City lots become building blocks for new, affordable housing|[07/07/08]

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 7, 2008

Debra Taylor plans to spend Thanksgiving doing what the holiday was founded to do – giving thanks for her life, her family and the brand-new house developer Roy Choates said will be built in time for her to carve her turkey.

“I told him – as long as it’s before Thanksgiving,” she said. “I need to give thanks.”

On March 21, Taylor’s home on East Main Street burned to the ground. She lost everything. Now, nearly four months later, Choates, an Atlanta developer poised to bring affordable housing to Vicksburg, has shown her the plans for her new, three-bedroom, two-bathroom home. The drawing, which was given to her along with an offer letter, depicts the style of house she’s always wanted, she said.

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“This is a blessing. I’ve always wanted a brand-new house,” she said.

The 51-year-old single mother had lived in her house, built in 1928, for 18 years. Now, going home will mean entering a new, energy-efficient home on the same lot. And, because of that, she and her 12-year-old daughter, Maya, will be able make new memories.

“When I talked to (Choates), and he said, ‘We’re going to do this,’ it finally started clicking,” she said.

Choates, who came on the scene last spring with his company, Pinnacle Marketing Group, has committed to Mayor Laurence Leyens that he will build a minimum of 100 homes in Vicksburg. The majority will be built on land that the city declares surplus and will deed to Choates. So far, city officials have handed over three pieces of property – two vacant lots along Pearl Street and one on Starlight Drive in Enchanted Hills subdivision. In recent weeks, Choates and Beatrice Moore, director of housing and community development for the city, have been meeting with community members interested in buying affordable homes in what Choates calls a “team effort.”

“The city is making the lots available and conveying them over. Then, (Moore) is working with the community to find all the people who would like an affordable house,” he said. “And, we’re responsible for coming up with the designs and keeping the costs down.”

Choates and Moore have identified 10 people who are committed to buying one of the four types of houses Choates and his group are offering. The four models were specifically designed for the Vicksburg market and will all have as standard features hardwood floors, carpet, appliances and window treatments.

“I don’t have 20 models, because I can’t control the cost and give the value,” Choates said. “Instead, I have four or five high-quality models.”

To build the houses, Choates will need more lots, and Kelly McCaffrey of the community planning department is helping to identify properties the city can convey.

“We have people ready for lots right now,” Moore said.

Once the city turns over land, Choates will sell the potential homebuyer the land for the price he pays for it, which is usually between $500 and $3,500. Then, he will sell the houses, which range from $115,000 to $160,000 depending on the model.

“The actual cost of giving them a clear title is all that’s added and, then, the price of the house,” Choates said.

Moore said Choates has helped her department, which offers homebuyer education courses, down payment and closing cost assistance and assistance to low to very low income individuals and families, add a new dimension – supplying houses to people who are already qualified to make payments.

“He’s increasing the supply of affordable housing,” she said. “That was one of the missing pieces. People would (be qualified for a loan) and go out and look for a house, but end up not finding a house within a certain price range. Of course, anytime you have more (affordable) houses, the sooner they can come back with a sales contract.”

In addition to providing affordable houses for “the standard, everyday working person,” Choates has offered victims of the 2008 Mississippi River Flood homes for $54,900. The homes are similar to the lowest priced model, but, instead of being 1,800 square feet and having three bedrooms and two bathrooms, will be 935 square feet and will have two bedrooms and one bath.

Seventy-four-year-old Clarice Butler, whose home on Ford Road was severely damaged by March and April flooding, has decided she doesn’t want to move back to her flood-plagued home. Another move back would be her seventh since 1970.

“I’ve moved too many times,” she said.

Even though the two-bedroom house is smaller than what she’s used to having, she is happy to have a new house to call home.

“At least I won’t be in the flood area, and I like the price, too,” she said. “I’m ready.”

In addition to offering his help to the 25 people identified as flood victims, Choates said his mission simply is to provide a level of housing for working people. In the process, he’s making people’s dreams come true.

That’s certainly the case for 56-year-old Georgia Henderson, who, like 58 percent of Vicksburg residents, has been paying rent to live in an apartment most of her adult life. But, for nearly a year, Henderson, who is handicapped, has been looking to buy a home.

“You can’t find a house around here that’s something that accommodates people with limited mobility,” she said. The house “will accommodate my disability, and that’s the most important thing.”

Henderson has chosen the Freedom model, the lowest priced at a base of $115,000. Choates explained to her that her home, however, will be designed specifically to fit her needs – doorways and hallways will be widened for wheelchair access and a ramp will replace stairs at the front of her house.

“It’s just so beautiful,” she said. “I’m glad this opportunity is in the City of Vicksburg.”

While anyone who qualifies for a loan may participate, Choates gives first priority to handicapped and elderly people. After that, it’s first-come, first-serve, he said.

“These houses are reasonably priced so people with median income can afford them,” he said.

Vickie Free has been through the ups and downs of buying a house for about four years. Now that she’s been approved to buy a house up to $130,000, she has her sights set on Choates’ Liberty model, which costs $125,000 and features three bedrooms and two bathrooms. She said she was drawn to the houses, which are “eco-friendly,” because of her 2-year-old son’s allergies.

“I’ve been house-sitting…in an older house that has mold. We’ve been there for three years, and we need a new place,” she said. “The way (Choates) has described it, it’s green friendly and there’s nothing in (the building materials) that causes allergies. That hit a good chord with me.”

Choates plans to start construction on Taylor’s home, which will be the first because she already owns her lot, at the end of this month. After he begins building the first 10 houses, Choates said it will take about a year to “get the kinks flowing smoothly.”

“We will, then, have a Web site where people can tour the homes and fill out a brief statement that can be sent to the housing department,” he said. “Right now, we’re just making sure we’re offering quality. So, we’re sitting down and talking to the people to make sure what I put in place truly serves the people.”

Moore said she is excited about the commitment Choates has shown.

“We’ve not had anybody come and stick with it and present us with as much information and a great quality of housing,” she said.