Leyens wants Congress to aid local housing fight|[02/29/08]

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 29, 2008

Convincing Congress to increase the amount of money potential homeowners could earn and remain eligible for assistance could help Vicksburg’s housing program reach more people, Mayor Laurence Leyens said in a Thursday meeting with the city’s housing administrators.

“Look at the numbers,” he said. “None of the people the program is intended for can get assistance.”

The city has offered a down-payment assistance program to qualified low- to moderate-income residents since 1994 and has helped 198 renters become homeowners. The city has four down payment assistance programs, all of which are based on standards from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. Leyens said the current programs allow a potential homeowner to take a homebuyer education course and, if his or her income is below average for the community, become eligible for up to $23,000 in assistance. The average income level for Warren County is about $48,500.

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“The federal government wants to help the poor, but the private sector, who lends the money, can’t,” he said. “We need a legislative solution. We need a federally backed loan that’s low interest.”

However, once people become eligible for assistance, Leyens said they are most often not eligible for a bank loan — based on the same income levels because of “too tight of a threshold.”

“We send people to the banks, and they can’t qualify for a loan,” he said. “That’s why the programs aren’t working.”

The meeting was the second time this month the mayor has brought Beatrice Moore and Leona Stringer, directors of the city’s housing efforts, to the table. On Feb. 12, they presented Leyens, Aldermen Michael Mayfield and Sid Beauman, City Attorney Nancy Thomas and personnel director Lamar Horton with a report that hit on the effectiveness of the down-payment assistance program and offered suggestions to improve existing programs.

In reviewing those suggestions, Leyens asked the administrators to draft a letter to U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., outlining the changes they’d like to see on a federal level. A possible solution, Leyens said, would be for the government to create a loan program for the entire house purchase.

“We need to have a change in this level — even if it’s for just five years,” Leyens said. “Things need to be changed.”

A regional approach that would also benefit prospective homeowners in the Delta is something Mayfield believes is crucial to receiving legislative help.

“If you don’t tie it to regional, they’re not going to look at it,” he said.

Starting last fall, Leyens has criticized the city’s efforts, saying they cost too much and not enough people are receiving assistance. He also indicated the city needed to target more middle-income families who would beef up Vicksburg’s economy.

“Instead of complaining, we need to make an effort to fix it. I have no problem with what it is,” he said. “I have a problem with people not being able to get it.”