Advocates fight to save housing development for Wilmington’s most vulnerable

The idea behind Driftwood was to create a permanent place for the residents to stay for life
Updated: Jan. 21, 2021 at 4:59 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Days after news broke that a supportive housing development would be put up for sale, advocates are searching for answers.

Driftwood is a 14-unit community built for the chronically homeless and people living with mental illness. On January 4, residents were sent a letter notifying them they would be displaced at the end of January and the buildings were going to be put on the market.

Many people connected to the development of the supportive housing units didn’t find out that the residents were being displaced until WECT ran the story last week.

The Smith family says they were devastated to find out the development was going up for sale. The idea behind Driftwood was to create a permanent place for the residents to stay for life.

“It was...just the wind knocked out of you because you know what went into building these and you know that they’re serving a phenomenal purpose and you know that there’s still a need, and you know that they could continue—they could still be successful serving the disadvantaged,” said Webb Smith.

Johanna and Vic Smith were members of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and fought tooth and nail to bring Driftwood to Wilmington. The cause was personal to the couple and they devoted close to a decade to bringing their vision for supportive housing to life.

Their sons, Webb Smith and Victor Cameron Smith, have become advocates themselves since learning about changes in Driftwood’s path—trying to bring awareness to this situation, uncover how leaders got to such a dire place and learn what can be done to save the program.

Webb Smith says this tax credit project coming to an end just 16 years after it began is a big blow to the city, and could set a dangerous precedent.

“These residents, they really don’t have a voice. They are the disadvantaged, the mentally ill, the chronically homeless, and they’re going to need an advocate. They’re gonna need someone to fight for them and they don’t have the resources to even question what’s going on and so it’s up to us to light a moral fire and say this is a step backwards, this is infringing on common decency to give someone a notice in the middle of winter during a pandemic that you have less than 30 days to leave your home,” said Webb Smith. I think there’s a lot of blame to go around, a lot of questions that need to be answered, and a lot of areas that need to be evaluated.”

Victor Cameron Smith says his parents faced considerable push-back writing grants, finding land for the complex and cutting through the red tape to make Driftwood apartments a reality.

“To take away 14 units…it’s just really catastrophic. When it comes to the need to help disadvantage folks find homes,” said Victor Cameron Smith. “I think one...there’s very little feedback on why this is happening.”

Their parents’ vision was to have a place where the chronically homeless and the mentally ill could live forever. The brothers say there should have been a plan for Driftwood’s future that extended past the first 15 years of the tax credit project.

”They knew this day was coming if 10 to 15 years is the typical life expectancy. It would just make me feel better to know that they started five or 10 years ago, working on how to keep the Driftwood solvent,” said Victor Cameron Smith.

But now the nonprofit that manages the units has announced the intent to sell, much of the focus is on how to keep the dozen residents from having to hit the streets in the dead of winter during a pandemic.

“I think there ought to be a good faith effort to at least extend or allow the residents to stay in the Driftwood for a while longer: 30, 60, 90 days until there could be some meeting of the minds or some effort to really discuss the options moving forward,” said Victor Cameron Smith. “If they spent as much time trying to save the Driftwood as my dad did trying to make that happen—and that’s 10 years—then we might not be having this conversation.”

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