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LaGrange Housing Authority eyes decentralization

By Tyler H. Jones

tjones@civitasmedia.com

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LaGRANGE — The LaGrange Housing Authority allows children from across the community to attend its free child care program for a reason.

Zsa Zsa Heard, the authority’s executive director, said she hopes the kids’ interactions with different social circles will encourage positive behavior and development.

“The kids that live here have got to see other children that live differently,” she said. “If not, they might not ever hear the word ‘college’ or want to become a doctor. But if we blend them with other children that are involved in different things, maybe they play the violin or they play a different sport, maybe they get to learn something new.”

It’s a model that Heard would like to expand on a macro scale for her tenants. Instead of concentrating low-income housing in particular parts of LaGrange, Heard and the housing authority board are eyeing the possibility of decentralizing low-income housing, or moving it all together to more mixed-income areas of the city. It’s also in keeping with the city’s 20-year Comprehensive Plan that was approved by City Council on Tuesday.

“We’re obligated to do this,” she said.”We can’t continue to place people in the same neighborhoods with the same types of behaviors and expect people to change. We’re going to have to put some houses out on Mooty Bridge Road or somewhere.”

In LaGrange, low-income populations are concentrated in the city’s south side, particularly near Hamilton and Whitesville roads, where 40 percent of residents are considered low income, according to a 2006 transportation planning study by the county. By contrast, in the northwestern part of the city, north of Vernon Road and west of New Franklin Road, 2 percent of the population is considered low-income.

The ‘broken windows theory’

Heard hopes that by scattering low-income residents around the city, the positive traits of higher-earning residents will influence her tenants.

“If I live next door to someone and I know that he or she is more liable to do something illegal and we become buddies, I’m more likely to lean to the negative behavior,” she said. “But if that neighbor is just a middle-class mom coming and going to work and taking care of her kids, then that crime rate will decrease dramatically.”

She may be onto something, according to LaGrange Public Safety Chief Lou Dekmar. He calls it the “broken window theory.”

“In essence, what the broken window theory says is that certain environments create a climate for crime and those environments can be housing areas or residential or even industrial zones that are allowed to go into disrepair,” he said. “Say some kids are walking by a business is no longer active and they pick up a rock and throw it through a window. If that window isn’t fixed immediately, it telegraphs to everyone that nobody cares about the community.”

Dekmar said when people stop caring about their community, drugs and eventually violence can move in. He’s not opposed to the housing authority’s idea to move low-income tenants to mixed-income neighborhoods.

“I think it makes sense to put people in neighborhoods where they are going to be exposed to opportunities,” he said. “The key — like anything whether it be public housing or Habitat for Humanity — is vetting those individuals and ensuring that there’s no public safety issues created.”

Heard knows moving low-income residents into different parts of the city would be politically challenging, and some people aren’t going to like the idea. She’s hoping to partner with the city’s elected officials to win the community over.

“The city would need to support us,” she said “When we get the people that hate it, we’d like the council to still support it so it doesn’t get stalled at the city council when we get someone who lives out there and doesn’t want it to happen.”

How the housing authority would accomplish its goal of mixed-income housing hasn’t been established yet, but several options are on the table.

‘A perfect world’ versus reality

Earlier this year, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development approved the authority for participation in the Rental Assistance Demonstration program.

It’s complicated, Heard said, but the RAD conversion basically means the housing authority can act more like a free-market property manager and could have more flexibility in how it provides subsidized housing to low-income residents. Earlier this year, the authority announced plans to tear down the familiar brick apartments at the Lucy Morgan and Benjamin Hill apartment complexes on Revis Street and Whitesville Road, respectively.

The RAD conversion opens up the possibility that private investors could finance construction of new housing, or even buy up distressed properties, rehabilitate them and turn entire neighborhoods around. There are challenges to that approach though, said Beth Spaulding, an occupancy specialist with the housing authority.

“The thing is, if it’s a dilapidated house owned by a slum lord, he values the income he’s receiving from the home,” she said. “Unless the city puts pressure on him, he’s going to hang on to that property. In a perfect world, we would love to buy everything across the street from us (on Whitesville Road), but in reality, when they know you want it, they want to sell it to you for $1 million.”

