• Housing Authority appears to have never owned historic downtown building, despite contemporaneous news coverage to that effect.
  • Nonprofit which owns and controls building consists of just two board members accountable only to themselves.
  • City and county voted in 2013 to forgive building’s seller half a million dollars in debt.

Just three years ago, an agreement between city government, county government and the Sanford Housing Authority appeared set to provide low-income residents with affordable housing on a short term basis and downtown Sanford with a pathway toward modernizing one of its oldest structures in the long term.

IMG_6484It was reported in 2013 by the Sanford Herald (subscription required) and the Fayetteville Observer that the Wilrik Hotel was being purchased from Duke Energy Corporation by the Sanford Housing Authority. Ken Armstrong, then executive director of the authority, said publicly that the organization would invest between $50,000 and $75,000 in upgrades to the property, modernizing both the inside and the outside of the building. In exchange, the city and the county would agree to forgive roughly half a million dollars in debt on the building’s seller and ensure that it was available exclusively as low income housing for five years. After that, the living spaces would be made into high end luxury apartments and possibly even retail space.

Fast forward to today, and media accounts about the Wilrik detail an acrimonious dispute (subscription required) between the Sanford Housing Authority – which merely managed the property – and the Sanford Affordable Housing Development Corporation, a nonprofit which appears to have actually been the owner since the 2013 sale. That dispute ended with a dissolution of the management contract; the Sanford Housing Authority no longer has any involvement with the property, making it unclear if there’s any way to enforce the 2013 promises about upgrades and modernization.

So what happened?

To better understand this story, it may help to cut through the alphabet soup and contrast the two organizations. The Sanford Housing Authority is a federally-funded extension of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development which exists to “ensure safe, decent, and affordable housing; create opportunities for residents’ self-sufficiency and economic independence; and assure fiscal integrity by all program participants.”

The organization’s board of directors are appointed locally by the Sanford City Council. That local oversight aside, the organization is entirely federal. It serves residents in Lee and Harnett counties.

The Sanford Affordable Housing Development Corporation, which doesn’t appear to have any significant web presence of its own, is simply a local nonprofit aimed at providing affordable housing to low income residents. In addition to the Wilrik Hotel, the nonprofit appears to own only one other property, a single-family home in Jonesboro.

Currently, the SAHDC’s board consists only of two members, Robert Woods and Ben Gardner. Both men formerly served on the SHA’s board of directors, but were not reappointed in 2015 when the entire membership was vacated by the Sanford City Council and replaced with a mostly new board of directors.

It appears that sometime prior to 2013 the two organizations were informally co-mingled. Armstrong was the director of the SHA while simultaneously serving as chairman of the SAHDC’s board, and the names are used interchangeably in minutes from meetings of both the Sanford City Council and the Lee County Board of Commissioners. Contemporaneous news coverage (subscription required) solely uses the name Sanford Housing Authority in discussions about the sale.

A memorandum of understanding between Sanford, Lee County and the SAHDC, dated June 10, 2013 and signed by then-Sanford Mayor Cornelia Olive and then-chairman of the Lee County Board of Commissioners Charlie Parks, claims that the nonprofit is “owned and controlled by the Sanford Housing Authority.” Sources tell the Rant that that assertion, however, has been denied by federal regulators, who have said the organizations are entirely unaffiliated.

A deed showing the property’s transfer a month later mentions only the SAHDC.

Since 2013, there have been numerous changes in local government, as well as in the Sanford Housing Authority (SHA) and the Sanford Affordable Housing Development Corporation (SAHDC). Armstrong left his post in 2014 to take a job with a housing authority in Florida. He remained for a time as the chairman of the SAHDC, but resigned sometime in the spring of 2016.

Several other members have also resigned, leaving Woods and Gardner as the only members of a board which self-appoints up to five directors – and which now appears to exercise complete control over downtown Sanford’s tallest and most historic building.

The city council, for its part, gained a new mayor and a new at-large councilman in the 2013 elections. The following year, Democrats regained control of the Lee County Board of Commissioners.