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USDA to offer 12 months of rent vouchers to all Holly Plaza households

About 50 tenants of Holly Plaza sit and wait for a town hall meeting to begin. They're photographed from the side. They're all sitting in rows of chairs in a cramped sunny room. Many of them are dressed in work uniforms. Some of them are standing, as there are no more chairs available.
Nikolai Mather
Thanks to a set of housing vouchers from the USDA, former Holly Plaza tenants now have a shot at long-term housing.

Many Holly Plaza tenants were facing homelessness with their town-sponsored hotel stay ending on December 31. But tenant attorney David Miller announced that the USDA is now providing 12 months of housing vouchers for all former Holly Plaza tenants.

Residents of Holly Plaza, a public housing complex located in Holly Ridge, may finally have a shot at long-term housing.

On December 13, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its intent to provide pass-through vouchers for every former resident of Holly Plaza. The housing vouchers will cover 12 months of rent starting January 1.

The USDA sent the housing vouchers to David Miller, an attorney who is representing former Holly Plaza tenants in a class action lawsuit. He said regardless of what support tenants accept from the town of Holly Ridge, they're eligible for the vouchers.

"These vouchers are going to be assistance to all of the residents," he told WHQR. "It doesn't matter whether they signed [lease buyout agreements] with the town or not. And it can be applied to any housing that they find. It doesn't have to be a HUD-certified unit."

How it works

The value of the vouchers varies based on the resident. Miller said that the amount is calculated based on market-value of their apartment minus the monthly rent the tenant was paying previously at Holly Plaza. Ultimately, Miller said, the vouchers allow tenants to pay the same amount of monthly rent they were paying at Holly Ridge.

"They will be paying the exact same amount. And they'll have access to any unit, not just subsidized housing units," he said.

There's still some kinks to work out. Holly Plaza is right on the border between Pender County and Onslow County, but it's unclear whether these vouchers will work in both counties. Miller is also working to inform all residents of their eligibility.

"My office has been trying to contact these people as quickly as possible," he said.

Relief at last

Miller said that this is a huge win for the former tenants.

"Not only were they tasked to find a unit in such a short period of time, but they were tasked with finding the unit at fair market value rate, which they haven't been paying for a while," he said. "A lot of these people can't because they're low-income."

This fall, the town of Holly Ridge voted to provide hotel stays for Holly Plaza residents up until December 31. The town presented residents with the option of signing a lease buyout. The lease buyout would get the fair market value of their apartment multiplied by the number of months they had left in their lease, plus $2,000 for incidentals. But in order to get this money, residents had to agree to not pursue legal action against the town.

Multiple tenants told WHQR that the dire state of Holly Ridge's housing market left them feeling pressured to sign. A December 2023 report from Zillow showed the median monthly rent in Holly Ridge to be $1,700. In North Carolina, the average rent for HUD-subsidized housing is $299.

"The town has essentially been telling these people that they either have the option of signing and taking the money that they've presented to them in order to get them back on their feet, or they can be homeless on January 1," said Miller. "These people have more than just those two options. And they need to be informed about the other options."

Holly Ridge reacts

Mayor Jeff Wenzel disagrees with Miller's characterization of the lease buyouts.

"The question is: would a lump sum upfront be helpful to them? And we thought it would be," he said.

Neither Miller nor Wenzel could say why the vouchers were sent to Miller rather than distributed through the town of Holly Ridge or directly to residents. Nevertheless, Wenzel was overjoyed by the news.

"I was ecstatic," he said. "We've been working on this for weeks and weeks and weeks, trying to find a way for our citizens to move on past Holly Plaza."

Wenzel told WHQR that town officials have been asking Congressman Greg Murphy to help secure relief for tenants.

"We asked [Murphy's office] to reach out to HUD and USDA to see if there's any way that they could expedite the possible approval of these pass-through vouchers," he told WHQR.

He learned on Thursday afternoon that Murphy had secured the vouchers.

"Any assistance that the federal or state can do for the citizens, we are extremely thankful for," he stated.

A HUD spokesperson issued the following statement:

HUD’s main concern is the health and well-being of the Holly Plaza residents.  The project receives project-based rental subsidies under a Section 8 Housing Assistance Payments (HAP) Contract. The Town of Holly Ridge renewed the HAP Contract on November 4, 2021. The HAP Contract is in effect until November 30, 2041. The mortgage is financed through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Rural Development Division.

On October 17, 2023, HUD received a Congressional inquiry regarding constituent correspondence that the residents of Holly Plaza were being displaced by the Town of Holly Ridge.  On October 30, 2023, HUD received additional information that the Town had vacated the residents from Holly Plaza.

After discussions with the Town and USDA, HUD issued a notice on December 6, 2023, informing residents that accepting a lease buyout offer from the Town may impact their rental assistance from HUD.

On December 14, 2023, the Town’s attorney requested a meeting with HUD to discuss the notice. The meeting is expected to take place the week of December 18, 2023.

Nikolai Mather is a Report for America corps member from Pittsboro, North Carolina. He covers rural communities in Pender County, Brunswick County and Columbus County. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with degrees in genocide studies and political science. Prior to his work with WHQR, he covered religion in Athens, Georgia and local politics in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes working on cars and playing the harmonica. You can reach him at nmather@whqr.org.