With two of its largest and oldest assets vacant and awaiting demolition, the Mobile Housing Board finds itself at a crossroads. The board of commissioners and the public housing agency it oversees must find a way to make existing conditions better for current residents, while also committing resources to a $750 million renovation of two entire sections of its decades-old housing stock. Additionally, MHB is working through a backlog of thousands on its waiting lists — which some have attributed to an affordable housing shortage — and is dealing with an occupancy of only 50 percent at two of its largest properties.
Despite recent condemnation from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and the resignation of Dwayne Vaughn as executive director, the board is looking to move forward as effectively and efficiently as it can. Chairwoman Kimberly Pettway said MHB would both look to the future and attempt to put more money into apartments that are currently occupied. She acknowledged that hasn’t always been the case.
“Mr. Vaughn was probably, in my opinion, a bit too focused on what is to come and not focused enough on what we have currently,” Pettway said. “I can assure you that you will see a shift in that.”
Both Pettway and interim Executive Director Lori Shackelford said MHB would “refocus” its efforts to make more apartments ready for occupancy and maintain the occupied apartments they already have.
“If you have a more short-term redevelopment plan then it makes sense not to completely occupy a site to then have to turn around and remove the people from the site,” Shackelford said. “If your redevelopment plan is too far in the future, then you need to fill vacancies now.”
Currently, there are a number of properties that are nearly 100 percent occupied, Shackelford said, while others, mainly those targeted for major, mixed-use, mixed-income redevelopment — such as R.V. Taylor and Thomas James Place — are closer to 50 percent occupied. Together, Thomas James and R.V. Taylor have about 700 residents. Some of the tenants displaced by the redevelopment will be housed in replacement housing both on- and off-site. One of those complexes, the 80-unit Cottage Hill Place, was recently awarded tax credits from the Alabama Housing Finance Authority (AHFA).
Shackelford said there are plans for more replacement housing. The two complexes facing the wrecking ball — Josephine Allen Homes north of downtown and Roger Williams Homes on Three Mile Creek — are completely vacant. But there are also plans to redevelop Roger Williams Homes along with the southside properties. Since MHB’s plan to convert all its properties to a rental assistance demonstration (RAD) program and redevelop a number of its oldest complexes has both short-term and long-term objectives, Shackelford said, it makes sense to keep an eye to the future while maintaining the present.
“Our plan has both short-term and long-term goals,” she said. “We’ll have to look at each property — and that will coincide with the ongoing process with HUD in Birmingham — to look at each property and see what the proper level of occupancy is. I do believe you’ll see more occupancy at those sites.”
One big problem involving the current state of the board’s occupied apartments is a lack of qualified maintenance people, one former MHB merit system employee said. When the board laid off 16 supervisors in 2014 and shifted from site-based maintenance to a more centralized system, problems at the various housing sites persisted, the employee said. Pettway referenced the issue during a special called board meeting on Monday, Feb. 13. She told other commissioners that during a recent visit to Mobile, HUD officials had suggested MHB go back to a site-based system. The board voted to move in that direction, which would mean hiring more maintenance staff in the near future.
Pettway said the previous system led to maintenance staff simply repairing reported issues but not evaluating the whole apartment. “We’ve had a culture of abate, abate, abate,” she said. “Our thinking about that process has to change.” She said the old way of performing maintenance was “unacceptable.” “If you wouldn’t stay there, don’t leave there” without fixing the issues, Pettway said. Waiting lists Pettway acknowledges the waiting lists are too long considering the board’s mission.
“I don’t have a clear picture as to all of the variables that play a role in that waiting list, but most certainly, if you consider that our mission is to provide housing and we have a waiting list of over 5,000 people, somewhere in my mind that’s an indication we are not fulfilling the role for which we were created,” she said. “The ‘whys’ behind that vary, but it’s concerning.”
That being said, cutting into the waiting list won’t necessarily be a priority, as the board will be focused on “what we have,” Pettway said. “We’re not just holding monies or resources over to the side in hopes of planning, you know, for what’s to come,” she said. “Rather, we are making use of what we can now to ensure we are fulfilling our obligations to our current residents.” As of late 2015, more than 5,000 people were currently awaiting either public housing or a housing choice, or Section 8, voucher.
More recent numbers were not available as of press time, but Shackelford said he didn’t believe the numbers have changed that much. The vast majority of the waiting list is populated with people who want a Section 8 voucher. There are only about 668 people waiting for MHB apartments. Shackelford said it’s not uncommon to have a large Section 8 waiting list.
