Future of city homebuyer aid program remains up in air|[01/04/08]

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 4, 2008

Four days into the new year, the future of City of Vicksburg homebuyer assistance programs remains uncertain as does the employment of those who administer them.

Mayor Laurence Leyens said Thursday that city officials will discuss within a week which elements of housing administration will be retained.

Meeting separately, Warren County supervisors discussed the prospect of administering the programs in some form, essentially expanding them countywide. The two Vicksburg employees who seek out and distribute money from federal, state and nonprofit grants to eligible homebuyers were told in the fall to serve clients they had in process, but to halt taking new applications for new grants. The city did not seek federal money or include grant renewals for its budget year that started Oct. 1. Discussions have been murky all along and the two employees who administer the city program said they’ve not been informed or involved in discussions about changes.

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“I don’t want to say we’re getting out of the housing business,” Leyens said.

His problem, he said, is the cost of administration, not the programs themselves. “It doesn’t make financial sense … we’re paying almost twice as much as we’re giving away,” he said.

Leyens said he would like to see other public and private entities partner with Vicksburg in the seeking and acceptance of myriad grants, which come from multiple sources and with a variety of rules.

All are designed to help people learn how to buy homes and help with initial costs, such as down payments. The city’s programs are unrelated to public housing or problematic “subprime” private mortgages.

“We want people to have houses. It’s good for economic development,” Leyens said, adding that Vicksburg’s high ratio of renters was a problem for the city. In December, Leyens told a visiting group of state representatives that affordable housing was Vicksburg’s No. 1 issue.

Reached Thursday, he said he would like to see homebuyer programs move countywide, and added that the city would be willing to contribute matching funds to other entities that might adopt programs. Leyens said private nonprofits in Vicksburg are potential sponsors, mentioning one that recently made a push to seek homebuyer grants.

Supervisors met informally Thursday and discussed homebuyer programs, among a variety of topics, with incoming District 4 Supervisor Bill Lauderdale.

In November, county officials met with Bea Moore, who oversees homebuying programs for the City of Vicksburg, regarding her work.

Moore and other city employees who oversee homebuyer education and grant programs in the city’s planning department were alerted to possible termination in September, and said they were recently told to expect notification by the middle of January.

“We’re expecting a pink slip,” Moore said.

Human Resources Director Lamar Horton said nothing is official, and his conversations with planning department employees pertained to the restructuring of the department.

Supervisors have been pondering seeking a full-time grant writer and District 3 Supervisor Charles Selmon said Thursday he thought the county should hire Moore for that role if she is fired by the city.

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. Conditions include attending homebuyer education classes. Applications have not been funded in either attempt, however.

Bobby Rayburn of Housing & Finance Services LLC spoke to supervisors Thursday to pitch building new homes for qualified applicants under the same terms as the MDA-run program for finding existing homes.

Rayburn and partner Fred Griffin appeared with Rose Bingham of We Care Community Center, which desired a role as selection committee for picking a developer under such a program, one that would oversee construction of about 10 moderate homes with counties acting as conduits for $250,000 per application. The total available through MDA’s community services division is $5.4 million, Rayburn said.

The home ownership rate in Warren County is 68 percent, and just 56 percent inside the city; Mississippi’s home ownership rate is 72 percent, according to data from the planning department.

We Care, the nonprofit organization known for providing clothes and other assistance to the needy, announced a year ago it planned to build a neighborhood of homes in the Marcus Bottom area.