COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The Columbia Housing Authority has several new leaders at the helm one year after two men died from carbon monoxide poisoning inside their Allen Benedict Court apartments.
Calvin Witherspoon Jr., 61, and Derrick Roper, 30, were discovered inside their apartments within building J on the property. Shortly after, Columbia Fire officials inspected all 26 buildings on the property and found high levels of carbon monoxide and other hazardous chemicals.
More than 400 residents evacuated the complex and shuffled around to different hotels in the weeks following the tragedy until they were able to secure permanent housing.
The Columbia Police Department spearheaded an investigation into what happened surrounding the two men’s deaths. The investigation included dozens of resident interviews, a review of maintenance requests and appliance histories, and assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
During a November news conference, Fifth Circuit Solicitor Byron Gipson announced no criminal charges would be filed related to the deaths of the victims. However, more than 800 violations were noted across the complex, which resulted in 22 citations filed against the housing authority.
James Witherspoon lost his brother in the tragedy and is frustrated no one will be held criminally responsible for his death.
“My brother, Calvin, and the other gentleman, Roper, the Columbia Housing Authority murdered them,” he said.
Witherspoon said he learned about the investigation into his brother’s death on the news and said he never received a personal phone call from any of the agencies involved. The late Witherspoon’s daughter, Rachel, said her family is still struggling with the loss.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “We still hurt about the situation and everything. It could have been resolved if y’all had just gone and checked when you got the calls, but you didn’t.”
Former executive director Gilbert Walker retired early last year and the housing authority hired Ivory Mathews as its new director. With more than 20 years of work experience in the field of public housing, she said her message was clear to the staff when she arrived.
“I don’t like to spend a lot of time talking about it but actually doing the work,” she said.
She instituted a 12-month plan that she said keeps residents at the forefront. It also includes restructuring, new and updated policies and maintaining the goal of providing safe affordable housing.
“We’re making sure we don’t take anything for granted,” Mathews said. “Under my leadership, we’re just making sure we’re doing things in accordance of what is required and basic property management principles.”
Mathews said she has brought in new policies for her maintenance staff and has offered additional educational and learning opportunities. She said staff knows what is expected of them when a resident submits a work order, whether it is an emergency or not.
She admits gaining the trust of residents back cannot be done overnight but is encouraged the housing authority is moving in the right direction.
“What we do is so important,” she said. “The community needs to realize that. So we are making sure that we have the right people in the right places, so we’ve made changes and we’ll continue to make changes.”
Some residents said communication with housing authority staff has improved under Mathews’ leadership and they feel more comfortable approaching the administration with concerns. Others point to alleged ongoing maintenance issues within their units owned by the housing authority and told WIS they are afraid to speak out in fear of retaliation.
The housing authority said it is always welcoming of resident feedback.