“We have additional funding and we continue to lease, but we definitely don’t have enough money for everyone on the Section 8 waiting list,” Shackelford said. “I think that’s really the preferred program because you can take it wherever you want in the city. We always have an overabundance of people on the housing choice voucher list.”
Affordable housing shortage
Despite more than 31 approved tax credit properties, a number of groups specializing in helping the homeless contend the city and the county equally are suffering from a shortage in the affordable housing market. Housing First CEO Eric Jefferson said it’s obvious in the city. One problem among many is that tax credit properties are only required to set aside a certain number of units for low-income earners.
Kristi Gates, a spokeswoman for the AHFA, said a section of of the Internal Revenue Code requires either 20 percent of the units be set aside for families earning below 50 percent of the area median income, or at least 40 percent of the units be set aside for families earning below 60 percent of the area median income. Jefferson added that many landlords adhere to an unwritten rule requiring lessees to earn an income equal to three times the monthly rent.
For example, Jefferson said, a person renting a $600 per month apartment would need to make $1,800 per month to qualify. He said this even applies at some tax credit properties. To highlight the problem, Jefferson said 42 percent of the clients he sees only need affordable housing and no other assistance. Another 48 percent only need rapid rehousing, due to a catastrophic event. In all, 60 percent of Housing First clients have incomes, Jefferson said, just not much of an income. “[If] they have a medical emergency … they end up on the street,” he said.
Further, Jefferson said, MHB has no preference for homelessness, so Housing First clients must be placed on the authority’s waiting lists like everyone else. Another issue is that Jefferson’s agency has access to millions of dollars for families, or individuals suffering from a disability; however, roughly 60 percent of Housing First clients are not disabled and single. That means the organization only has access to $240,000 per year for the majority of its clients. Jessica James, executive director of McKemie Place, agreed that there is a shortage of affordable housing in the city. One reason for the shortage, James said, is the stigma attached to public housing. While many believe crime is associated with public housing, James said most people who live in public housing just want “a comfortable home.”
She said there can be a number of reasons people need affordable housing. “There are a lot of us living paycheck to paycheck and don’t know how real of a possibility this is,” James said. “It could affect us.” James’ clients at the temporary overnight shelter for women can get on the housing board waiting list and seek services from Housing First as well.
Some of the ancillary services 15 Place used to provide went away recently, Jefferson said. Those services included bag drop-off, showers, mail service and lunch. Jefferson blamed funding issues, which have plagued the services since Housing First took over 15 Place two and a half years ago. The organization requested additional funding from HUD this year but were denied. “I don’t feel good about making this decision, but we can’t afford to continue to run it,” Jefferson said.
The services were estimated to cost Housing First $186,000 this year, he said. 15 Place will remain open as a point of intake and counseling, Jefferson said. Despite rumors to the contrary, McKemie Place will remain open, James said. However, the loss of services at 15 Place will affect McKemie Place clients, she said, as many are dropped off there during the day.
“The closing of 15 Place’s ancillary day services for our area’s homeless was certainly a disappointment for us at McKemie Place,” said Garrett Rice, president of the McKemie Place board of directors. “We are currently working diligently for a temporary solution to the challenges that lie ahead of us in our efforts to serve the homeless women in our community. We look forward to working with other area agencies who support the homeless in our community on a more permanent solution to assist those who need these essential services.”
While the funding isn’t yet in place, Jefferson said Housing First has designs on an abandoned hotel on the Interstate 65 beltline that it would like to convert into 150 affordable housing units. The units would be a start, he said, as more than 650 units are needed in the area. Currently the only funds in the state used for affordable housing come from HUD, either directly or through Community Development Block Grants. However, a state funding source could be made available through an act of the Alabama Legislature.
Ashley Kerr, project manager for the Low Income Housing Coalition of Alabama, said House Bill 159, if approved, would create an Alabama Housing Trust Fund. The bill would increase the fee collected when someone purchases or refinances a mortgage from 15 cents per $100 of indebtedness to 30 cents per $100 of indebtedness. The fee, Kerr said, hasn’t been increased since the 1930s. The increase would mean an additional $15 million to $20 million per year for affordable housing, even after counties take their cut, Kerr said.
“It could help the affordable housing situation in some cities,” she said. “We have stock that is quite old. Some new units and some renovation is needed.”