Future for Public Housing?
By Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Oct 28, 2013, 10:00
Dorothy Flowers walks around a field of mud and water in Thomas Rolfe Court where drainage is a problem.
HOPEWELL — For 72 years, the city of Hopewell has owned and operated public housing properties. It began with the development of Davisville in 1941 and increased to a total of seven properties by 1982.
Fast forward to 2013. Steven Benham, executive director of the Hopewell Redevelopment and Housing Authority, is continuing to manage the properties despite dwindling funds and an ever-growing need for redevelopment.
And as the properties age, the list of maintenance issues gets longer. Many properties have cosmetic problems such as paint damage, old caulking and rust spots. While other properties show signs of more serious problems, like poor drainage around the buildings and splitting masonry from shifting foundations.
“I think one of the reasons why redevelopment is such an essential option is because you cannot remedy some of those issues,” Benham, who has been with HRHA since 2009. “It’s not that the housing authority and housing authorities in general are not aware of some of the deferred maintenance issues that are related to housing.”
Redevelopment will soon begin on one of the oldest properties in the city, Langston Park. Built in 1962, Langston Park has been through unsuccessful renovations in years prior. Benham explained that the housing unit used to contain 40 units, 10 units more than the current 30 units. Those 10 units had been torn down and then rebuilt and then torn down permanently due to shrink/swell soil issues.
After a request for proposals, HRHA chose Community Housing Partners to complete the $9.5 million project. CHP, a nonprofit master developer based in Richmond, has anticipated breaking ground on the project at the beginning of January 2014. Benham said the financing for the project will be wrapped up by the Thanksgiving holiday.
Through an award presented by Rental Assistance Demonstration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, earlier this year, HRHA was able to secure the funding for the project. RAD allows HUD properties and private owners of HUD-assisted properties to convert their current assistance over to long-term Section 8 contracts. RAD is expected to rehabilitate over 12,000 units of affordable housing and provide more than $650 million in private capital to those housing authorities in need.
Another funding source for the project came in the form of low income housing tax credits. The HRHA will be using the credits for the first time during the redevelopment of Langston Park.
The new plan for Langston Park includes demolishing the buildings and replacing them with more modern, energy-efficient apartments. The process will also include a relocation of some of the residents currently residing at Langston Park. Benham said the construction process will be done in a “leap frog” manner. Residents will be moved to one building while another is torn down and rebuilt and then moved into the new building.
Properties need work
Though Langston Park will soon be getting an upgrade, Benham said the other properties in the housing stock need work as well. Currently a plan is in place to upgrade or replace the other six properties in HRHA.
“Our long range plan, what it does is that it priorities the redevelopment of all of our properties, every property that we have in the housing authority,” Benham said. “It is our stated goal and part of our vision to redevelop every property in the portfolio. The next one that we have identified is Kippax Place, which is our senior high rise.”
JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT Alfred White, 82, shows where water has been dripping on the heating duct in the middle of his apartment in the Thomas Rolfe Court complex.
Kippax Place was built in 1973 and has 100 units. In a report, generated in March of 2012, it was classified as being in “fair” condition. Benham said after Kippax Place, the next property in line is Thomas Rolfe Court. Thomas Rolfe, built in 1953, with additional units being added in 1962 for a total of 136, were both classified in the same report as being in “poor” condition.
In 2009, a physical needs assessment was done of all the housing in the city. Benham said the assessment, which is required to be completed once every five years, determined that over a span of 20 years, it would cost the housing authority $25 million just to maintain the housing in its current state. The housing was also described by the board of commissioners as “functionally obsolete.”
HUD also conducts inspections of the public housing properties in the city. If a property scores in the 70 percent range, it is inspected every year, 80 percent range the property is inspected every other year and if the property scores in the 90 percent range it is inspected every three years.
If a property scores in the 70 to 89 percent range, it is considered a “standard performer,” which Benham said HRHA has “consistently been a standard performer,” however he indicated it will become more difficult to sustain those scores.
“It gets hard and harder to pass quite frankly,” Benham said. “The older your properties are, the older your properties get.”
Residents in Thomas Rolfe Court have voiced their concern for improvements to their housing units. Many are ready to see HRHA come in and make some changes, such as Reginald Shands, who has been with the housing authority for 11 years and uses a walker to get around.
“They haven’t painted in 11 years. My apartment needs to be painted,” Shands said. “I can get you paint. They have got to get someone to paint. I can’t afford to hire a painter.”
Shands also said when he has reached out to management, he has not received a timely response to his inquiries or concerns.
“All they want is money,” Shands said. “They want money. I was ran up with roaches. It looked like the more they sprayed, the more we had.”
JAMES PEACEMAKER JR./HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT Reginald Shands says his apartment hasn’t been painted in 11 years.
Dorothy Flowers, a resident of Thomas Rolfe Court, has been with the housing authority for over 40 years. She has put in some work herself to try and improve her housing unit, such as painting and constant cleaning, but remains unhappy with the conditions.
Splits in the walls, bugs, dry-rotted blinds and stained floor tiles are among the complaints Flowers has listed with her unit.
“They keep telling me there’s nothing wrong with my apartment,” Flowers said.
