City will beef up housing program|[02/13/08]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Two administrators keep jobs

Vicksburg will be more aggressive in driving home-ownership and housing development, Mayor Laurence Leyens told the city’s two administrators Tuesday as he argued for a broader approach but left the door open for assistance to low-income homebuyers.

The administrators, Leona Stringer and Bea Moore, offered ideas of their own, defended the programs they have overseen for years and left the meeting with their jobs and with additional responsibilities that could increase the scope of the Vicksburg Planning Department’s work.

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Last fall and early this year, both said they expected to be fired, citing indications Leyens wanted to phase out spending that helps people qualify for loans and receive down payment and other assistance through myriad programs. Tuesday, Leyens said those programs should continue, but there must be more. “I’m not going to say, and I’m never going to say, that we shouldn’t be doing down payment assistance,” he said. “It’s not the big-picture item.”

In January, Leyens gave Stringer and Moore 30 days to report back on what else could be done to increase home ownership in the city, specifically for middle-income families. Stringer and Moore delivered their plan Tuesday, presenting a report that responded to several of the mayor’s requests and offered suggestions, such as offering home ownership education at work sites where many employees commute and setting aside grant funds for down payment assistance exclusively for newly constructed homes.

But the bulk of suggestions put forth in a meeting that lasted several hours came from Leyens, who criticized the report as being preoccupied with existing programs, which have resulted in 39 applicants for down payment assistance, completing the process over the past few years and being short on new ideas. Aldermen Michael Mayfield and Sid Beauman were also present, as were City Attorney Nancy Thomas and personnel director Lamar Horton.

“It’s not just about the working poor who are living in shacks here in Vicksburg. I care about them as well,” Leyens said. “It’s about growing the economy.”

Statistically, Vicksburg lags in state averages on home ownership and is higher on rental properties. Approximately 5,500 people commute to the 30,000 jobs available in the city and county. Leyens wants more of them to live here.

A shortage of moderately priced homes available in Vicksburg and Warren County is to blame, Leyens has said, emphasizing the need to increase the region’s housing inventory — particularly in a range he specified between $125,000 and $175,000. Leyens recently suggested that manufactured homes could solve the lack in affordable housing, and did so again Tuesday. Most of Vicksburg’s residential zones require conventional slab or foundation-based construction.

Figures provided this morning showed that from Oct. 1, 2001, through today, the city spent $3.5 million for housing, much of which was in a grant program to buy up houses in a slide area. The total cost to the city was $1.8 million. Without the buyouts, the total spending was $1.3 million, of which $818,218 was local money.

Leyens said the city needs a better return. “We’ve got to grow our population or I’m going to have to raise taxes,” he said.

Exchanges became abrasive at times, illustrating disagreement about the value of programs that provide money for low-income homebuyers to assist with down payment and closing costs.

Moore pushed back when Leyens criticized those programs for not making a strong enough dent in the homeowner/renter ratio.

“If you don’t put all the little pieces together, you’ll never get the big picture,” she said.

Moore’s report referred to a verbal agreement from Warren County supervisors to contribute 40 percent to 50 percent of administration costs for homebuyer assistance programs, if they are expanded to Warren County.

Leyens had suggested in October that such programs include Warren County, and in a January letter to the planning department indicated sponsorship should be split with another local or nonprofit entity, but he chastised Moore Tuesday for what he characterized as negotiating over the heads of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

Moore was invited to present information on homebuyer assistance programs to supervisors in November. Several conversations have been reported between County Administrator John Smith and city employees.

Other disagreements Tuesday spurred examination of several problems associated with homebuyer assistance programs offered by the city and a debate about the need for and effectiveness of workshops offered free to the public that educate people about financial literacy and the homebuying process.

Bureaucracy was one drawback ascribed to programs for low-income homebuyers, with required inspections tacking on months to the closing process. Leyens reiterated his desire to see grant money target young professionals and college graduates, who may fit income requirements. Thomas noted that home inspections required under such programs can lead to expensive repairs for prospective home-owners who have little money to spare.

Leyens told Moore and Stringer to move forward with grant applications that face upcoming deadlines.

“Bring it forward and we’ll sign it,” he said.

The cover letter to the administrators’ report listed a March 15 deadline for application to the Affordable Housing Program offered by the Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas, and a May 1 deadline for the Mississippi Development Authority’s HOME program, both of which have been administered through Vicksburg in past years. One February application date listed for the Affordable Housing Program has already passed.