Housing programs tough at first, county told|[11/16/07]

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 16, 2007

Any foray into housing assistance by Warren County will likely come with the same growing pains experienced by the City of Vicksburg when it started its program in 1994, the director said Thursday.

“We had 100 apply and just one person qualify,” said Beatrice Moore, director of Vicksburg’s Housing & Community Development program.

Moore briefed supervisors on the ins and outs of managing housing assistance grants for first-time homebuyers, part of a fact-finding week for the board before a decision is made on grant-writing services.

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Moore said the need for affordable housing is great based on a home ownership rate in Warren County of 68 percent, with just 56 percent inside the city. Statewide, the home ownership rate is 72 percent, Moore said.

Also, the percentage of families of four earning $39,600 — designated “low-income” for federal and state housing grants — is 58 percent countywide.

Another issue is the shrinking availability of new housing units, particularly in Vicksburg.

“It’s a great challenge. We’re running out of housing stock,” Moore said, adding it is usually cost-prohibitive to rehabilitate older houses.

Figures from the 2000 Census have shown the fastest-growing segment of owner-occupied housing is in the $100,000 to $200,000 range.

While grant-writing services would not be tied to any single specific type of grant, housing has dominated the debate over the two offers for service before supervisors Monday.

Two additional aspects of county involvement in housing assistance funds on a consistent basis were also mentioned — required homebuyer education classes and the lack of land-use and building code regulations outside city limits.

Courses in homebuying and financial management are crucial to creating an informed buyer.

“You want a community of empowered people,” Moore said.

Supervisors have yet to adopt a zoning study by Central Mississippi Planning and Development since preliminary maps were completed in May.

Absence of zoning or building codes in a county or municipality applying for any housing grant usually leads to funding authorities using the lowest standard possible, generally that reserved for Section 8 properties.

“There has to be a measurement,” Moore said. “It’s a protective thing to help people through the process.”

Twice, supervisors have applied to participate in the Home Investment Partnership Program, or HOME program, administered by the Mississippi Development Authority. It helps low-income homebuyers obtain houses through deferred loans of about $20,000 and forgiven over a 10-year period. Applicants have not qualified in either attempt, however.

Moore, a 30-year veteran of city government, and housing coordinator Leona Stringer are likely targets of changes in the works for the city Planning Department. Mayor Laurence Leyens has said a decision will not be announced until the end of the year, but favors reshaping the department because of overhead costs.