Authority seeks flexibility
Not only can the Housing Authority not build more public housing units, it also is severely hampered in its ability to borrow money, because it can’t use the buildings it owns as collateral. Both of those limitations stem from the agreement the authority has with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). So, the Authority is hoping to change that agreement.
HUD is kicking off a new program, called Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD), which will seek to move HUD into the voucher housing system of Section 8 housing.
About 20 years ago, all housing authorities in Georgia were offered the ability to get into the Section 8 business, but many, including Covington’s Authority, declined and have never been offered the opportunity again. The RAD is that opportunity.
The way Section 8 housing works like this: Once a unit or home is approved by HUD to be a Section 8 property, it can then be rented out to anyone who qualifies for Section 8 assistance. If the market rate on a unit is $500 and a person can only pay $300, that person can get a voucher from HUD for an additional $200, Housing Authority Executive Director Greg Williams said.
There will be no change for 95 percent of residents, but the change will be huge for the Authority, according to Williams, by allowing it to:
• Use its buildings as collateral to secure loans and allow it to access private financing.
• Use its existing annual funding from HUD with more flexibility. (Currently, authorities have to spend all the money they receive from HUD within four years, which reduces their ability to save for big projects.)
Construct more buildings. (The Authority had to use funds that didn’t come directly from HUD to participate in the New Leaf Center project.)
• Greatly simplify its reporting, which is quite "onerous" under HUD’s current structure, Williams said
Part of the reason authorities need access to private financing is that HUD has consistently cut back on annual appropriations. Under RAD, funding is supposed to be guaranteed for 40 years. Williams said some authorities are skeptical of that promise; however, he believes HUD is committed to the shift.
Williams said a decision about whether the Covington Authority will get RAD funding is expected to be made by the end of the year.
One way the Housing Authority will look to take advantage of this new-found flexibility is by pushing to form a 501(c)(3) New Leaf corporation that can receive corporate donations. New Leaf could be the arm the Authority uses to pursue community and workforce development projects in the future, such as a business incubator. One potential move could be to get a New Leaf company credentialed as a developer, so the organization could actually generate revenue by overseeing construction projects.
Some families have lived in the Covington Housing Authority’s public housing for more than 30 years, raising generation after generation in the federally subsidized apartments.
And for years, the authority’s focus was to maintain its 280 units and the status quo.
However, Executive Director Greg Williams believes public housing is supposed to be temporary, transitional housing for those who have fallen on hard times and are trying to work their way back to a better life.
As a result, he and others are adding programs to help residents improve their skill sets and prepare them for a life beyond public housing.
All about the authority
The Covington Housing Authority owns four different properties with a total of 280 federally subsidized housing units, the same number of units it’s had for decades and will continue to have, thanks to federal law. As of Oct. 1, 1999, public housing authorities are not allowed to increase their total number of subsidized housing units.
The bulk of the Covington Housing Authority’s units, 180, are located at its main complex on Alcovy Road, while the remaining 100 units are spread among three other locations, including Fowler Court (44 units), a senior-citizens community off Industrial Boulevard across from Mamie’s Kitchen; Holmes Court (32 units), off Turner Lake Road; and Taylor Street (24 units), off Jackson Highway.
The units at Alcovy Road are close to 50 years old, while the others around town are around 30 years old, Williams said, noting they’re all in pretty good shape and don’t require a great deal of maintenance.
The Authority has a variety of residents who pay a variety of rents. Some pay the minimum rent allowed, around $50, which is for people who are out of work or disabled.
Others pay a flat rent based on the location and size of the apartment they’re in, which could mean $250-$300 for a one-bedroom unit. The rest of the residents pay rent based on their income, including some who can afford to pay $500 or more a month, the going market rate for an apartment that size.
Tenants must sign a strict lease and follow a set of rules in order to stay in the units.
Under the federal "Faircloth Limit," housing authorities can only add new units if they tear down existing ones, and they can only tear down existing ones if they’re uninhabitable. And while that prevents the Authority from adding more subsidized units, it doesn’t prevent it from exploring other options to aid local residents who need a helping hand.
Turning over a New Leaf
Construction was recently completed on the $3 million New Leaf Center, which will be managed by the Authority and contain both affordable-living apartments and classroom space for workforce development training.
The center is located in the Walker’s Bend subdivision, off Washington Street, a neighborhood once in decline that the city of Covington and a private developer have invested in heavily to turn around.
Though officials had hoped the center would include more space for a business incubator — the current hope is this can be housed in future buildings on site — the center represents a major change in the Authority’s model.
The center’s units will be open to the vast majority of the public — there are income requirements, but a family of four can make $79,600 and a single person can make $55,750 and still qualify — but affordable housing provides a steppingstone between public housing and homeownership.
The rents are right around market rate, $550 per month for a one-bedroom unit and $650 per month for a two-bedroom unit.
The rents basically start at the level of the highest rents for public housing.
However, not everyone is prepared to deal with higher rents, let alone start planning for homeownership, which is why the Authority and city have put an emphasis on starting financial counseling classes.
Williams became certified in financial counseling and then hired Shamica Redding, whose nonprofit Energema focuses on helping people become financially self-sufficient. Redding’s been teaching classes for the past few years and recently kicked off a new, more intense program, New Leaf Visions, that is open to all Newton County residents but is a perfect fit for Authority residents.
"We want to create opportunities for residents who are motivated to (move up)," Williams said.
While plenty of Authority residents are older and will likely remain on fixed incomes the rest of their lives, it’s the Authority’s younger residents who can find hope in the programs being offered.
"Even if only a small percentage of residents take advantage (of our offer), and other residents start seeing people moving out because they’re moving up and they realize the opportunity is there for them as well, then we’re hoping that will start something and eventually grow over time," Williams said.
"A lot of people who end up here don’t want to be here. They want to be able to move out and move up, and some are taking the initiative themselves to go to school and look for any kind of job they can get to help them save money."
Williams said the Authority is exploring the possibility of starting a scholarship fund to help residents who graduate from high school with successful grades get scholarships for college.