The Columbia Fire Department has begun inspecting every property owned and managed by the Columbia Housing Authority after gas leaks caused the deaths of two men at a public housing complex last month.
It is not typical for the fire department to regularly inspect Housing Authority properties, which are funded and regulated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and operate separately from local government.
But in light of the recent deaths of Calvin Witherspoon and Derrick Roper caused by carbon monoxide poisoning at the Allen Benedict Court apartments, the fire department is delving into the safety and living conditions of each Columbia Housing Authority property, Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said Monday.
Witherspoon, 61, and Roper, 30, were found dead in separate apartments at Allen Benedict Court on Jan. 17.
Subsequently, the Columbia fire department discovered gas leaks in dozens of apartments, some of them with “severe and lethal” levels of carbon monoxide. Officials also documented a host of other examples of poor living conditions, from faulty and missing fire alarms to pest infestations.
More than 400 people have been evacuated from their homes at Allen Benedict and told they’ll likely never live there again.
The Columbia Housing Authority has helped provide the residents temporary shelter and relocated them to new homes. Many have been given Section 8 rental assistance vouchers, officials have said, although not everyone with a voucher is able to immediately find landlords that will accept them.
So far, no other Housing Authority properties have been found to have any life-risking hazards that would prompt residents to be evacuated, Jenkins said. Some issues such as faulty sprinkler systems have been documented and ordered to be repaired, Jenkins said.
It is abnormal for the fire department to inspect Housing Authority properties beyond immediate responses to emergency calls, such as reports of the smell of gas, Jenkins said. Numerous emergency calls of that sort were made from Allen Benedict Court in the past year.
When fire department crews respond to those issues, they make an immediate fix, such as shutting off a gas valve, and then alert the Housing Authority of the issue, Jenkins said.
The responsibility of a further fix lies with the Housing Authority, Jenkins said.
Two Allen Benedict Court residents have filed a civil lawsuit against the Housing Authority, alleging negligence in the agency’s response to persistent complaints of poor living conditions at the apartments.
In addition to ongoing inspections by the fire department, the Columbia Police Department is collaborating with the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s office, the State Law Enforcement Division and the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to continue to investigate the Allen Benedict deaths and management by the Columbia Housing Authority.
Police have set up an automated phone line to receive information and concerns about the conditions at Allen Benedict Court, Police Chief Skip Holbrook said Monday. People can call the hotline at 803-567-6301 and leave a message, which will be followed up by an investigator.
The Housing Authority board, meanwhile, voted last week to undertake “an independent and comprehensive review of everything involved” in the deaths and conditions at Allen Benedict Court, although it did not identify an agency or organization to conduct such a review.
Last weekend, Housing Authority and city leaders learned that their request for a federal grant of up to $30 million, hoped for to demolish and rebuild housing at Allen Benedict Court, had been denied.
In light of the affordable housing crisis that has been highlighted by the Allen Benedict deaths and evacuations, local officials will be making a push to build and create more affordable housing options in the Columbia area immediately and over the next five years, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said Monday.
“This cannot be an issue only in the wake of the tragedy of losing two of our citizens,” Benjamin said. “I urge you to stay involved ... in helping us as we craft solutions to meet the significant shortage of affordable housing all across this country, all across the state and certainly all across the city and the Midlands.”
A task force on affordable housing will be assembled in the coming months, Benjamin said. In the past year, the city has taken steps to create tax incentives for developers to build housing units that are affordable to people earning less than the area median income.
Typically, people earning 80 percent or less of the area median income are considered the market for “affordable housing.” In the Columbia, that standard applies to a single person earning about $39,500 or a family of four earning about $55,900.
People eligible for public housing and Section 8 rental vouchers earn much less than those benchmarks.