By Leslee Kulba
Asheville – Typically, Asheville City Council will approve whatever staff recommends for disbursing federal housing funds. But something strange happened during the consideration of disbursing $615,934 in special COVID-19 funding the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) was making available by way of a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). Council’s staff report was only three pages long, and it stated the funds had to be used, “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19.”
Staff explained that, to put the dollars to good use, it was imperative that they be used to fill gaps and, as the report stated twice, avoid “duplication of benefit.” It was recommended that $399,500 go toward preventing homelessness and eviction, $156,434 cover costs not reimbursed by FEMA for operating shelters at Harrah’s Cherokee Center and the Red Roof Inn, and $60,000 go toward costs of administering and complying with the terms of the grants.
Councilwoman Julie Mayfield asked for a breakdown of how the $399,500 would be spent, and Community Development Program Director Paul D’Angelo said $199,500 was going to Pisgah Legal Services so they could provide pro bono services for people facing eviction, and the money could also be used to pay three months of rental assistance for people in the same situation. The remaining $200,000 could go toward setting up another facility like the Red Roof Inn for rapid rehousing for the homeless and people on the brink of losing their housing.
If anybody was going to balk at approving the proposal, they may have attacked the high cost of overhead. They may also have questioned the staff’s recommendation the funds be made available to even persons earning “moderate” income levels. Instead, Councilman Keith Young started casting aspersions, insinuating staff was withholding information and that he had heard something from an individual or a group he did not name.
Young started by asking if anybody in public housing or using Section 8 vouchers would be eligible for any of the funding. D’Angelo replied that they wouldn’t. He read straight from the staff report, “Grantees must prevent duplication of benefit; i.e., the use of CDBG-CV funds to pay costs if another source of financial assistance is available to pay that cost.”
D’Angelo, being respectful, said it’s the staff’s job to make the council look good. In two decades, the only staff member that came close to bucking council was former CFO Ben Durante, who, during a work session during the Recession, was trying with all his might to get the council to tighten their collective belt. D’Angelo, in that context, tried to explain that HUD has consistently adhered to a line of reasoning that if it is already paying somebody’s rent, it is not going to let somebody else pay it, too. And, HUD is certainly not going to knowingly pay somebody’s rent twice.
Young said he needed to know what “duplication of benefit” meant. For example, did it mean two HUD rent payments? or one HUD payment and another from the city? While the funding was programmed to help people harmed by COVID-19, Young thought the federal government should be spending money on people who were poor before COVID-19, even if they were now assured they wouldn’t be evicted, but intended recipients would. D’Angelo said he is in constant communication with the housing authority, nobody is being evicted, and rents, including Section 8 rents, were being adjusted whenever people suffered a loss in income.
Young responded with an attitude of indignation, using expressions like, “sincerely hope,” and “these kinds of questions.” He scolded staff, once again, for leaving out something he was going to misconstrue from their staff reports.
Unlike the others, Mayfield chimed in. While Young was talking, she had been texting David Nash, CEO of Asheville’s housing authority, and he confirmed what D’Angelo had said. HACA was not evicting anybody receiving federal rent subsidies, and the housing authority was working with people who lost their jobs. Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball also concurred.
With more from Young, Manheimer asked if the council would like to table the conversation. Mayfield explained the council was butting its head against federal policy, which it did not have the authority to change. Postponing the decision for a month might mean the difference between several families riding out the storm in their homes or getting kicked to the curb, with damaged credit, and unable to pay first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit.
Young responded, faulting Mayfield and D’Angelo for “interpreting” and “assuming.” He said he wanted a memo directly from Nash. Mayfield offered to read his texts then and there, but her peers preferred to let Young’s accusations simmer, uncorrected until the next meeting.
Public comment was taken, and about ten people praised Young for his cause. One called D’Angelo’s claims, “stupid and misguided.” The city, callers said, should defund the police and pay rents and mortgages instead. While the council will not vote on the matter until their next meeting, they were leaning toward not paying 22 families’ rents for a month in case the federal government decided to start duplicating rents in the meantime.