Columbia Housing Authority won’t get grant to demolish public housing where 2 died

The Department of Housing and Urban development isn’t granting the Columbia Housing Authority any money this year to demolish a public housing complex where two people recently died from gas leaks inside their units.

Mayor Steve Benjamin told The State on Saturday that the authority won’t receive the federal HUD grant, which would have financed the razing of Allen Benedict Court and provided money for new public housing to be built.

The efforts to demolish and rebuild safe housing became all the more crucial for the authority after the two men were found dead.

On Jan. 17, Calvin Witherspoon Jr., 61, and Derrick Caldwell Roper, 30, were found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning in one of the buildings of Allen Benedict Court. A police report also incidicated that at least one other person had to be hospitalized from gas leak related injuries. The housing complex was evacuated that night and the following day after the fire department found raised levels of hazardous gas, including cyanide gas, in many of the apartments.

A week after the evacuation, the Columbia Housing Authority announced that residents could not return to live in Allen Benedict Court and that they were moving forward with efforts to demolish the complex and rebuild new public and assisted housing.

“The consensus is, in consultation with the city, it’s just not worth it to rehab or bring them up to standard and have the city throwing good money after that,” the authority’s attorney, Bob Coble, told The State on Jan. 25. “It doesn’t make any sense to do that. It would be better to put in permanent housing.”

At a recent meeting, the authority director Gilbert Walker told the agency’s board that HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant was applied for multiple times over the years.

The grant, which awards $30 million, is described by HUD as a way to “transform public and/or other HUD-assisted housing, as well as the surrounding neighborhood.”

Benjamin said the housing authority was a semifinalist for the grant but found out it would not be a finalist.

“While certainly disappointing, this news should only serve as inspiration to redouble our regional efforts to create more affordable housing across the Midlands,” Benjamin said. “Our answers will lie in local creativity and collaboration (and) not in Washington D.C.”

Allen Benedict Court was one of 32 applicants for the federal grant, according to the D.C. agency. Four cities, Omaha, Neb., East Baton Rouge, La., Newport News and Norfolk of Virginia are finalists for the grant. Finalists were chosen on “three core goals” the federal housing agency says.

  • Housing: Replace distressed public and assisted housing with high-quality mixed-income housing that is well-managed and responsive to the needs of the surrounding neighborhood;

  • People: Improve outcomes of households living in the target housing related to employment and income, health, and children’s education; and

  • Neighborhood: Create the conditions necessary for public and private reinvestment in distressed neighborhoods to offer the kinds of amenities and assets, including safety, good schools, and commercial activity, that are important to families’ choices about their community.

The Columbia Housing Authority has razed and rebuilt similar complexes. Saxon Homes, a complex next door to Allen Benedict Court, and Hendley Homes in Rosewood were demolished in the last decade with new affordable and voucher housing being put into place. Gonzales Gardens, a public housing complex near Millwood Avenue and Taylor Street, was demolished in 2017. New housing has not been built on that site though plans are in place.

Gonzales Gardens cost about $1 million to demolish, according to Coble.

“If they don’t get the grant I’m sure they’d find some other way (to demolish Allen Benedict Court),” Coble told The State in January. “You don’t want that just sitting. You want affordable housing in some other capacity.”

Reporter Sarah Ellis contributed to this story.

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David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.