No second phase for HUD aid

Special federal aid for what ails Henderson has come to an abrupt end, although the city can look to the federal government for help in winning state support.

The technical assistance team from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s College of Experts will not return for a second visit to Henderson, Mayor Clem Seifert and Clean Up Henderson Committee Chairwoman Lynn Harper were notified last week, and consultants Yolanda Porche and Dorothy Reiser will not do anything further to help Henderson address the problems of abandoned and run-down housing.

“I am sorry to have to inform you that HUD has decided not to provide any additional technical assistance to Henderson, unless it is related to Henderson applying for HOME assistance from the State of North Carolina,” Reiser wrote in an e-mail message Wednesday.

That notification marked a sudden reversal in what city officials expected. Less than four weeks earlier, Porche exchanged e-mail with HUD officials in the Greensboro field office, which covers all of North Carolina, about the consultants’ initial three-day visit to Henderson in January and about their planned return visit.

“We think involving the State agencies and making our next trip to Henderson a joint visit with the State folk will greatly enhance our efforts,” Porche wrote to HUD’s Ed Ellis and Gary Dimmick on Feb. 25. “I look forward to having the conference call with the State people prior to our visit.”

Porche and Reiser’s eight-page report on their initial visit summarized how the consultants got involved in Henderson and what they intended to do: “The City and community members of Henderson requested technical assistance (TA) to assist them in designing homeownership and neighborhood revitalization programs. They hope to build new single family homes to increase homeownership opportunities for low and moderate income households, especially minority households. HUD Headquarters approved the request from the Greensboro HUD Field Office for the City to receive TA through the College of Experts (CoE) program and authorized the College of Experts to conduct an assessment to identify the specific technical assistance the City will need to carry out its vision of a revitalized neighborhood.”

The technical assistance was one of the crowning achievements of a Henderson lobbying trip to Washington last fall and of Kerr-Vance Academy students’ production last year of a video on the effort to clean up Henderson.

HUD had told Henderson that any requests for funding had to go through the state, Harper said. But the video persuaded Mimi Kolesar, HUD’s director of affordable housing programs, to take direct action.

During Thursday’s visit to Henderson by Drew Elliot, an aide to Sen. Richard Burr, Harper recalled what Kolesar told her: “Miss Harper, we have seen your film, and we want you to have some help in Henderson.”

It was a coup to get the College of Experts in Henderson, Harper said, and the consultants planned a six-to-nine-month program of bringing in experts to assist the city in making plans and learning how to do things such as land banking.

“It’s stuff we don’t know how to do,” she said.

But the scope of Henderson’s housing problems proved daunting to the assistance team.

“It is unlikely that a successful homeownership program can be implemented unless other problems in the target area are addressed such as poorly organized and inadequate streets, undersized lots, inadequate infrastructure to control erosion, abandoned and deteriorated structures and automobiles and a lack of amenities such as parks,” Porche and Reiser wrote in their site report after their visit.

They proposed forming a technical assistance team that could help identify the resources available, create a land-use plan and redevelopment design, analyze the market for homeownership, develop programs to counsel potential homeowners and encourage home rehabilitation and construction, come up with a strategy to buy property for redevelopment, and implement an action plan with short- and medium-term goals.

The cost to HUD for all of that help would have been $120,000, and the money isn’t there. Thus, Porche and Reiser won’t be back here.

“The Office of Affordable Housing determined after its review of the proposed project workplan for Henderson, NC that it is not a fundable HOME/CHDO COE project as currently presented,” Phyllis Shanks in HUD’s Technical Assistance Office wrote in an e-mail to the College of Experts consultants. (HOME is the name of a HUD program to expand homeownership and is not an acronym. CHDO stands for community housing development organization, a type of nonprofit organization designated to receive a portion of HOME funding. COE is College of Experts.)

“Red tape” is standing in the way of help, Seifert said, all because of an amount of money that’s big to Henderson but is nothing in the federal budget.

Harper said it was her understanding that the College of Experts program had only $300,000 left to spend nationwide, and Kolesar simply could not commit more than a third of that amount to one city.

But Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesman in Washington, said Monday that the situation is much simpler than Henderson’s proposal costing too much. Instead, he said, there’s no money for Henderson because it is not eligible for any discretionary funding.

“Henderson is not a community that receives direct HOME funding. Technical assistance is limited by law to participating jurisdictions,” Sullivan said. “Having said that, I think everybody would agree that HUD bent over backwards to provide the kind of technical assistance that Henderson could use to create a plan that hopefully could be accepted by the state of North Carolina.”

Participating jurisdictions, or PJs in HUD jargon, must be cities with at least 50,000 people or counties with at least 200,000, among other criteria, Sullivan said. They are eligible for direct HUD funding.

All of the North Carolina towns and counties that don’t qualify as PJs, including Henderson, must compete against one another for HOME funding through the state. This year North Carolina has $20.4 million in such funding.

Factors in winning HOME money include housing problems in the rental market, per capita income, the age of housing and vacancy rates, Sullivan said, as well as the plan on how a city will spend the money.

“The goal is to manage the program in way that gets more bang for the buck,” he said.

The HUD consultants are authorized to help Henderson apply for a share of that state HOME money, which could be used to buy, rehabilitate, or demolish and replace dilapidated houses.

Going through state agencies could mesh with the activities of the Jump Team for Henderson. The Jump Team, organized through the state Commerce Department, brings together a variety of state and federal programs that could address the city’s specific problems.

On Thursday, Seifert and Harper discussed scaling down the Henderson plan. The HUD consultants were looking at a plan covering the eastern half of the city, but the revised area likely will focus on North Henderson, bordered by North Garnett Street and East Andrews Avenue.

Sullivan, however, emphasized that even a scaled-down proposal would not be eligible for direct HUD funding.

“These funds are not available,” he said. “To the extent that we could possibly help the city of Henderson create a plan that could be competitive, we have done that.”

Just having HUD directly involved has made a difference for Henderson, Harper said. For one thing, an update of the city’s 1972 land-use plan was one of the consultants’ goals; now the state Division of Community Assistance is set to save Henderson tens of thousands of dollars by providing free staffers to do the work of consultants.

That’s an example of HUD’s involvement putting pressure on the state, Harper said.

As for the failure to secure funding for the full program of HUD technical assistance, “I do just consider it a setback,” Harper said, but not a dead end.

“We provided enough help to the city of Henderson that we could now say, ‘Go for it,’ ” Sullivan said. “God bless you.”