| 2013 Summer | story by HANK BOOTH, TRUMAN & SCOUT MEYERS | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
About $1.1 million of federal funding will be distributed to local agencies for housing and neighborhoods in Lawrence for the grant year beginning in 2013.
About $1.1 million of federal funding will be distributed to local agencies for housing and neighborhoods in Lawrence for the grant year beginning in 2013. That amount reflects drastic cuts from the U.S. Congress and the sequester that have left local agencies scrambling to maintain their assistance programs.
There are two main types of funds that the city and its local agencies receive from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): Community Development Block Grant, or CDBG, funding; and Home Investment Partnership funds, called HOME funds.
The Community Development Division of the City of Lawrence’s Planning and Services Department is the lead agency for the distribution of both CDBG and HOME funds. All recommendations for allocating these HUD funds are made by a mayor-appointed citizen advisory board, the Community Development Advisory Committee (CDAC), which comprises 11 members drawn from both low- to moderate-income areas and neighborhoods at large. Final approval of the CDAC’s recommendations comes from the Lawrence City Commission.
Even in more robust economic times, requests from local agencies to use the CDBG or HOME funds can be difficult for the Advisory Committee to allocate and fulfill. But with the economic downturn and shifts in fiscal policy by the U.S. Legislature, this coming grant year saw some of the most difficult decisions the Advisory Committee has had to make.
“When the need is higher, the finances are less and the resources are less,” said Advisory Committee chairperson Aimee Polson. It’s like a horrible backwards economics class of supply and demand. It’s like asking, ‘Where do you want to stab yourself first?’”
The Advisory Committee adheres to the city’s Step Up to Better Housing Strategy, adapted in 1997, to decide how to allocate funds in four categories: emergency housing, transitional housing, permanent housing and revitalized neighborhoods.
CDBG and HOME funds have been allocated to agencies such as the Lawrence Community Shelter, Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority, Housing and Credit Counseling, Willow Domestic Violence Shelter and the Douglas County AIDS Project.
“The committee was choosing between all of the needs for housing,” said Shannon Oury, executive director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority. “It was like they were trying to choose between spokes in a wheel. They fully appreciated what we were talking about: It’s people – families – needing shelter.”
Danelle Dresslar, the City’s Community Development Manager, administers three categories of CDBG funds: public services, which are capped at 15 percent; administration costs, capped at 20 percent; and capital improvements, which account for the balance. Because of the sequester, Dresslar and the committee assumed a five-percent cut, or about $57,000 less than last year, when making allocations this year. The final sequester amounts affecting CDBG funds will not be announced by the federal government until later in the summer, so the Advisory Committee had to play a bit of a guessing game with the allocation process.
Public services generally includes operations money for local agencies affiliated with housing. This year, for example, Housing and Credit Counseling will receive funds to assist families and individuals with their finances, and the Douglas County AIDS Project will receive an allocation for emergency assistance.
Capital improvement funds are allocated to neighborhood associations for neighborhoods that traditionally have low-to-moderate income levels, which allows them to pay a neighborhood coordinator and produce a newsletter. Neighborhoods receiving funding this year will be: Brook Creek, East Lawrence, North Lawrence, Oread and Pinckney, although all are receiving less than last year.
Other capital improvement funds are used to help income-qualified homeowners with home repairs, accessibility modifications, furnace loans and emergency loans. Many projects that don’t involve homes themselves but typically affect low-to-moderate-income residents, such as sidewalk improvements and crosswalk striping, are funded through CDBG, as well.
The Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority relies on HOME funds in its partnership with the city for tenant-based rental assistance, aimed at transitioning individuals and families from being homeless to becoming stable tenants. The Housing Authority works closely with other agencies, such as Bert Nash, Family Promise, DCCCA and Independence, Inc., to educate and assist the tenants along the way.
Unfortunately for the Housing Authority – and, consequently, Lawrence residents in its programs – negative national press about other cities’ handling of the HOME funds led to an unprecedented 38 percent cut in funding for this year.
“The government came to the opinion that local housing authorities had too much in their reserves, so they penalized housing authorities like us that had operated in a fiscally responsible manner, planning for the future,” Oury said.
The only bright spot for the Housing Authority is, for the first time, it will receive 20 housing vouchers for veterans, through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH). That means that 20 local veterans and their dependents will be eligible for rental assistance from HUD, plus case management and clinical services provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Oury said the Housing Authority applied for the VASH program to help offset some of the loss of HOME funds.
The Housing Authority’s transitional housing program for homeless families to gain a foothold as tenants, which has had up to 30 households in the past, will have a maximum of 23 this year. There are already 20 households on the waiting list for the two-year program.
Allan Vette represents the success of the transitional housing program. Vette, 50, will graduate from transitional housing in October. In the past two years, he has both worked and gone to school, earning certificates in air conditioning and welding. He will begin a program to be certified to do railroad freight car service later this summer, which has a 98-percent job placement rate.
“It has been amazing to be able to go to school. I never went to school in my life, and now I have certificates to show I’m qualified for a good job,” he said.
Vette was homeless and staying in the Salvation Army shelter, when Salvation Army counselor Carol Taylor encouraged him to apply for the transitional housing program and Vocational Rehab, which helped cover his schooling costs. He has lived in an apartment off 23rd St., where he can walk to his job at Checkers grocery store and to the bus stop for the JO bus, which he rides to Johnson County Community College for his classes.
Taylor worked with Vette and his Housing Authority counselor, Laurie Hooker, to make sure he would have his needs met while attending school.
“If everything hadn’t been in place the way it was, I wouldn’t have been able to go to school,” Vette said. “I’ve loved to work all my life, and I enjoy the fast pace of work. It has been an interesting two years, and I’m feeling really positive about the outcome.”
By the end of the year, Vette should be working for the railroad, repairing freight cars and tracks. He most likely will earn enough money that he won’t qualify for public housing of any sort.
“That’s why the funding cuts are so devastating,” Oury said. “We’ve really come up with a program that works. For people who have been homeless, our success rate is unheard of. I think it’s because we combine the service piece with the housing piece – we don’t just say, ‘Here’s your housing, goodbye.”
Dresslar said that the HOME cuts were one of the toughest things she had had to work through with HUD funding. “These are complete programmatic changes that these agencies are having to make,” she said. “Tenants to Homeowners runs its first-time homebuyers program with HOME funds. So now, there are way less potential homeowners they can get into homes.” ■