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Time winds down for Atlantic Beach's public housing

Unable to recover from a history of mismanagement and neglect, the future of public housing in Atlantic Beach can now likely be counted in months, federal officials said Thursday night.

Six months, or perhaps seven, will give contractors for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development enough time to evaluate the condition of the 40 public-housing apartments remaining in Atlantic Beach - and to plan what to do with the people who live there, department officials said Thursday.

"Based on what we've seen and the limited knowledge I have about the Housing Authority, there's really some serious concerns if it is viable," said Amoes Sheppard, director of asset management for the department's regional office in Greensboro, N.C.

The Housing Authority of Atlantic Beach has been under strict federal oversight since its former director was fired amid allegations he mismanaged the property into disrepair, and most of its board was replaced. But about five years later, the Housing Authority has been unable to improve the condition of its buildings - federal funding has been falling, so the condition of the buildings has deteriorated.

A 2005 study estimated $1.5 million in repairs, so the board closed 14 of its 54 units last year, hoping to sell them to raise money for renovations on the remaining 40.

When no buyer stepped forward, the plan failed, leaving the Housing Authority's future in doubt even as the cost of renovations rises.

"There's a fear of coming into Atlantic Beach and doing any business," said executive director David Meachem of the Statesville Housing Authority, explaining the failure of the buildings to sell. "People are not wanting to make a major investment where chaos is going on."

Action at the federal level is now inevitable and out of the hands of anyone local, officials said Thursday night to an audience of 25 town political leaders, landowners and housing residents.

The HUD study's conclusions are not foregone - it could find some of the units are salvageable - but either the cash-strapped Housing Authority or the town would have to find the estimated millions to pay for them.

"Based on the current financial status, we don't see how they could do it, how the Housing Authority could fund repairs and maintenance and everything," Sheppard said. The Housing Authority, officials noted, doesn't have money to pay for the study, so HUD is picking up the tab.

Mayor Retha Pierce told the federal officials that she will travel next month to Washington to apply for money from the recently passed stimulus package, and that she plans to include the Housing Authority's needs in her request.

Michael Williams, director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for North and South Carolina, replied that town officials should be trying now to map the future of affordable housing in Atlantic Beach - but not necessarily including the buildings that already exist in those plans.

If the study determines that they are not viable, they will be torn down and the residents given vouchers to live elsewhere, he said.

Housing Commission member Beverly Clark asked if the study could be skipped and new plans pursued more quickly, but officials said the study would be required anyway.

What happens next is where the town could play a role, and federal officials have suggested routes including mixed-income single-family homes built in a public-private partnership.

The Housing Authority land could be used, and then some number of the new homes could be made available for former housing residents with vouchers.

"The vision must include finances," Williams said. "You have to make sure there's some dollars on the table somewhere, because HUD won't fund a complete makeover."