The bill would allow local governments to take over housing authorities after ‘hazardous conditions’ or deaths

COLUMBIA, S.C. — WLTX is taking a Deep Dive into a state bill proposal that would allow local governments to take over housing authorities in emergency situations, such as the one at Allen Benedict Court.

“It is hard to manage the Titanic after it hits the iceberg,” said Sen. Darrell Jackson in his office.

Jackson is a Democratic state senator from Richland County; the district where Allen Benedict Court lies.

Jackson used a "Titanic" analogy to say Columbia Housing Authority Executive Director Gilbert Walker is steering a ship that’s sinking — It’s why the Senator introduced Senate Bill 506.

“This is a bill in response to the Columbia Housing Authority situation. What it does– is it allows any municipality that has a housing authority, that has chartered a housing authority, under extreme cases, can dissolve the whole commission,” Jackson told WLTX.

For weeks, and behind closed doors, Jackson was fine-tuning the bill with attorneys and other experts before introducing it this week. He is the bill’s sole sponsor.

The two-page bill says in part:

“The county legislative delegation may adopt a resolution declaring that there exists a state of emergency with regard to a municipal housing authority located within the delegation’s jurisdiction if, to the satisfaction of a majority of the legislative delegation, there is convincing evidence that the housing authority has taken action, or failed to take an action, resulting in any or all of the housing authority’s residents being systemically subjected to unreasonably hazardous conditions or being subjected to conditions that led to the death of one or more residents.”

On January 17, Allen Benedict Court residents Calvin Witherspoon and Derrick Roper were found dead in their separate apartments due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

“It installs a level of accountability. It says if you have extreme cases, such as two people losing their lives, negligence that has been proven, then the entire commission should be held accountable,” Jackson added about his bill.

Jackson’s bill would apply to the entire state.

If enacted, the emergency declaration would suspend housing authority commissioners for 90 days while an investigation is launched. The local mayor, or a mayor’s designee, would take over the powers and duties of the local housing authority.

The suspended commissioners would have an opportunity to make their case, but if the city or local government finds a lack of action or taken action that caused the hazardous conditions or deaths, they’re removed immediately.

“The Commissioner says, ‘I did not know.’ I’m saying, you should have known. You are in charge, you hired the Director, the Director answers to you. I’m not pointing the finger at anyone. The Director is a personal friend of mine, but I think in a situation like this, we are obligated to do something,” Jackson said.

Last week, Columbia Housing Authority Commissioner Jennifer Rubin resigned her position, effective immediately, due to what she claimed was a lack of information.

The senator says local governments have a vested interest in housing authority operations due to the money and properties the authorities manage. Adding that taking over in emergencies would not be an unnecessary burden.

Jackson said his bill is one way Richland County’s state representatives can create change.

“What we are finding out now is that there have been a lot of things that were ignored, and someone has to be held responsible,” the Senator explained.

The proposed bill will go before the Committee on Labor, Commerce, and Industry. Jackson told WLTX the committee meeting for his bill has not been scheduled at this time.

WLTX reached out to Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin’s office for comment on the bill.

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