Linda Blake suspected something was amiss when a shipment of pro-housing board campaign signs was delivered to her door one day in 2016. Blake said Virginia Huddleston, the property manager of the 99-home Safe Harbor housing development in Bayou La Batre, told her to expect the shipment, but not why it was being delivered to her house or any other details.
“She had some signs made up that said we support the housing authority,” Blake said. “She told me they would be coming to my house. I went along with it because I live on a fixed income — there were several people out here my age or a little younger — and we were told we would have a place to live and the rent would not go up unless they absolutely had to go up.”
Blake and other Safe Harbor residents recalled the episode and other experiences last week, when news was spreading about Huddleston’s sudden resignation amidst a complete turnover on the Bayou La Batre Housing Authority (BLBHA). Huddleston was hired by the authority in May 2013 and shortly thereafter hired her own husband, Darryl Wilson — a former Bayou La Batre police captain and housing board member — as the maintenance supervisor at Safe Harbor after he voted to appoint Huddleston. Afterward, Wilson resigned from the board to accept the position of maintenance supervisor.
The wife-husband team remained the authority’s only two contract employees in the seven years since.
When outgoing Mayor Terry Downey spurred the shakeup on the board over the summer, both Huddleston and Wilson resigned. Documents uncovered by Lagniappe afterward revealed the couple had been awarded robust salaries of $120,000 for Huddleston and $89,000 for Wilson, annual bonuses and a retirement package passed by the board July 21 giving the pair a combined $4.1 million to be paid in a “lump sum.”
Reportedly, new members of the board have launched a forensic financial audit while law enforcement authorities are reviewing evidence for potential criminal charges.
The resignations were a dramatic end to Huddleston’s tenure, which began with a mission to stabilize BLBHA’s finances and secure additional affordable housing both in Safe Harbor and throughout the city. While it was a controversial decision in 2013, residents said within a month of being hired, Huddleston encouraged the board to raise rental rates, then began to evict tenants who were in violation of lease agreements.
“We were told that because we were over the age of 62, because we were not causing trouble and because we were faithfully and timely paying rent, it would stay at $350 per month,” Blake said. “Then it increased and there were some complaints and evictions, but we were always told there would be a chance at homeownership, or the board had some grand plan to develop Safe Harbor with a [laundromat], a senior place, maybe a fire department or a little grocery store. But I felt early on it was all bull crap. I found out later [the board] never went to the city to permit anything.”
Blake said she was grandfathered in with the $464 monthly rent she pays now, but neighbors with similarly sized houses pay $545. Initially constructed with $17 million in federal grants after Hurricane Katrina heavily flooded low-lying areas of the city, Safe Harbor was billed as an income-based community. The city held the deed to the property while BLBHA managed the rental income.
When she was hired, Huddleston reported BLBHA was in debt at least $124,426.72, but by 2014, reported the balance sheet was in the black by $39,414.96, “the first time it hadn’t lost money since 2010.” In addition to the rate hikes and evictions of non-compliant tenants, Huddleston said she found savings in the authority’s insurance policy and pest control contract while she also curbed legal spending.
Profit and loss sheets provided to Lagniappe indicate rental revenue increased from $318,828 in fiscal year 2012 to $526,155 just three years later. But the sheets also show expenses increased over the same period from $439,896 to $506,731.
But as the city still held title to the property, successive mayors from Brett Dungan to Annette Johnson to Terry Downey continuously sought more detailed financial and operations information from BLBHA, information they’ve said was never received. Lagniappe repeatedly requested copies of financial audits from 2014 to date, but was repeatedly told they were not ready.
In 2016, when word spread the City Council was exploring options to sell vacant lots in Safe Harbor to potential home builders, Blake said that’s when the campaign signs arrived.
“It was odd. We were supposed to participate in a campaign to ‘Save Safe Harbor,’ but we didn’t know it was in any danger,” she said. “That’s when I got to looking around and I saw other things that didn’t look right.”
Blake said she began to attend BLBHA meetings but was bothered by the lack of information that was shared, a generally negative attitude in response to her inquiries for records, and a frequent habit of the board to convene in executive session — without the presence of an attorney — to discuss even basic contractual or financial decisions.
