A decade as consultant for a low-income homebuilder with a controversial legacy
Hal Sieber recalled visiting the Rev. Michael King at his trailer on Belews Creek in December 2003 two days before the founder of Project Homestead, a nonprofit homebuilder whose ascendancy was as spectacular as its collapse was sudden, took his own life.
“I was amazed at the simplicity,” Sieber said. “I was amazed at the torment that I saw. And looking back, I wonder why I didn’t ask certain questions, unless I then thought that it was none of my business.”
Sieber had parted ways with Project Homestead about two years earlier, but for most of the 1990s he had worked as a consultant for the nonprofit after being lured away from a post as editor of the Carolina Peacemaker.
King and Beacon Management owner George Carr had visited Sieber before Project Homestead was launched to discuss the possibility of building housing for low-income families; Sieber said King respected his opinion.
As someone with a professional background in public relations and business and an abiding personal interest in social justice, Sieber’s expertise in housing was limited.
“The only experience I had was the experience of feeling that I knew that lower-income people had the same rights to economic and social and political opportunity as anyone else, and that if you were talking about a percentage of income, that poor and low-income people always made a bigger contribution even when they made no contribution in dollars because of the absorption of the costs of the products they purchased and used,” he said. “And it made clear to me that if I had to choose between what the millions of poor people might want or need or could use or would use or knew how to handle or were handling already and so on, and what upperincome people did, that upper-income people could afford what they were doing, and the feeling that they would make decisions which provided economic opportunity for the country that were more valuable than what poor people could make decisions, I thought that was a bunch of poppycock.”
Considering its collapse and the founder’s suicide, the venture’s reputation is tarnished, to say the least. Work by future researchers might determine the extent to which the nonprofit improved the housing stock of Greensboro or to which it shorted the clients who bought houses through its program. Someone else will balance the books between how much
Project Homestead increased tax valuation for Greensboro and how much the failed nonprofit left city taxpayers holding the bag.
Sieber holds the view that the project’´s impact on the whole was positive.
“I think it’s a mixed legacy,” he said. “But at the root of that mixed legacy is a knowledge that it is possible in a capitalistic society to think of other people first, especially in housing.”
News & Record reporter Amanda Lehmert wrote in a 2008 article that the city of Greensboro asserted in court documents that it was owed $1.3 million from Project Homestead, but the city was likely to recoup only about $128,000. The paper reported that a 2003 audit by the city of Greensboro found that Project Homestead “failed to track millions of local and federal grant dollars and did not pass equity on to its low-income homebuyers.” The report also listed among the city’s claims, “$480,000 the nonprofit builder diverted for personal use, such as buying firearms, entertainment, travel and expenses.”
The N&R’s groundbreaking work on Project Homestead was done by Stan Swofford in 2003. Swofford wrote in a story shortly after King’s death that Project Homestead sold shoddily constructed homes and often stalled on requests to correct defects until after warranties had expired.
Sieber disputes the city’s claims, and faults the N&R for advancing what he views as a skewed picture of Project Homestead’s financial relationship with the city.
“I agree 100 percent that every penny the city gave Project Homestead should have been accounted for, and the fact is that it was,” he said. “It was returned because of several ways. One was because there was some cash which had been given to Homestead to use which when it was no longer used it was returned. There was some money that Homestead never saw because the city had it all along and they paid Homestead’s expenses all along the line of those things. Then there was the money that when King died, King was the administrator of an agency that the city had expected to do something with the money, so it went back to the city. Then there was the money that went to the city when the houses were sold. Then there was the money that Homestead had and was using and it was using at the direction of the city, but the city had never given to Homestead.”
Sieber expressed astonishment at the notion that King misappropriated funds to buy firearms and other personal items.
“They’re crazy,” he said. “You can’t divert something you can’t have. I disagree with what the city had been saying about a diversion of funds from Michael King. For them to say it, they would have to prove it.”
Sieber said Project Homestead left a positive stamp on the lives of poor people by giving them the opportunity to become homeowners and control their own wealth. He contends that the venture also benefited Greensboro as a whole by increasing its tax base.
“Homestead was the city of Greensboro because the houses went to the city of Greensboro,” Sieber said. “The development improved the stated value of the city of Greensboro property. It brought in taxes. It brought in opportunity. It brought in things you would have to pay for, but you got for free.”
Sieber said he left Project Homestead in 2001 for a few reasons, including his own evolving professional interests, King’s behavior and a sense that the nonprofit’s business dealings were not entirely on the up and up.
“Michael was beginning to become a little tiny bit aggressive by stroking my back during meetings,” Sieber said. “He would stand behind my chair, and it was very uncomfortable. His wife wasn’t paying attention to him anymore, and there was a lot of tension around the place. Michael showed signs of being a little selfish in the way the project was run. It had started to help people, and it was getting beyond that.”
Thinking back to his last visit at the trailer on Belews Creek two days before King’s death, Sieber sometimes sees King as traveler who has been beaten, robbed and left for dead in the Christian parable.
“I become like everyone else — a passerby,” Sieber said. “And sometimes I wonder whether passing by was the right thing to do. I just don’t know. And yet I don’t see any value in trying to place yourself in the story of the Samaritan. I see a value in what you did with your life after you passed by, because it’s already fraught with the guilt of having passed by or the purported or seeming guilt from not knowing whether you did the right thing or the wrong thing. I don’t know. And you’re asking me some questions about the man in the ditch. And I don’t know if he was crying out for himself or warning society or being in agony or just talking or…. I just don’t know.”