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And The Walls Came Tumbling Down

City's neediest public housing goes without renovations as maintenance money is spent on self-sufficiency programs

The writing on the wall can only be ignored for so long. As city leaders debate how to make new homes more affordable, local public housing developments -- which few want to talk about -- are crumbling. And no one knows where the money will come from to fix them.

Now, in the wake of the loss of a HOPE VI grant that the Charlotte Housing Authority(CHA) was counting on to construct a new mixed-housing development on the site of the Piedmont Courts public housing development, two members of the agency's board of commissioners say the agency must do something now to address safety issues there and at other sites which some have suggested won't be fit for continued human habitation much longer.

At last week's finance committee meeting of the CHA board of commissioners, authority vice chairman Ray Jones lobbied fellow commissioners to begin overdue repairs and safety improvements to Piedmont Courts, though the agency may reapply for the HOPE grant. The members of Charlotte's City Within a City Committee are throwing around the Piedmont Courts football as well, though the issue of its future, and that of a handful of other public housing developments in a similar condition, isn't one that anyone is eager to touch.

As it stands, it would take a minimum of $20 million to stabilize CHA's three worst public housing developments with the most basic renovations. (That's half the $40 million in affordable housing bonds the city plans to ask voters to approve this fall -- except that improvements to public housing projects don't appear to be on the list of things the city plans to spend the money on.) If CHA were to raze and completely redevelop the developments, it could be far more costly.

In June, CHA estimated it would cost $18 million to completely rebuild Belvedere homes, a 170-unit neighborhood off Rozzelles Ferry Road with sinking foundations. Cheryl Campbell, who oversees the long-term maintenance and renovation of CHA's 25 public housing developments, estimates that it would cost between $6 million and $8 million to renovate the place, although she isn't sure that the band-aid of renovation would be the best plan for Belvedere or the land it sits on.

Because of its location, Belvedere isn't eligible for federal renovation grants. So unless something is done in the next few years to stop Belvedere's decline, the city could ultimately lose the public housing units -- permanently.

What's more, Campbell says there aren't funds to renovate, much less properly maintain CHA's existing 3,400 public housing units.

"Our overall needs well exceed the capital funds we get," said Campbell. "We have an accumulated backlog of need that has never been funded."

To begin to meet that need, Campbell has carved out a plan to shift some of the grant money housing authorities receive from the federal government each year for maintenance to pay for a $12 million renovation of Southside Homes, which was built in the 1950s. Because CHA lacks the funds to pay for the renovation all at once, Campbell estimates it will take until 2007 - that's right, 2007 -- just to finish the renovation of that one development. In the process, some of the money that should have gone to pay to maintain the agency's other 24 housing developments will instead be pumped into Southside.

Campbell said that Piedmont Courts and Strawn Apartments also rank high on the list of properties that need millions in renovations and repairs.

"We're out of money, and we have no place to turn," said CHA commissioner Kip Kiser.

Kiser said part of the problem is that on average, 60 percent of the $4.5 million capital fund annual grant which CHA receives from HUD -- money slated for property upkeep -- winds up being spent to cover the agency's operating costs, including salaries, and social programs.

Kiser feels the only way the agency can hold on to its current units and maintain them is to trim costs wherever possible. That includes asking the Charlotte City Council for at least $1 million a year in maintenance funds and turning over the agency's social programs, which teach residents to be self-sufficient, to the county's division of social services -- or seeking funding from the county to cover them. Kiser said the authority can no longer afford to go it alone financially, using what are essentially property maintenance funds to shore up its budget shortfalls.

"We have to reach out for help, and we're not doing it," said Kiser.

Kiser's arguments go to the heart of the division among members of CHA's troubled board. Board members like Jones and Kiser say that self-sufficiency type programs are noble, but that they could be getting in the way of paying for the authority's original mission -- to put a roof over the heads of those who can't afford one, and to keep that roof from falling down. Others, however, say those programs could be saving the authority money by giving residents the tools they need to leave public housing and possibly even purchase a home of their own.

As new employees untangle the jumbled accounting mess left by former CHA employees, Kiser said he's waiting for answers which authority employees haven't been able or willing to provide the board to date. Those answers include a full accounting of just how much the agency is spending on transitional programs and what results the programs are producing at what cost per person. He says he also needs answers to other questions, including which, if any of these programs are mandated by HUD. *

Which Way Out The Door?

Former Housing Authority employee says CL articles hurt chances for new job

By Tara Servatius

In the weeks following a damaging set of articles by Creative Loafing about the Charlotte Housing Authority (CHA), famed civil rights attorney Julius L. Chambers was very busy. Embattled housing authority CEO Harrison Shannon, who took a beating in the articles, hired Chambers to negotiate a severance package, The Charlotte Observer reported. Then former CHA chief financial officer Charles Blackwell retained Chambers to draft letters to CL threatening a libel suit if the paper did not retract a line in a September 5 article that said a check-signing machine at the agency continued to stamp checks with Blackwell's signature after he "was fired" from CHA in the beginning of 2001.

A September 28 letter from Chambers to CL claims that Blackwell wasn't fired by CHA, but voluntarily resigned. Chambers said that Blackwell's efforts to pursue his profession were damaged by the CL article.

To date, CL has not published a retraction because repeated written requests that Blackwell show us documents confirming that he resigned have been ignored by Chambers and his client. Because these documents are not public information, CL cannot obtain them directly from CHA.

So basically, we have no idea whether Blackwell resigned or was fired. A month before the article in question was published, a high-ranking employee listed Blackwell among a group of employees who were pushed out due to poor job performance. The original copy of a report on the agency's internal operations also indicated that Blackwell had been let go. CHA employees now insist that Blackwell resigned, and the latest version of the Reznick Fedder & Silverman report reportedly says that Blackwell resigned.

Either way, the whole situation took another strange turn after CL received a November 20 letter from Chambers that claimed Blackwell "was rehired or extended a temporary employment contract to provide the same CFO services as before at the discretion of the CHA or 'upon completion of the assignment.'"

Naturally, CL writers and editors wondered if the financially embattled agency had extended a golden parachute of sorts to Blackwell, whose full-time employment with CHA ended on January 31. Last week, CHA refused to disclose Blackwell's salary from his full-time employment or his salary under the contract. An agency attorney claims these are personnel records which the agency is not permitted to release under the Public Records Act.

But Amanda Martin, general counsel to the North Carolina Press Association, says it is well-established in state public records law that salaries of public officials are public record, and are printed regularly by newspapers across the state. All portions of any contract between CHA and Blackwell should be public information, Martin said, and the agency is bound by the law to turn them over.

According to a letter from CHA attorney Mitchell Aberman, Blackwell did 503.5 hours of work under the contract. An initial letter from Aberman said Blackwell's last day of work under the contract was August 24; but a subsequent letter from Aberman says Blackwell's last day of work under the contract was October 24.

In the meantime, we're still trying to get Mr. Blackwell, or his attorney, to provide documentation regarding Blackwell's termination/resignation/whatever in order to ascertain the truth. As for now, your guess is as good as ours.

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