Transcript provided by Holly Ridge Town Mayor, Jeff Wenzel.
See the full video here: Holly Plaza press release 12-27-2023 on Vimeo
The Town of Holly Ridge is thrilled that USDA is issuing housing assistance vouchers to all families that have been displaced from Holly Plaza Apartments due to the conditions that required the condemnation of the complex in late November. These vouchers are distinctly different from the previously offered HUD section 8 vouchers which were tied to a specific property, specifically Holly Plaza apartments.
A Zoom video call was held on Tuesday 12/19 with representatives from the Town of Holly Ridge, HUD, and USDA. The Town had requested this call to get information and clarification on the differences between HUD and USDA housing assistance vouchers that are available to the displaced Holly Plaza tenants.
The Federal Government representatives explained the similarities and differences between the vouchers. I’ll start with the differences:
• USDA vouchers can go to any landlord or apartment complex that accepts the HAP contract for the voucher. The vouchers cannot be used for a hotel.
• Residents can accept the Towns lump sum settlement payment offer, first announced November 21, and still be qualified for the benefits provided by the USDA voucher. Conversely, HUD says any resident that accepts the Town’s lump sum settlement payment offer will invalidate their status with HUD and would have to reapply to seek benefits if they chose. They may be put on a waiting list for housing.
Here are the similarities between the USDA and HUD vouchers...
• Vouchers are renewable annually
• Vouchers can be transferred to different properties
Other takeaways from the Zoom call are:
• USDA wants to talk directly to each resident as soon as possible. Eric Hixon’s direct line is 706.521.2224 and his email address is email@example.com
• Residents do not have to go through an attorney or the Town to receive the USDA housing voucher.
• Letters of Priority Entitlement (LOPE) were mailed 2 weeks ago to each resident's Holly Plaza address. Because time is of the essence, they were also emailed to David Miller on December 15th, 2023. Mr. Miller is a South Carolina attorney that is representing some of the residents in a class action lawsuit against the Town, Pendergraph management company and Pendergraph’s owner, Frankie Pendergraph. These vouchers were supposed to be printed and distributed to each resident on the 16th of December, but unfortunately that did not happen. USDA’s Byron Waters said, “There was an unfortunate misunderstanding last week. We understood that Mr. Miller would deliver the letters this past weekend. Unknown to us, Mr. Miller wanted a time when he could make sure that he was able to deliver every tenant their voucher letter and did not plan to travel until he found such a time even though the goal was the weekend. That limitation was not made clear to us. Had we understood, we would have pushed for sooner even if not all tenants could meet. We regret that confusion. But Mr. Miller assures us that every tenant will receive their voucher letter on Wednesday.”
• As of December 23rd, the Town is aware of residents who still have not received the LOPE from the attorney.
• Any resident that has not received your LOPE can call Eric Hixson at 706.521.2224 and he will rectify the situation.
• The USDA vouchers were triggered once the Town condemned the property and told USDA that the buildings would not be repaired. USDA then began the acceleration process against the Town of Holly Ridge on the USDA financed property and USDA started working on vouchers for the displaced residents.
• Since the residents were displaced by no fault of their own, they are moved to top of the list for any USDA-RD property where they wish to live. USDA issued a LOPE, which (again) stands for Letter of Priority Entitlement, to each resident.
• USDA provided a current list dated 12/13/2023 of every USDA property with a vacancy within 3 counties of Onslow County, but the USDA vouchers can be used anywhere in the United States. Town Manager, Heather Reynolds sent the spreadsheet to all residents. The attorneys defending the Town in the Federal lawsuit provided the information contained on the spreadsheets to the attorneys that are suing the Town (and others) 2 Fridays ago. If you have not received information on available housing in the USDA program, contact Town Manager, Heather Reynolds and provide an email address where the information can be forwarded.
I want to reiterate that the residents do not have to live at a USDA/RD property to use the voucher, but they do have priority if they choose to live at a USDA property.
The voucher details can and should be validated by USDA by reaching out to Mr. Hixson at 706.521.2224.
The Town is no longer pursuing the HUD Pass-through vouchers because the HUD pass-through cannot be combined with the USDA vouchers. The pass-through vouchers would only allow the Town to collect approximately $15,000 per month towards housing of the tenants which is nowhere near sufficient. This amount is equivalent to 3 days of hotel that the Town is currently paying. Furthermore, the HUD pass through vouchers are much more restrictive, offer less money assistance and less flexibility compared to USDA vouchers.
The Town is continuing to pay for hotel rooms through January 14th at Jacksonville's Hilton Room2Suites. Check-out will be Monday, January 15th, 2024. To date, the Town has paid $284,000 for hotel rooms to provide safe and secure housing to the residents. Yesterday the Town announced that it would extend the payment for housing at the hotel for those that have not secured replacement housing by January 1 of the new year. This extension will fund occupancy of the remaining residents for an additional 2 weeks, allowing additional time to obtain the USDA benefits with which to secure replacement housing.
As of December 27th, 2023, 22 of the 43 families have accepted the lump sum settlement payment by the Town. Residents have until December 29th at 5pm to accept the lump sum settlement payment by the Town. Residents should reach out to the Heather Reynolds, Town Manager of Holly Ridge to setup an appointment. Again, PLEASE understand that signing the agreement and accepting the payment does not disqualify the residents for the USDA voucher and is not intended to affect the right to make any claim or bring any lawsuit against any other party except the Town.