Communicating and partnering with the city would be essential for any kind of development or rehabilitation project to succeed. In the past, the relationship between the city and the housing authority — which is part of the city government, and is overseen by a six-member board appointed by the mayor — has been a little rocky, Spaulding said.

The ‘red-headed stepchild’

The staff of the LaGrange Housing Authority said sometimes they feel like the city’s “red-headed stepchild.”

“I feel like they (city officials) view us as what they believe we are, and not what we truly are,” Spaulding said. “They — and the community — look at the housing authority and think it’s a bunch of people who don’t work and don’t pay rent and don’t contribute. But a large number of our residents are physically disabled and they can’t work.”

Another large part of the housing authority’s residents are single working mothers, Spaulding said.

“Through the way our rent is structured, they (single mothers) get credit for child care that they have to provide,” she said. “It enables them to work and they don’t have to choose between paying their rent or their child care.”

The housing authority also offers transportation services for people to get to and from work, if they need it.

“If we can remove those two main obstacles, which are ‘how do I get there?’ and ‘who is going to watch my kids?’ then people are able to be full-time students to realize their dreams of being a nurse, or a teacher, or get back into the workforce,” Spaulding said.

Back in the post-war 1940s, the city created the housing authority to manage safe and affordable housing for low-income residents. Since the city started the authority in the first place, Heard is calling on municipal officials to take some ownership and partner to make the area a better place to live.

“In my opinion, if they requested it, there should still be some accountability associated with it,” Heard said. “The housing authority should not just be operating on its own. There should be some buy-in from us and from the city, because we sit on a main corridor for people traveling into town. If the perception is that we don’t look good, and the city knows that we don’t look good, why are we not teaming together to make us look better and be better?”

‘Shovel-ready’ projects

There is federal grant money available to the city for housing and community initiatives, according to Alton West, the city’s director of community development. One grant called the Community Development Block Grant, or CDBG, is federal money divvied out by the state’s Department of Community Affairs every other year. In 2014, the city was awarded $378,000.

“We had miles and miles of old 2-inch galvanized water line,” West said. “Over the years, due to corrosion and things like that, they became less flowable, so what we did with that money was replace about 14,000 linear feet of those waterlines in southeast LaGrange.”

That same money could also be used for projects within the housing authority. So could another grant, also competitive and awarded yearly, called the Community Home Improvement Program, or CHIP.

Last year, the Department of Community Affairs awarded LaGrange $304,000. The city gave that money to the affordable housing nonprofit DASH, West said.

Heard said she thinks it’s good that DASH was awarded the money, but wishes the city would also partner with the housing authority.

“Over the years, a lot of those funds have been given to DASH,” she said. “I have an open-door policy and I’ve expressed that to the city. I didn’t know that I should call the city up and say that I need to submit a project. I found that out through developers and my HUD representative. So if the city wants to buy in to us (the housing authority), a nice phone call would have been ‘hey Zsa Zsa, would y’all like to submit some information for the CDBG or CHIP funds?’”

West said that the housing authority has never submitted a grant proposal, but they certainly can. The trick is that the housing authority needs to have a project planned and ready to go for the proposal to be competitive.

“The thing of it is with CHIP and CDBG grant, 10 out of 10 times you need to have shovel-ready projects,” he said. “Because DASH had applicants on a waiting list for home rehabilitation, home reconstruction, or even down-payment assistance, those are projects that are ready to go. When you submit an application the plan has to be already done. They’re not going to give a grant to sit on the shelf.”

Spaulding said she’s hopeful about the future of the housing authority, and she thinks with the right kind of partnership with the city, future goals can be accomplished.

“I think as a housing authority, we’re optimistic about what we can do if — and when — we have the city behind us,” she said. “We want the city to know that we genuinely do have the best interest not just of our little piece of LaGrange, but the city as a whole.”

Tyler H. Jones is a reporter at LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2155.