for food for families living in hotels with no cooking equipment. Saffo said he told HUD officials WHA had just 45 days of per-diem funding left.

Worst-case scenario

And, while officials, including Saffo, have put a brave face on the region’s response to the crisis, there is still the troubling possibility that a confluence of issues could leave some WHA families on the streets. With apartments at capacity and soaring hotel and motel costs during tourism season a funding shortfall could leave parents and children in the lurch. Already displaced, living in cramped hotels for months, things could go from bad to worse.

Saffo said he worked to impress that risk on both HUD and the local apartment community. He added that no one wanted to see WHA families out on the street and that the city, WHA, and HUD were working hard to avoid that outcome.

"That's the last place [I want] them to be. There's the last place that we all want them to be. And we're all working as diligently as possible and hopefully we've relayed that message to Washington, and to HUD in Greensboro, how critical the situation is that we have limited amount of capacity to put people into units, number one, number two, we want them out of these hotels as quickly as possible," Saffo said."This is obviously a tourism community. We have a lot of people coming here for the summer in the spring months, some of those units have already been contracted out with people, they're going to be coming into the community so they understand the dire need that we have down here to get these people into units as quickly as possible."

As for the troubled administration of WHA, which has been in free-fall since, and possibly before, the resignation of Katrina Redmon, Saffo said HUD’s concerns would be met by the hire of a new CEO. Saffo said WHA is down to five candidates, and having someone at the helm would answer HUD’s concerns about communication with the housing authority.

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. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.