The Town reached out to ONWASA. Franky Howard, CEO of ONWASA, has confirmed that ONWASA has forgiven all water and sewer bills since the day the residents were removed from the Holly Plaza Apartments in late October.
A special thanks to residents of Summerhouse for their generous donations to the residents.
The Town would like to thank the community for stepping up and holding fundraisers as well as collecting items such as gas cards for the residents. Material donations are being accepted and coordinated by Liberty Baptist Church in Holly Ridge and those who wish to donate material items can contact 910.329.0201.
There are no plans for the future of the condemned Holly Plaza Apartments currently. Since the Town is being sued through a federal class action lawsuit, the Town must keep the property secure for now, so the buildings can be used by all parties for evidence collection..
Although this matter has been evolving daily for months, here is a Timeline of important events:
On October 6th, 2023, the Town held a special called meeting to discuss the concerns of a Holly Plaza citizen who had brought a petri dish of mold she had grown in her HVAC ducts. https://vimeo.com/871972771
On October 19th, I spoke in person to US Senate Thom Tillis’ field rep and Representative Greg Murphy’s field rep and briefed them on the situation. They both asked for a letter from the Town so they could reach out to HUD and USDA to escalate the issue and see what options for assistance were available. Both were emailed the requested letter on Town letterhead the same day. On October 25th, we received notification that William Moore from Representative Murphy’s office “had sent inquiries to HUD Headquarters, the NC Housing Finance Agency, and USDA Rural Development regarding any help that could be afforded to the Town of Holly Ridge and the residents of Holly Plaza.
On October 25th, The Town Council held an emergency meeting to authorize expenses to relocate a single family who provided the Town with doctor’s orders to leave their apartment due to mold found in the teenage daughter’s bloodwork. The Town approved the request. Multiple citizens spoke during public comment asking what was required to allow them to be moved out. They also asked how they could get a special called meeting to authorize them to move out of the moldy apartments. https://vimeo.com/877941165
On October 27th, the Town held a special called meeting and decided that the residents of Holly Plaza needed to leave the apartments so extensive mold testing could be performed on all units. The Town authorized funds to pay for 30 days of housing for all residents at Jacksonville’s Rooms2Suites which is part of the Hilton family. The hotel gave the Town a reduced rate of $139/night plus taxes. This hotel was chosen as it had availability within the next week for all residents and also has a kitchenette with cooking capabilities. Residents began checking into the hotel the same day. https://vimeo.com/878944438
On October 30th, the Town was able to coordinate with the City of Jacksonville and Onslow County to provide student busing from the very first school day the residents were displaced to Jacksonville, which is 27 miles away.
On October 31st, the Town hosted a Halloween party for the residents at the hotel. The Town provided candy and pizza.
On November 6th, Holly Ridge Mayor Jeff Wenzel spoke at the Onslow County Commissioners Meeting briefing the county on the current status and also requested assistance from the county department of social services.
On November 8th, at the request of the Town, Onslow County assistant county manager Kari Sanders hosted a seven-agency informational meeting at the hotel with over 40 residents in attendance. This included a presentation from an agency that helps people find available low-income properties to rent. Each of the seven agencies set up a table with literature and business cards so the residents could seek assistance if they chose. The Town provided pizza.
On November 15th, I gave a tour of the Holly Ridge Plaza to US Senator Ted Budd’s Eastern North Carolina field rep. This included touring the inside of a vacant apartment.
On November 21st, the Town inspector confirmed unsafe living conditions and condemned the Holly Plaza apartments.
Also on November 21st, at a special called meeting, the Town Council voted to authorize a lump sum settlement payment offer, referenced earlier, to residents. The Town Council also approved $2,000 for incidentals which is to be added to the following amount based upon how many months are left on their current lease agreement:
$1,125/month for 1 bedroom
$1,440/month for 2 bedrooms
$1,755/month for 3 bedrooms
In signing and collecting the lump sum settlement agreement, the residents agree to not pursue future litigation against the Town only. If a tenant has less than 6 months remaining on the lease, if they sign the agreement, they will receive 6 months of rent.
As an example, if a tenant had 2 months remaining on a 2-bedroom lease, they would receive the following lump sum payment:
$8,640 (6 months times $1,440/month for a 2 bedroom)
$10,640 TOTAL + any security deposit paid
The Town also extended the hotel arrangements at the November 21 meeting, this time through 12/31/2023 with a checkout day of January 1st, 2024. https://vimeo.com/887236872
On December 6th, HUD emailed a letter to the displaced residents advising them “Accepting a buyout offer may terminate your tenancy under North Carolina law and make you ineligible to receive long-term rental assistance from HUD.”
On December 13th, in response to the Town’s continuing request for assistance to the displaced residents, Representative Greg Murphy’s office informed the Town that USDA was going to be issuing USDA tenant protection vouchers to the residents.
On December 19th, the Town was on a Zoom call with HUD and USDA to get specific details of the USDA vouchers since the Town was not sent the LOPE letters. Clarifications such as qualifications and disqualifications on the use of USDA and HUD vouchers were discussed and clarified, as mentioned previously.
On December 26th, the Town Council announced they had extended the hotel arrangements an additional 14 days with a checkout day of January 15, 2024.
The Town and the former residents of Holly Plaza have struggled daily for months to investigate, evaluate, and address an extraordinarily difficult situation that neither created. In addition to people recognized herein, the Town is extremely grateful to USDA for providing the financial assistance for these residents to have the opportunity and options to find long-term safe and secure housing. These people have been our neighbors and fellow citizens. We will continue to do our best to help them, as good government, and good neighbors, should.