COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The chairman of the Columbia Housing Authority Board says the tragedy at Allen Benedict Court apartments is the result of “bad weather” in the community and said the focus should not be on the housing authority.
The comments come as the board of commissioners met for the first time since two men were found dead inside their apartments two weeks ago. Toxicology reports from the Richland County Coroner said both men -- 30-year-old Derrick Roper and 61-year-old Calvin Witherspoon Jr. -- died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The next day, 411 residents were evacuated from the property after the Columbia Fire Department found substantial gas leaks throughout the property’s 26 buildings.
On Thursday night, board members met to discuss what has been done thus far to help displaced residents and went into executive session for nearly two hours to discuss the two lawsuits the Columbia Housing Authority is facing. Attorney Bob Coble said he was made aware of a pending lawsuit from the estates of the two men who died, but that the lawsuit has not been officially filed.
In his opening remarks of the meeting, chairman Bobby Gist said he wanted to highlight the good work the housing authority has done in the past and continues to do.
“Bad weather sometimes comes into the community, so it’s not about the housing authority,” Gist said. “It’s about how we handle things in America.”
“How many of you as board members had anyone come to you and tell you that they had issues at Allen Benedict Court?” he asked. “I’m asking each board member. Has anyone ever come to say anything to you, to you to you or to you?”
The board members did not respond to Gist’s question and Executive Director Gilbert Walker apologized to the residents for what has transpired at Allen Benedict Court.
“We apologize for everything that has happened,” Walker said. “We apologize and I would not wish this on anyone.”
Gist also pointed the finger at SCE&G during the meeting, who supplies gas to the property. The company issued the following statement:
“SCE&G, a subsidiary of Dominion Energy, supplies natural gas to the Columbia Housing Authority through a master meter, which is a small pipeline system that distributes natural gas to a particular area such as an apartment complex. The Columbia Housing Authority owns and operates the gas lines that run from the master meter into homes under its jurisdiction. The Columbia Housing Authority also maintains all of the piping serving the individual residences. Safety is our top priority. We regularly caution customers that if you smell gas, leave the area immediately, warn others to stay away, and from a safe place, call 911 and SCE&G at 800-815-0083.”
Walker said by Friday, all displaced residents will have received a Section 8 voucher, the first step in finding new permanent housing. He also said 16 landlords have come forward willing to rent to displaced residents and nine families have been approved to sign a lease.
Tenants moving out of Allen Benedict Court can receive a check or complimentary moving services with a company the housing authority has contracted with.
Columbia city councilman Moe Baddourah said Walker’s apology doesn’t cut it.
“If he didn’t know about it, he’s not a good director,” he said. “And if he knew about it, shame on you.”
Many residents present at the meeting were afraid to speak on camera in fear of retaliation from the housing authority. Several told WIS if they speak with the media, they fear they may not receive their Section 8 vouchers. One woman said her sister lived in the apartments nearly 20 years ago and faced the same maintenance shortcomings.
“My sister lived out here 20 years ago and I walked in and she had a four eyed gas stove and you could walk in then and smell the gas,” Katie Bolden said. “It was reported to them and they knew this. So these things should have been taken care of 20 years ago.”
At the end of the meeting, the board voted to launch an independent investigation into what happened at the apartment complex. Members will meet Tuesday with attorney Bob Coble to review the options and will formally vote on Wednesday.
Walker refused to comment upon leaving the board room at the end of Thursday night’s meeting.