Nikki Williams, resident of public housing for three years, said she has experienced many problems in her unit as well, such as the lights constantly blinking in the bathroom.
“Every month I have got to call them for something,” Williams said.
One month, Williams said she had to call the housing authority due to a shortage in the fan above her stove. She said the housing authority told her not to use it, because it was a fire hazard.
Benham and his staff with HRHA has heard the complaints of the residents, some many times, however due to a diminishing supply of resources, he said there is not much that can be done.
“Operating subsidy for public housing is going down and it has trended down consistently and so we’ve got a shrinking base of resources and as these properties age, you’re getting an increased amount of maintenance and more and more it has to be deferred,” Benham said. “What you ask yourself is that we can either look for innovate ways to redevelop this housing or we can pretty much preside over a decaying housing stock that we know is going to decay because we just don’t have the money to maintain it.”
Currently, Benham said the housing in the city is sustainable at it’s current levels, but as the years pass, this will no longer be the case.
“Our housing is sustainable at it’s current level, no bells, no whistles, it’s just we keep the lights on, we keep the grass cut, we can repair things, there’s absolutely no room for improvements,” Benham said.
This is why Benham has stressed the importance of redevelopment, the only solution to get the housing authority out of this problem.
“One of the very reasons we decided to redevelop is because we can’t sustain this model. We really can’t,” Benham said. “And all indications from HUD, by their past history of funding, has shown a steady decline.”
Sequestration also played a large role in the decline of funding to HRHA. Before sequestration, the housing authority was receiving a little over $2 million from HUD and now, they are receiving $1.6 million, an 82 percent proration due to sequestration. Benham said the sequestration was a 10-year bill and the housing authority will be operating at those levels for that time, unless the bill is repealed.
In order to get assistance from the city, Benham said the HRHA has to apply, just as other agencies in Hopewell, to receive a portion of the Community Development Block Grant. Benham said that fund, like so many others, has also become smaller as the years have passed. He said the authority has been awarded an average of $17,000 each year from the grant.
HRHA also works with a capital fund to maintain the properties. Benham said this fund, which is also getting smaller and smaller, has only been used for repair and upkeep of the properties. There is not enough in the fund to go toward redevelopment.
With the limited amount of resources, Benham said he is working to prioritize issues that exist among the seven properties. A preventative maintenance program has been established within the HRHA. As part of the program, Benham said the housing authority will go into a unit and repair issues that can be repaired, and often times residents do not have to call in those issues.
“We need to make sure that when you plug something into an electrical socket that you’re not going to get shocked and so that kind of takes priority over things like landscaping and things of that nature,” Benham said, noting that there is a landscaping contractor that works for the HRHA.
Several apartments in the Thomas Rolfe Court complex showed cracking walls.
Having housing stock that is over 40 years old will create problems, especially due to age, Benham said. He said the resources for the HRHA have been stretched thin over the years.
“My mission is to provide the very best quality of housing that we can afford,” Benham said. “So you may wish for a very, very high standard of living and to the degree that we can afford that we are going to give you the highest standard we can give you.”
Changes in future?
Faced with little resources, including a small staff of only 25 employees and growing needs of residents, a total of 987, Benham reached out to members of the community. To expand the capacity of the housing authority, Benham has created partners in the city, partners that contribute to the needs of the HRHA.
The HRHA has partners in the community that provide after-school care to the younger residents, GED tutoring programs to adult residents and even drug intervention programs. Some of the agencies and community organizations included in the list of partners for the HRHA are, the Appomattox Regional Library, Virginia State University, The James House, Hopewell Recreation and Parks, Smart Beginnings and Abundant Life Christian Center.
“We believe we have a very robust resident services program,” Benham said. “Not because we are staffed greatly but because we put all of that energy into coordinating with partners and make sure that we have partners who are in doing what we want to do.”
The HRHA will soon be involving other partners in the community with the groundbreaking of the redevelopment of Langston Park in January of 2014. Benham said Community Housing Partners, which has a construction company that is part of their overall company, has projected they could be subcontracting out to other contractors in the Hopewell area.
“We expect to involve local labor,” Benham said. “Whenever we do a HUD-related project, one of the things we’re strongly encouraged to do is hire low-income residents. So that’s not just public housing residents or Section 8 residents, but it’s any low income person in the city of Hopewell.”
Despite facing many obstacles, such as shrinking funds and an ever growing list of repairs, Benham said the authority is working to do the best with the resources that are available to them.
“I can’t make it happen if the money is just not there and this is a publicly funded program but I think we do a pretty good job,” Benham said. “We have really stretched our resources out to cover the issues we think are important and the issues that we’ve gotten a lot of volume from residents about.”
For the future, Benham also sees moving away from the current notion of public housing, referring instead of the housing in the city as affordable housing.
“Affordable housing opens up the umbrella a lot bigger than just public housing ... moving away from this notion of concentrated poverty where everyone is at a very low income level and all of the issue that go along with concentrated poverty,” Benham said.
He said the HRHA will soon go to mix income levels, which he said will create a better environment for all the residents. Currently, Benham indicated there are some properties that have mixed income levels, such as Langston Park.
“We see public housing as we have known it in the past not existing anymore, and as rapidly as we can move away from that model, we will,” Benham said.