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Pride and paperwork: Wilmington’s supportive housing network got tangled up in bureaucracy, vulnerable residents paid the price

BettyBisbee.jpg
Kelly Kenoyer
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WHFD Executive Director Betty Bisbee sits for an interview in her office. The non-profit landlord has sent letters to tenants at Hopewood telling them their rent is raised and they'll need to move out — but the unilateral move has so far proved unenforceable in eviction court.

Hopewood Apartments are in the process of evicting their low-income tenants after disagreements and paperwork trouble with the region’s Continuum of Care. But the story isn’t as cut and dried as previously thought.

It’s been a month since Hopewood residents were told they had to move out. The apartment was reserved for severely mentally ill and chronically homeless residents — at least, until the non-profit landlord didn’t get its usual grant last year.

The landlord, Wilmington Housing Finance and Development, had applied for that grant under the name of Wilmington Housing Authority. WHFD was a part of the Housing Authority many years ago, but has been independent for some time. When they filed the paperwork in the fall of 2021, it became clear there was a problem because the signatory was Katrina Redmon, the former WHA executive director.

The organization that reviewed the application is the region’s Continuum of Care. Director Judy Herring said they had to reject the application because of the signature.

"The signatory is saying all of these things are true and correct," Herring explained. "And so if you don't have an authorized agent signing the grant application, you don't have someone who can attest that all the information that's in the application is true and complete.”

Herring said allowing that signature to go through would have been fraud: lying to the federal government. And letting that go would have put her entire organization’s reputation on the line.

After that rejection, WHFD’s Executive Director, Betty Bisbee, asked to reapply under their own name, not WHA’s.

"They would not let us resubmit," Bisbee said. "They submitted the grant for themselves, the same amount of money that we normally would have received. So they received the grant.”

Initially, the CoC opened the application up to other organizations. None applied, so their parent organization, the Council of Governments, applied for the grant instead and recieved it. Now the grant money is under Herring’s control.

With the benefit of hindsight, Herring admits WHFD should have been allowed to reapply under its own name so it could try to keep the grant.

“They asked about reapplying," she said, "And they were told, 'you can't reapply.' Which I think may, you know, to a certain extent, may have been an error. But they were representing the application as their own. And that's where the confusion comes in.”

Several sources familiar with the grant process have come forward with concerns about how the CoC handled the issue, including former CoC Director Maegan Zielinski. She was a member of the CoC’s board when the grant application came through, and voiced a lot of concerns with how WHFD’s application was handled.

“I even mentioned this in the executive committee, I said, 'Okay, what if we let this go? What if we said, Okay, we'll work with you on the signature. But now, over the next year, you're under a microscope.'”

She says the CoC could have worked with WHFD to make sure their grant worked, since the lives of more than a dozen residents were at stake. There's a process for that which the CoC has used before — and it's quite unusual for a Continuum of Care to become a service provider — these organizations typically take the role of coordinating efforts by existing service providers, not directly providing services to those in need.

Now that the Council of Governments has the grant, WHFD has refused to work with the organization to keep residents in place because of all the bad blood. Emails from fall of last year show the beginning of that bad relationship, but the CoC still planned on keeping residents at Hopewood- with a master lease.

Bisbee took that as an insult, and refused.

“We kept this place real happy, really for 24 years, we know how to manage our grant," she said. "We know how to manage the property. Why would we want anyone else to do it? Especially not a brand new person that within COC.”

Bisbee added that she's “real sorry” about her tenants being kicked out and seeing their subsidized rent raised by double or triple the prior amount.

Bad Blood

The email chain between Bisbee and Herring also indicates there may have been more to the disagreement than a signature on a grant application. After the CoC’s parent organization took over the grant, Bisbee voiced anger that the application listed Hopewood, when the application came from Herring’s office.

Herring replied, “The Ranking Committee determined that it was necessary to protect the rental assistance from [Permanent Supportive Housing] for Hopewood’s residents, if possible. No one wanted a repeat of Driftwood. The CoC staff was directed to apply for PSH on behalf of Hopewood in order to protect the residents.”

Driftwood was an apartment complex managed by WHFD — but it had a different financial structure than Hopewood. In early 2021, WHFD tried to sell Driftwood, a move that caught federal, state, and local officials off guard.

The situation horrified housing advocates, who witnessed vulnerable, disabled tenants forced from their homes. Those who stayed had the electricity cut off before the apartment was eventually sold to Cape Fear Collective. The organization now plans to collaborate with Good Shepherd Center to refurbish the apartments and invite back the previous tenants, or other vulnerable community members.

Zielinski thinks people involved with the CoC were still angry with Bisbee for that debacle, and that may be part of the reason she lost the Hopewood grant.”

“Everybody wants to know about why people are, you know, getting evicted, and especially from an agency that just went through this with Driftwood. So it's like, 'ah, yeah, let's let's get Betty.'”

To Zielinski, this all could have been avoided if the CoC had tried harder to make things work.

"We're facing the consequences of that [decision]. And I'm not like, this Betty supporter, you know, I've had my issues with her, but I still don't think what happened was right, because it affected and it is affecting so many individuals," she said.

Now, more than a dozen vulnerable residents will have to move out, and the CoC is scrambling to find them housing.

Because Bisbee’s non-profit has evicted vulnerable tenants from Driftwood, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that they’d do it again. Still, the CoC didn’t plan ahead in case Bisbee would evict, even when WHFD cut off communication. And now people are out of their homes.

Herring says the organization was still hoping to work with WHFD up until May, which is about when Hopewood residents began receiving letters from their landlord warning them they’d be evicted September 1. To Zielinski, it looked a bit like a big game of chicken.

"I really care about our homeless population," Zielinski said. "And the fact that this is kind of potentially uprooting 20 people is a really serious thing. And so I said to them, 'if this really is just about a signature, is there any way that you guys can just outweigh the risks from this?' Like, what happens if Betty doesn't want to play ball with you guys? Can we let our egos and our pride be set aside for the greater good?”

Now, the CoC is placing many of the displaced residents at Village of Greenfield, but some residents don’t qualify to live there. They fear being left to live in the streets again, in the midst of an increasingly vicious housing crisis. The CoC is managing the problem with help from NC Legal Aid, which has represented at least eight Hopewood residents in eviction court. So far, every case has been dismissed, but WHFD seems determined to remove the clients now that they’ve lost the grant.

The situation left many advocates wondering… was all that bureaucratic wrangling worth it?

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant new to 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.