Nearly six months after a deadly crisis caused the evacuation of the eight-decade-old Allen Benedict Court housing project on Harden Street, the Columbia Housing Authority’s new interim director held her first public meeting on July 5 and rolled out a 12-month action plan for the embattled agency.
Ivory Mathews, the former executive director of Greenvile Housing Authority, began a 12-month contract as the Columbia Housing Authority’s interim executive director on July 1. On July 5, she outlined her objectives for the next year, including plans to assess the authority’s physical public housing inventory, increasing communication between the organization’s clients and management and repairing the authority’s damaged public image.
It’s been a tumultuous year for the Columbia Housing Authority, the organization that receives federal Housing and Urban Development dollars and local funds and assists low-income residents with housing.
On Jan. 17, the bodies of two men — Calvin Witherspoon, 61, and Derrick Roper, 30 — were found in separate apartments at Allen Benedict Court, the 80-year-old housing project on Harden Street, not far from Benedict College and Allen University. The two men died from carbon monoxide poisoning as the result of gas leaks. Authorities subsequently evacuated the 411 people who lived there to area hotels, and later closed down the apartments.
Despite a long process that some residents found arduous, the Housing Authority eventually was able to relocate all of the displaced Allen Benedict Court clients to permanent residences. While the Harden Street complex has been closed down since January, the authority has given former residents until July 15 to return and collect their personal belongings.
The fallout after the Allen Benedict Court incident was significant. Columbia City Council installed four new members on the Housing Authority’s board of commissioners in March. (The city has the power to vote in new Housing Authority board members, but has no oversight over the organization.)
Also, Gilbert Walker, who had been with the Housing Authority in one capacity or another for 50 years, announced his resignation as the organization’s executive director, a position he’d held for two decades.
“In ending my over 50 years of employment with the Columbia Housing Authority, I regret that current events will overshadow the multiple outstanding achievements of the Columbia Housing Authority during my tenure,” Walker wrote in late February, referring to the Allen Benedict Court incident.
State court records indicate there are at least three active lawsuits against the Housing Authority in regard to the Allen Benedict matter.
Housing Authority paperwork indicates it operates more than 1,600 units of public housing across 27 developments. Mathews said on July 5 that, under her watch, she’ll see to an examination of all the organization’s housing inventory.
"So, we’re going to do a comprehensive physical needs assessment and, as we complete that comprehensive assessment, we’ll be meeting with our board to talk about presenting a development plan, a strategic plan on how we’re going to reposition our organization, looking at the [housing assets] we can retain through comprehensive renovation, and looking at the assets we might need to raze because they have reached [the end of] their useful life," Mathews said.
What’s not yet clear is what will come of Allen Benedict Court specifically, as the complex currently still sits closed and empty. Earlier this year, despite a hard push from Mayor Steve Benjamin, HUD did not grant Columbia a requested $30 million for the razing and redevelopment of the complex.
On July 5, Mathews was not ready to reveal plans for what may come of the complex.
“Right now, we don’t have any plans we’d like to release at this point,” Mathews said of Allen Benedict. “Certainly the property is vacated at this point. We do hope to make some transformation there on that site.”
Civil rights leader and longtime Columbia Urban League President J.T. McLawhorn was among those in attendance at the July 5 Housing Authority meeting. Following the meeting, he noted it will be critical for Mathews, along with the revamped board, to prioritize health and human safety for the authority’s residents.
“[The deaths at] Allen Benedict Court were a great tragedy,” McLawhorn said. “It was just heartfelt for all of us in this community and around the country. I think that we learned from that. I think it will be better for all the residents in the future. I don’t think there was anything intentionally done to cause a problem. People worked in good faith, and we learned from that lesson.”