Roger Williams Homes was demolished last year and now the city and the Mobile Housing Board have begun to put forward plans to help former residents relocate back to the area.
After more than two years since the final families were relocated out of one of the city’s oldest public housing communities, a plan has begun to crystallize over the nearby area’s future, thanks to the efforts of city officials and the Mobile Housing Board.
On Tuesday, the plan to help revitalize the area around Roger Williams Homes cleared a major hurdle, after the Mobile City Council gave its blessing via a unanimous vote at its regular meeting, which followed an earlier meeting and recommendation of its administrative services committee.
During the committee meeting, interim MHB Executive Director Michael Pierce and the city’s senior director of neighborhood development Jamey Roberts pushed the plan that would transform some vacant land and abandoned properties around the former Roger Williams Homes development into new single-family residences. Those homes, Roberts told councilors, would be available to former residents of Roger Williams on a right-of-first-refusal basis.
“This is big,” Councilman Fred Richardson said.
However, the District 1 councilman and his colleagues on the committee, including Chairwoman Gina Gregory and Councilwoman Bess Rich, did recommend city officials and MHB report back on a quarterly basis regarding progress on the plan. The committee also recommended the council put in writing, as part of the agreement, that the council gets final approval of any funds spent on the project.
Roberts told councilors the intention was to allow developers to come in and use federal funds made available to the city to build the homes that would allow those who lived in Roger Williams to move back to the community.
“I like to hear it because displacement is a major concern,” Council Vice President Levon Manzie said. “If this works, this will be — and I know this is a word we use a lot — but this will be transformative. If this is done right, this will be a big help for those in our community.”
The last families were moved out of Roger Williams in October 2016. The complex was demolished in late December 2017, after MHB and the developer dealt with a number of delays.
The plan to redevelop the property where Roger Williams Homes once stood along St. Stephens Road on the city’s north side remains. However, those plans include a mixed-use, mixed-income approach with a percentage of market-rate housing along with a smaller percentage of low-income housing. The resulting development will, most likely, not include enough public housing to make up for the more than 400 units lost when Roger Williams was demolished.
This plan, presented to the council committee on Friday, March 22, would help supplement those units. While many of the homes would go to renters, Roberts and Pierce believe some could be used in a rent-to-own capacity, especially through the Housing Choice Voucher, or Section 8 program.
“The Mobile Housing Board has a vested interest in [home] ownership because it opens up vouchers for someone else,” Roberts said.
Pierce added that in his previous role as executive director of the MLK Redevelopment Corp., he had tremendous success fostering home ownership among low-income earners. In fact, he said, in overseeing 150 homes over 25 years, he only witnessed four foreclosures. In many cases, the debt-to-income ratio among MLK clients was 38 percent, he said.
“They don’t mess that up often,” Pierce told councilors. “It changes the whole mindset. They pay a mortgage and pay bills like everyone else.”
If the agreement is approved by MHB commissioners, it will finalize a larger agreement between the board and the city and allow the organizations to work together on the city’s housing issue. It will give the city greater access to areas of need, while allowing MHB access to a larger pool of federal resources.
MLK Redevelopment Corp.
While he will no longer be the nonprofit’s executive director, Pierce said he wants to make the MLK Redevelopment Corp. part of MHB’s larger umbrella. Specifically, Pierce wants to make the MLK organization an affiliate of the larger housing authority.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allows for housing authorities to have nonprofit affiliates, as long as they are separate entities. Many authorities take advantage of this.
Under the proposed arrangement, Pierce said MLK would have its own board and he would not be an employee. He added MLK would “continue to do the thing it has done,” but it would open it up to new funding streams.
“We didn’t want it to go away,” Pierce said of MLK. “We didn’t want it to shut down.”
Pierce said both the MLK board and MHB Chairman Norman Hill “loved the idea.” The plan, Pierce said, is still in its “infancy,” but the board and the authority would continue to work to put “meat on the bones of the structural framework.”
“I don’t see a downside to it,” he said.
A previous iteration of MHB went to great lengths to re-incorporate employees of its then nonprofit Mobile Development Enterprises into the board framework after a HUD watchdog found a conflict of interest and other issues with MHB’s nonprofit arm. Among the findings in a report filed by the federal agency’s Office of Inspector General in August 2016 was that MHB and MDE were too close, as the two entities shared employees, board members and office space.
MLK and the new board members would have to avoid these same issues in order to move forward with this plan in a way that wouldn’t bring about scrutiny from HUD.
MHB commissioner appointments
While both sides agree Mayor Sandy Stimpson still has the power to appoint members to MHB, a newly enforced measure in the Zoghby Act appears to grant councilors an opportunity to affirm those appointments.
At its March 21 meeting, Carlos Gant’s name appeared on the council agenda. Gant is the latest mayoral appointee to the board. He was selected to finish the term of former MHB Chairwoman Kimberly Pettway, who resigned in February. He was unanimously approved by the council.
A section pertaining to the powers of the mayor in the state law that set up Mobile’s current form of government does appear to give council some oversight in the selection of MHB commissioners and other appointments.
“Appoint the members of the Airport Authority and the Industrial Development Authority,” Alabama Code section 1144C-37 reads, regarding mayoral powers. “The members of the Airport Authority and Industrial Development Authority shall be subject to confirmation by a vote of five members of the council, and the housing board.”
Given this new enforcement of the law, Manzie has asked the administration to submit for confirmation all current MHB commissioners. Those include Hill, Joyce Freeman and Tyrone Fenderson Jr. There is a remaining commissioner position currently unfilled. Former Commissioner Brie Zarzour also resigned in February.
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