Gene Bell at HACA meeting
Housing Authority of the City of Asheville CEO Gene Bell, center, answers questions about the RAD proposal. Max Cooper/Carolina Public Press

ASHEVILLE—The governing board of the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville yesterday approved a controversial management overhaul, despite a statement that it wasn’t voting on final approval.

While about 30 people came to the meeting, held at the W.C. Reid Center, few chose to speak during public comment, and the board gave the overhaul the go-ahead without further discussion among its members.

The change, known as Rental Assistance Demonstration, has been a source of controversy for months. HACA officials and supporters of the plan have said it will offer a sound financial footing and the ability to better serve residents and maintain Asheville’s aging public housing projects. Skeptics, including a nascent coalition of residents, have worried it might open the door to privatization and displacing people from their homes, and asserted that the process has not been transparent.

In June, after the HACA board voted to move an earlier step of RAD forward, staff agreed to demands to hold new information sessions with a third-party facilitator and be more transparent. However, due to the tight schedule required to hold the sessions and the number of people that needed to be there, the coalition was unable to put the meetings together before yesterday’s meeting. HACA CEO Gene Bell reiterated that he’d offered to meet with anyone who wanted to, but said that no one had taken him up on the offer.

At last night’s meeting, board Chair Brian Weinkler said before the vote that “this is not doing the final approval of RAD.”

However, according to Bell and COO David Nash, asked by Carolina Public Press after the meeting, that’s not exactly the case, as the board’s vote gave Bell the necessary authority to proceed with RAD without having to come back for another vote.

Concerns still raised about potential new rules, pre-meeting communication

During public comment, resident Nikita Smart said she worried about a RAD rule that would penalize residents if their 5- to 21-year-old children are not in school. She noted that under state law and school district rules, anyone older than 16 can drop out of school without parental permission.

Nikita Smart at HACA meeting
Public housing resident Nikita Smart was among those who raised concerns about RAD at the meeting. Max Cooper/Carolina Public Press

“Then that child might put my residence in jeopardy if he or she chooses not to go to school,” Smart said. “How can that be?”

Bell responded that “I thought this would have been well-accepted in the community—part of the disconnect with our residents is on education.”

Smart continued, and said that while she does value education, it’s wrong to penalize a parent for a decision a child can legally make on their own.

“This is very emotional for me,” Bell added. “I have seen this society roil tremendously because our kids are not being educated. Whether the school board requires it, we should require it, that our kids go to school.

“We had a public comment period so the residents could tell us what they were opposed to,” Bell said. “We said we’d be available at any time to speak to anybody about any concerns they had, and no one’s come to me about that.”

After Smart and another resident continued to raise concerns, Bell said HACA would scrap the school requirement. The board then approved RAD 4-0, with member Cassandra Wells absent.

After the vote, the meeting continued and Robert Simmons asked Bell about transparency in general.

“I see y’all with documents in front of you that allow you to know what you’re talking about; we’re just shooting in the dark here,” he said. “What I’m hearing is: Where are the checks and balances, where’s the transparency in what you’re proposing?”

Since its June meeting, Bell said, HACA has set up a Twitter account: @AVLhousingauth, and it started posting meeting notices earlier than previously, as well as putting up new bulletin boards in Pisgah View to give residents access to meeting notices.

“We were told at the last meeting that they wanted information put out on the web,” Bell said. “We tried to be reasonable.”

While a link to the meeting’s agenda documents was up on the HACA website, the documents were difficult to access until the day before the meeting. On July 21, Carolina Public Press and a handful of local individuals were unable to access them, for the most part; after CPP asked Nash about the problem, on the morning of July 22 he posted the documents in a more accessible format.

After the meeting, Southside Advisory Commission Chair Priscilla Ndiaye said she believed the scant public comments were due to the fact that “people are afraid; they’re afraid to speak up, even though this will impact them directly.”

“I hear a lot, then I come to meetings and hear nothing,” she told Carolina Public Press. “If people are afraid, they need to start getting over that and speaking up.”

Assuming things proceed as planned with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds and oversees the HACA, the change to RAD will be completed by December.

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David Forbes is a former contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press.

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