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‘Every person on city council was incensed,’ Mayor shares concerns over Driftwood sale

Updated: Feb. 11, 2021 at 5:14 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - City leaders are sharing their concerns about the future of Driftwood apartments and the dozen residents who used to call the property home.

Driftwood provided housing for some of the most vulnerable in our community, including the elderly, veterans and people who have a history of homelessness and mental illness. The group that manages the community sent residents a letter in early January telling them they had to find a place to go by the end of the month.

Driftwood is run by a private nonprofit called Wilmington Housing Finance and Development (WHFD).

The city of Wilmington has no funding or management power over Driftwood, but they did contribute to funding Hopewood and Willow Pond, other affordable properties also managed by WHFD.

Despite not having any authority over the units, city staff alerted HUD and NC Housing Finance Agency to concerns they have about the possible sale of Driftwood. Specifically, the city is worried residents weren’t given proper notice of WHFD’s intent to sell and that the group that provided the tax credits for the property weren’t properly notified either.

Mayor Bill Saffo says he and council members were shocked to hear that residents had so little time to find another place to live.

“I think every person on city council was incensed,” said Saffo. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. The last thing you wanna do is throw people out on the street. Affordable housing is one of the things that we are working on with the county to see what we can do to bring in more affordable housing. To tell these people at this moment in time that you have to get out on the street was wrong and we’re gonna do everything in our power to try and keep those people there. But again, we have certain constraints that we’re gonna work within and we gotta do within what the law will give us, but I can share with you that the entire council is upset about this and we shared our concerns with HUD,” said Saffo.

WECT reached out to HUD for a response to the city’s concerns and the current status of the case with Driftwood, and has yet to hear back.

City leaders have contacted the executive director and board chair over WHFD to schedule a meeting about concerns surrounding Driftwood, but have not yet received a response.

WECT has also made several attempts to reach out to WHFD for comment.

Though the initial letter sent to residents asked that they leave by the end of January, many people are still living at Driftwood.

The city says at last check, seven of 12 people have found other places to go in the coming weeks.

Army veteran Sharon Whitfield is waiting for her new apartment to be inspected before she can leave her Driftwood apartment. She began packing her boxes nearly a month ago so she could be ready for whatever came next.

“Well my bed is packed up, so I’m just sleeping on the couch,” said Whitfield. “It’s kind of nerve-racking — you know, just being worried about things not going through and not happening.”

The sale is expected to move forward in early March once everyone is out of the units.

Advocates and city leaders have rallied around the residents since news broke the units would be up for sale, but she says its likely too late for people to stay at Driftwood.

“The main thing is I don’t want this to happen again; that should be a lesson to us all.”

Whitfield explains she’s sad about what happened at Driftwood, but she’s optimistic about having a fresh start in her new home this spring.

Saffo says the situation at Driftwood demonstrates a need the city has faced for years now. As one of the fastest growing regions in the country, affordable housing is the number one concern for our region, according to Saffo, and he says work is ongoing to better meet the high demand.

In North Carolina, local governments cannot force developers to put in affordable housing, but leaders can develop incentive programs to attract potential investors.

Driftwood was built using federal tax credits, an incentive program that has been a common way affordable housing was added to communities in the past.

“The tax credit funding, which is a very popular instrument for a lot of people that are developing property to be able to get government funding to subsidize the housing developments, and then at the end of a certain period, put them back on the market, either sell them, or put them at market rates — to me it sets us up, that people get pushed out and unfortunately we end up dealing with it locally and nationally, state wide, so I think we have to work at the federal level to see if we can change the tax structure,” said Saffo.

Concerns about the federal tax credit structure are something the city and county have brought up with senators Rouser, Burr and Tillis.

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