Housing task force to concentrate on Orange Street

The mayor’s task force on housing is moving toward an initial focus on the Orange Street-Pettigrew Street area after a three-day visit to Henderson by two consultants paid by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

HUD College of Experts consultants Yolanda Porche and Dorothy Reiser closed their third trip to the city with a lunch at Shiloh Baptist Church on Wednesday. The 18 people at the lunch included City Manager Eric Williams, Vance County Manager Jerry Ayscue, county Commissioner Terry Garrison, and City Council members Lonnie Davis, Elissa Yount and Mary Emma Evans.

Reiser and Porche had dinner at Yount’s house Tuesday with local leaders in education, religion and social services and had a similar dinner session at Uptown Rose on Monday night with business leaders. Work sessions over three days at the police station included spending most of Tuesday with three officials from the state Division of Community Assistance.

The DCA sessions led to the selection of the Orange Street area as the initial action and redevelopment study area for the housing task force, led by Clean Up Henderson Committee Chairwoman Lynn Harper.

With the consultants’ federally financed help, the task force is looking into redeveloping parts of Henderson that are north and east of Young Avenue. The group has concentrated on three specific areas within northeastern Henderson to launch its work: the Orange Street area, roughly bordered by Mulberry Street, Spring Street, Merriman Street, Breckenridge Street and Elmwood Cemetery; a chunk of South Henderson west of Montgomery Street stretching from South William Street through Flint Hill to Alexander Avenue; and the North Henderson area around David Street, where the city has won $653,000 for a major Community Development Block Grant program.

The North and South Henderson regions are within the proposed Weed and Seed anti-crime zone. The West End area is not, but it’s only a couple of blocks beyond that zone.

Cliff Rogers, whose property management company owns extensive rental housing in the city, urged the housing task force Monday night to concentrate its initial efforts in the Weed and Seed area, Harper said.

Volunteers led by summer intern Brad Breece conducted an external survey of housing in the three designated areas, and the DCA compiled and mapped the results.

That work found that the housing stock looks the worst in the Orange Street area, where 39 percent of 87 houses were rated as being in severe condition and 22 percent were rated marginal. Severe houses require major rehabilitation or demolition; marginal houses need work but shouldn’t be too expensive to repair.

In the South Henderson zone, 11 percent of 280 surveyed houses were rated severe, and 19 percent were rated marginal. In the North Henderson area, 10 of 179 houses were rated severe, and 21 percent were rated marginal.

Jack Newman from the DCA said on housing alone, the Orange Street area is the clear choice for action.

The West End zone has several advantages as the first focus of the task force: the number of homes in need of major work; the concentrated area; the high ground clear of the streams that crisscross Flint Hill and safe from the sewage problems near David Street; proximity to downtown, commercial areas and King’s Daughters Park; and the potential to bring the neighborhood up to the level of the nearby Old West End.

Yount said Tuesday that the Orange Street area could be transformed into an area where people want to live. Such a success would set a positive example and show the city what housing redevelopment could accomplish.

Still, the deciding factor for the Orange Street was much more technical: It’s the only area with the digitized Geographic Imaging Systems mapping data the DCA needs to move forward with its free planning assistance. Code Compliance Director Corey Williams created the GIS maps a few years ago, when he was in the Planning Department, to support an unsuccessful city application for a CDBG revitalization grant for the area.

The rest of Henderson awaits the county’s GIS project, part of the move to countywide zoning. The Vance County Board of Commissioners this month authorized planner Ken Krulik to enter negotiations with Cadastra of Glen Allen, Va., on a contract for the digitized mapping work. According to contract being presented to the commissioners for approval Monday night, the project should take no more than a year.

The housing task force hopes to support the CDBG work in the David Street area through the demolition of abandoned houses, to stave off the blight while revitalization takes hold, but the Orange Street area will get the most attention initially.

“You work on what you can work on,” Harper said Wednesday. “Everything has an impact on every neighborhood. Everybody is affected by it.”

Garrison asked whether the task force’s efforts will focus on removing blight, improving current housing or expanding homeownership.

The task force’s answer is all of the above and more. With the planning assistance of the DCA and public input through a brainstorming session that will envision the possibilities, the task force intends to create a redevelopment plan that could redraw the neighborhood.

Dilapidated houses will be demolished. Run-down houses will be rehabilitated. Lots could be combined. Streets could be straightened and could see the addition of curbs and gutters. And a program of homeowner education, counseling and financial assistance will be established to turn an area dominated by renters into a neighborhood of owner-occupants.

“Homeownership is No. 1,” Harper said.

The hope is that expanded homeownership will produce neighborhood stability, which will attack the roots of problems such as crime and poverty. To that end, the task force hopes to tap a range of resources, from the free homeownership counseling offered by Franklin-Vance-Warren Opportunity to the rural development money available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the expertise and services provided by the state Commerce Department’s Jump Team for Henderson.

One consensus that came out of this week’s sessions is the need for the city and county to get aggressive in foreclosing on properties with tax liens, whether the debt comes from back taxes or from demolition and cleanup charges.

Harper said the proceeds of foreclosure sales could be reinvested in the redevelopment project.

Ayscue warned that the legal process is so expensive and the properties worth so little at this point that foreclosures are unlikely to bring in any money, but they could benefit the project by getting the land into the hands of people who intend to put it to productive, taxpaying use.

Garrison said the problem of blight is so bad that it’s time to accept the cost of an aggressive foreclosure program. “We might need a team of attorneys working exclusively on this.”

He said the community will see a long-term return because the tax base will grow and the demand for expensive social services will drop. “We’ve got to find a way to get this done.”

Harper said the task force will look to Congressman G.K. Butterfield for guidance. The Wilson Democrat has made a successful business in his hometown of buying and redeveloping run-down properties, and he urged Henderson to use foreclosure when he visited the city in February.

The congressman returns to Henderson for a tour of the Weed and Seed area Aug. 8, and the housing task force will seek his staff’s help.

The HUD consultants plan to return to Henderson two more times by November to complete their program of technical assistance, and the task force hopes to hold a visioning session and unveil more specific plans by then.