Albemarle City Council, Public Housing residents discuss living conditions, seek better communication

Bianca Jackson did not mince words when she spoke before the Albemarle City Council Monday night.

As someone who says she has lived in public housing for six years and was recently hospitalized due to what she considers unsafe conditions in her apartment, Jackson said she and her fellow public housing residents have been making complaints but have not often received adequate feedback.

“We are here because we are trying to fight for ourselves because we live there and we don’t have any place to go,” she said, flanked by around two dozen other residents, many of whom spoke about issues such as chronic sewer problems within several units and the presence of mold.

Victoria Ingram, who has lived on South Bell Avenue for more than 20 years, said she has encountered numerous problems over the years with household items including her refrigerator, air conditioner and the toilet in her bathroom. Her air conditioner recently stopped working and it has felt like “hell in that apartment,” she said.

“If I pay my rent, why can I not get a decent air conditioning unit to keep me cool?” she said, noting that like Jackson, she also has suffered from health problems.

All of these many issues “are not right,” she told City Council, “and they need to be investigated.”

Echoing a lot of what people seemed to be feeling, public housing resident Angelina Kelder added: “We are all in the dark with everything going on in our community and it’s completely unfair to us because we do what we’re supposed to do and we follow all of the rules.”

These comments came about as the council was planning to approve the City’s written responses to a recent compliance report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development detailing several allegations, including irresponsibly managing HUD funds and not following proper procedures regarding evictions and terminations, within the public housing department.

Council members said they were surprised by the issues raised by residents.

“I’ve been on this council since 2014 and I can promise you right now that I have never heard the vivid details of the issues and challenges and opportunities that we have within our public housing department,” Bill Aldridge said.

He encouraged any resident within the city, including those in public housing, to come to council meetings to speak about any issues they might be facing.

“We are elected by the people to serve the people,” Aldridge added.

While Public Housing Director Dr. Kim Scott, who has been in his position since the beginning of the year, has kept council members abreast about issues affecting the community, including informing them of the sewage problem in January impacting at least 22 units, there appeared to be a lack of communication between his predecessors, city staff and the council.

He told council HUD rules regulating public housing in Albemarle have always been in place, “they just have not been enforced.”

“That’s the problem. That was our issue,” he said.

“There’s no communication and that is our serious problem,” Kelder said, claiming the previous public housing directors before Scott “did not do what they were supposed to do.”

Mayor Pro-Tem Martha Sue Hall said Scott has been the first director to contact the council about problems within the public housing community.

“I’m glad we’re hearing this and I’m sorry we’re just now hearing this,” she said.

Brenda Stanback, a former member of the Albemarle Public Housing Board, suggested the city create an advisory board or approve of a liaison to keep the council updated on problems within the public housing community.

“You need somebody to speak on behalf of them, to be a liaison between you and them,” Stanback said.

The council agreed to work with Scott to find a time when members can come to Amhurst Gardens to speak with residents and learn more about issues impacting them.

“We need to hear these types of things because we’re hearing things tonight that we’ve never heard before,” Mayor Ronnie Michael said.

“We absolutely need to go over there and meet with them and to continue addressing those things and find out what other things we need to know about,” Councilman Chris Whitley said.

Council also seemed to be in general agreement that more effective communication is needed to better address residents’ concerns.

“What we’ve got now is not working,” Michael said. “We’re not hearing the information that we should be hearing….Things have got to change at the staff level and at our level.”

The HUD compliance report, conducted over six months by staff from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Greensboro field office, was requested by Scott. The report recommended public housing “look at separating itself from the city” and operate as a standalone agency.

On Tuesday morning, Scott said to the best of his knowledge, he’s aware of only about three to five other public housing programs across the state under the purview of cities.

“It’s very rare,” he said.

He said it’s been “totally overwhelming” to know that many residents have been living in what he called “deplorable conditions” for such a long time and “no one in leadership in my position has raised red flags to it.”

In a statement read during the meeting, Michael said HUD’s findings “were based on a flawed understanding of how the Albemarle Department of Public Housing is structured under the City,” adding that HUD developed its findings “based on the erroneous belief that the Albemarle Department of Public Housing operated as a traditional housing authority.”

Michael suggested HUD didn’t properly understand that the City has to meet both state and federal law when operating the public housing department.

“We can’t just meet federal law, we have to meet all laws,” he said.

After additional discussion, the council approved sending the written response to HUD’s Greensboro field office.