Blake claims management turned a blind eye to chemical residue she found in one house she rented, and never addressed a complaint she filed about a mouse infestation in her current house.
“They would keep telling me to go to the website to fill out the online form, but they weren’t responding to those requests anyway,” she said. “A lot of people out here are older and don’t even have access to the internet or know how to fill out the form.”
In 2016, the city eventually relented and deeded the Safe Harbor property to BLBHA. Records indicate BLBHA was initially interested in developing the vacant lots in Safe Harbor to fund investments in other properties around the city, but by December of last year, the board voted to sell the property. Then, when it came time to renew Huddleston’s and Wilson’s employment contracts this year, the board agreed to establish retirement accounts for the couple, pledging to fund it with nearly the entire proceeds of Safe Harbor’s $4.5 million projected sale price. This, after they were each awarded $69,000 bonuses in February.
Ashley Waters was evicted from Safe Harbor in 2014, after she and other residents sued BLBHA over the rent increases and failure to provide a path to homeownership. She was a frequent critic of both the housing board and the City Council when she was a resident, and she believes Huddleston and Wilson were both hired illegally.
“I was at the meeting where Virginia got voted in and the board didn’t even have a full quorum,” she said. “They called one member over the phone and got her to vote. Then, Darryl Wilson went from being on the board to maintenance man to assistant management all in one year, against ethics laws about revolving doors. And I tried to file an ethics complaint, but I guess because I’m a nobody, nobody would listen.”
Waters claims she was “retaliated against” by both Huddleston and Wilson as the result of her complaints, and alleges the couple sought a gag order against her in the lawsuit. Waters said she was eventually kicked out of the community with 24 hours notice, and later rejected the settlement offer provided in the lawsuit.
“Rent tripled from the time I first got out there to the time I left, and it was supposed to be income based,” she said. “My income did not triple. They tried to make it sound like we were criminals or miscreants, but a lot of hardworking people out there got evicted. We never wanted the houses for free — we wanted to pay, but there’s a price that’s too high and they took away our option to buy.”
Waters said when she learned about the salary and benefits packages awarded to Huddleston and Wilson last week, “I got sick to my stomach. I had to say something, and I don’t care about any gag order.”
“Knowing I lost my house because of them and knowing what they were gaining, it’s clear we weren’t doing any wrong — it was them,” she said. “It’s a slap to my face.”
Among the documents requested by residents, Lagniappe and the City Council that were never provided by BLBHA were simple meeting minutes from recent years. When newly appointed board member Johnny Hatcher gained access to the Safe Harbor office earlier this month, he was able to find and provide them within minutes.
Last week, Hatcher was reviewing financial records and came across a motion to approve the purchase of two Ford F-150 trucks for $42,000 in 2018. Residents told him they never saw the trucks and he couldn’t immediately locate documentation on their purchase in the Safe Harbor office.
While it appears documents prior to 2018 have been destroyed in accordance with state law, more recent meeting minutes shed light on some efforts BLBHA made to retain the property before it eventually opted to sell.
In October 2018, a motion was passed to update the bylaws to reflect a change from “low- to moderate-income housing” to “workforce” housing. The next month, a motion to amend Huddleston’s and Wilson’s employment contracts was passed, which awarded them a 2 percent annual pay raise beginning Jan. 1, 2019 “and every year thereafter and a retirement plan to include 80 percent of their outgoing salaries, plus a 1 percent annual cost of living increase beginning Jan. 1, 2027 and on Jan. 1 every year thereafter, and health insurance coverage comparable to their outgoing coverage until death.” Board member Johnny Joyner also made a motion to revisit the retirement plans in 90 days for “consideration of an increase in current annual pay.”
In March 2019 the board did revisit their pay, passing a motion to ratify the contractual annual pay increase for Huddleston and Wilson from 2 to 5 percent, retroactive to Jan. 1.
