Over a year into the mold crisis, WHA's new leader says progress is being made
Displaced residents from the Wilmington Housing Authority have been waiting for their homes to be mold-free for more than a year now. WHQR sat down with recently appointed Executive Director Tyrone Garrett for an update.
Last summer, WHQR began investigating a mold crisis at the Wilmington Housing Authority — and it soon became clear that, due to severe mismanagement, it had become a humanitarian crisis with over a hundred families forced out of their homes. A detached board and negligent leadership had allowed the mold situation to get out of control. And when then-CEO Katrina Redmon quit in the midst of the crisis, the authority was spun out of control and at the brink of financial exhaustion, leaving families with no foreseeable end to their displacement.
After months of reporting, local governments — including the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County — finally started speaking up, putting pressure on WHA, and pitching in to help the hundreds of displaced residents.
Earlier this year, in May, WHA finally hired a new director — Tyrone Garrett, who had decades of experience, but also some serious baggage.
After three months on the job, WHQR's Ben Schachtman and Kelly Kenoyer caught up with Garrett to ask how he was handling the situation.
Ben Schachtman: So Kelly, you went to WHA’s board meeting last week. What’s the update?
Kelly Kenoyer: Well back in July, there were 150 families displaced from their housing. Now, that number is down to 131.
BS: That’s progress, but that’s not nearly fast enough to get everyone back in their apartments by the end of the year. Which was the Authority’s goal, according to the new executive director, Tyrone Garrett.
KK: He was pretty ambitious when he came in, it’s true. But I will say, it’s going a lot faster than it was under Katrina Redmon’s leadership, and certainly much faster than when the agency was rudderless.
BS: How exactly did he manage that?
KK: Well, it’s a strategy shift. Garrett came in and decided that, instead of fixing every single problem in a unit while it was empty, they would cap repairs at $20,000 and only fix the health-related problems, like the severe mold issues.
Garrett: “I think we have a good plan. Now, the average on average, what we look to have is about 20 units per month coming back online.”
BS: 20 units per month, that puts at what, 80 by the end of the year?
KK: Yeah, they have four contractors working on it. And actually, Garrett said no to an offer by some local non-profits to help with repairs.
BS: No kidding? Who offered to help?
KK: New Hanover Disaster Coalition’s Derek McCleod told me they made a big offer a couple weeks ago.
McCleod: “We had presented a plan with Catholic Charities to help do some mold remediation. And we were told we were not needed.”
BS: That’s really surprising.
KK: McCleod said he was frustrated by it — it would be free labor to get units online, after all, and these are licensed contractors. But Garrett had his reasons for rejecting the offer.
Garrett: “No, no, this was something I thought we should take on ourselves. There's a liability that's associated with it too, right? Most people won't be able to take on that type, it needs to be on the housing authority to move forward. I think, if we were in a position where we didn't have a plan, then we might be seeking other avenues.”
BS: That’s right — and he said his plan with these contractors is working. They might ask nonprofits for more help with furniture for residents or social services, but not for capital costs.
KK: That still leaves a big number of people unhoused by Christmas, even if his 20 families per month goal stays on track.
BS: Yeah, it would leave 51 families still living in hotels or corporate apartments. But Garrett said they’re hoping to help more of them with another program.
Garrett: “We're also using the Housing Choice Voucher Program at the same time. So the Housing Choice Voucher Program is the mechanism what people call Section 8, that allows for families that go outside of the quote unquote, conventional public housing, housing stock, we're using that program at the same time. So so far, I think we've had approximately 10 families go into that particular direction with at least another 25 vouchers that are out on the street."
KK: So Garrett had actually said that there are 70 vouchers available, but he thinks that number won’t be fully supported by the marketplace. Those vouchers can be used on regular rentals, but a lot of landlords discriminate against Housing Choice, so he says the 25 number is more realistic.
BS: So we’re looking at perhaps 105 families back in permanent housing by the end of the year, with 25 or 26 still in hotels or corporate apartments.
KK: That’s a lot better prospects than last fall, though, when there was no plan. Ben, is there anything else we want to mention about Garrett’s leadership?
BS: Well, he mentioned that he’s gotten rid of some bad apples among his managers, and he’s brought in a new executive team. We’ve heard complaints from some residents about managers who ignore their complaints, so that’s a big change. And he also promised to address work orders a lot faster.
Garrett: “I've instituted a three-day work order rule, meaning that a normal routine work order that goes into play has to be completed within three days. Now we're not there yet. But that's what we have to strive for.”
BS: So even if things aren’t perfect at WHA, we’re looking at an organization with aspirations, which is quite different from what we saw a year ago as Katrina Redmon left the organization.
KK: We’ll keep following this as it goes on, and as WHA looks beyond the mold crisis and towards building more housing in the future. Thanks Ben!
BS: Thanks Kelly.