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Affordable housing takes root in Newton County
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Like many people, Jasmine had a negative view of housing authorities—commonly conflated with ‘the projects’—before she came to live at New Leaf in Walker’s Bend, Covington.

The 25-year-old flight attendant was pregnant and needed “reasonable, well kept” housing when she saw an ad in the paper for New Leaf, an affordable housing apartment complex owned and operated by the Covington Housing Authority.
Nearly a year after moving in, Jasmine says she “loves” her living arrangement, and that New Leaf is “perfect” for her infant son.

“I think I was a little more hesitant when I first found out [it was run by the Housing Authority],” she says. “I was like, ‘oh, I don’t know if there was going to be a lot going on, if it was going to be a harder process, if it was going to be not a safe environment for my child, but so far, so good.”

This month, the Housing Authority signed a draft contract with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to convert to a Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, paving the way for more affordable housing projects like New Leaf.

Advocates and HUD officials have described a national affordable housing “crisis” with more than 11 million families in America paying more than half their income towards rent. The commonly accepted affordability benchmark is 30 percent of income.

Covington Housing Authority Executive Director Greg Williams said he expects to sign a final contract with HUD by the end of September. The change will allow the authority to diversify its funding and branch out from public into affordable housing.

“We will be moving from basically public housing into another section of HUD called multifamily housing and we have a lot of discretion, a lot more flexibility in how we operate and certainly more ability to provide affordable housing,”

Williams said. “Currently, we’re very limited in what we can do because most of the funds that we can receive are designated for public housing and as such we are not allowed to use them in any other capacity.”

RAD was launched several years ago to address the growing stock of underfunded and inadequately maintained public housing projects. With shrinking federal support and more than $25 billion in unmet capital improvements, HUD, through RAD, sought to convert public housing to a Section 8 platform and free individual housing authorities to access a variety of public and private funding options.

It also opens the door to other models, such as New Leaf.

Unlike traditional public housing, New Leaf, is privately owned by the Housing Authority, meaning that it receives no subsidies from HUD. Instead, it was built using city, county, federal funds and a construction loan, and remains self-sufficient from rental income and grants to run its workforce development program.

Whereas rent prices of public housing units are determined by HUD, the Housing Authority sets its own rents at New Leaf according to the affordable housing rubric. Affordable units are priced in tiers to cater to those making less than 50 to 120 percent of median income. In real terms, that amounts to individuals who make roughly between $23,000 and $55,000 a year and families that make between $33,000 and $79,000.

According to New Leaf Property Manager Shamica Redding, most developers want to build high end housing to increase profit margins, leaving a huge dearth of affordable housing for working people.

“We want to serve people who are making $10 to $20 an hour…so somebody who makes enough to support themselves but not enough to pay tremendous rents without causing them some hardship,” Redding said.

She emphasized that it was important to counter some of the negative stereotypes of affordable housing.

“I think it’s important to point out that affordable housing is for your teacher, your teaching assistant, your bank teller, your EMT, your nursing assistant,” she said. “I think there is a misconception of ‘oh, they’re building houses for ‘those people’;’ these people serve you every day.”

Redding welcomed the conversion to RAD.

“There is a need for good quality, affordable housing in Newton County and by converting to RAD we’ll have the freedom to do more developments like this and offer more options aside from the standard public housing,” she concluded.

The Covington Housing Authority operates 280 public housing units. Because the funding comes from HUD, the Authority is not allowed to build more units, or tear down and replace old ones, although it could afford to do so. Meanwhile, the waiting list for a subsidized home can stretch up to 12 months.

“The speculation is that as more and more authorities come on board [with RAD], it’s going to…really start taking off and…public housing will become the minority,” said Williams.

He emphasized, however, that the Authority will continue to own and operate its existing public housing units.

He admitted that some housing officials have expressed skepticism of the new program, pointing out that despite being billions behind on capital improvements, HUD has pledged funding through RAD for the next 20 years.

The RAD program will also allow the Authority to build on its existing relationship with the Covington Redevelopment Authority, which works with developers applying for Low-Income and Affordable Housing Tax Credits. Walkers Bend, where New Leaf is located, includes a mix of tax credit housing and traditionally-funded homes.

Williams said the Authority is exploring taking over existing units and turning them into affordable housing under RAD, but that plans are still in the earliest stage.