In December 2018, the board approved a motion to pay for all costs for Huddleston to attend Louisiana State University (LSU) online, “in order to obtain a Certificate in Construction Management.” On its website, LSU says the course requires 18 credit hours at $336 per hour, for a total cost of $5,868. Just five months later, according to board minutes, “Huddleston informed the board that due to personal issues she has withdrawn from the Construction Management program hosted by LSU.” No records indicate she ever refunded her tuition to the board, or if the board even requested it.
Also in early 2019, the board approved the expenditure of at least $50,000 to host “a fundraising event.” A source familiar with it said Huddleston and Wilson were the primary sources of contact for The Great Inflatable Race, allegedly sponsored by BLBHA and held at The Grounds on Saturday, May 25, 2019, Memorial Day Weekend.
While representatives of The Great Inflatable Race did not return calls seeking comment, it appears the money was at least partially spent on rent at The Grounds and advertising. Records indicate the board approved a $9,103 expenditure to place ads for the event on movie screens at Regal Theatres while the board also paid Lagniappe $12,123 for several weeks of print ads.
Minutes also suggest there were three payments to The Great Inflatable Race that would have totaled $50,000, but only two payments were found in board minutes. If $50,000 was indeed paid to The Great Inflatable Race, the total expenses for the fundraiser would have exceeded $70,000.
But nowhere on the ads run in Lagniappe did it indicate the event was in any way sponsored by BLBHA or served as a fundraiser. On its website, The Great Inflatable Race offers sponsorship packages to host events nationwide, and requires attendees to pay a $75 registration fee. Photos and video from the event on social media show very light attendance, and meeting minutes never reflect a discussion of the event’s success or failure at fundraising.
“I asked about the fundraiser, but [Huddleston] just laughed at me,” Blake said. “I asked her, ‘You don’t know if it broke even or not?’ And she reared up and said, ‘Well, of course it broke even.’ But she never gave any proof. We weren’t even invited, but even if we could have gone, who’s going to pay $75 to go play in a bounce house all day?”
Throughout 2019, meeting minutes show the board contracted with an architectural firm to design homes to develop empty lots in Safe Harbor. It also paid an engineering firm for a topographic study. But a letter from attorney Brent Day to BLBHA dated Dec. 3, 2019 noted he had “recently been informed the board has voted to sell the real property upon which is located the housing units which are necessary to continue the business of operating a housing authority.”
“As you are aware, the authority can do all things necessary to continue the operations of a housing authority including the sale of real property when the same has been determined by the board to be in the interest of the authority and consistent with its duties as outlined in [state law],” he wrote. “If the purpose of the sale is to purchase different real property or other to continue the business of operating a housing authority, the board’s decision should be in furtherance with the duties mentioned above. If the purpose of the sale in any way is violative of the duties of the authority, I advise rescinding the decision immediately.”
At the BLBHA meeting Dec. 17, records indicate the board passed a motion to sell Safe Harbor after retaining the services of attorney Doug Anderson. The sale was brokered by NAI Mobile and set for auction in November, but it was effectively canceled when the new board was appointed and Huddleston and Wilson tendered their resignations.
Bayou La Batre Mayor-elect Henry Barnes said he was shocked to learn about the contracts at Safe Harbor. Exaggerating, Barnes said he “probably had 3,000 to 4,000 complaints about Safe Harbor over the years,” but voted along with the rest of the City Council in 2016 to give the property to BLBHA.
“I heard the houses were not being repaired, several had mold or leaky roofs and pretty much there was no maintenance going on,” he said. “I made the motion to sell four years ago because I understood that’s what most residents wanted. So, I relented and said I’ll just sit back and watch. Now with the contracts, I thought that’s just ridiculous. I think a lot of people were deceived out there, while others were just playing the victim. I had a bad feeling when we gave the property to the board, and had in the back of my mind it will implode. I’ve been around politics just about all my life but this one is unique. But I always say anything that’s been done can be undone. The laws have to apply equally to everybody.”
Hatcher, meanwhile, wants to reassure residents the upheaval is over. He said after the board’s financial position is clear, he’d be interested in helping to draw up a long-term maintenance and growth plan for Safe Harbor.
“It’s not been managed right in my opinion,” he said. “But I think we’ll always have a managing board here to keep it up, keep it the way it’s supposed to be.”
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