Warren County Supervisors discuss $2.5 million ARPA housing budget

Published 5:11 pm Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Warren County has $2.5 million of its American Relief Plan (ARPA) funds set aside for housing, but how the county will invest the funds has not been determined.

“We don’t have any concrete plan at this time, but we know that it would be a good thing for our community,” County Administrator Loretta Brantley said at a recent working meeting. “We don’t know what it would look like, but we know we need to do something.”

District 3 Supervisor Shawn Jackson has spent a considerable amount of time compiling feedback from fellow supervisors, notes from conferences and more in the formation of options for a housing plan. Dividing the county’s potential approach into “four buckets,” she said, could be a possible solution.

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“It’s not ‘my’ housing plan. We’ve had a lot of conversations over the last four years, and I’ve taken input and various ones of us have taken (the information) and spoken about it in the community,” Jackson said. “Fast-forward to today, as an overview, after ARPA was given across the nation there was a NACo summit in D.C. and I attended that. President Biden and Pete Buttigieg discussed transformative uses of ARPA money and we took a lot of notes on behalf of the county regarding housing.”

NACo, or the National Association of County Officials, provided elected officials from across the country with access to experts at the national level as well as networking opportunities between governments, Jackson said.

One example was the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for the United States, who presented methods to help counties multiply ARPA dollars through housing programs.

“We’re familiar with CDBG, Community Development Block Grants. We use them in the county for certain things, but when we use them for housing, it’s an amazing tool for economic development,” Jackson said. “There’s a new home art program that had $5B and there’s a CDBG-CD, which is a new program that allows a lot more flexible spending. What that led to was certain cities and counties embarking on transformative housing plans.”

Cities where housing programs have been implemented using ARPA include:

  • Los Angeles used $1 billion to create an affordable housing trust for preservation and rehabilitation.
  • Austin, Texas, used $300 million for an affordable bond program for housing.
  • Rhode Island implemented home repair grants.

The head of housing for the city of Detroit also held a conference call with municipalities across the country, she said, including Vicksburg officials.

Jackson said Warren County can use its ARPA funds for any combination of the following: acquiring property quickly, rehab cost assistance, build cost assistance, raw material purchasing power, construction loan assistance, and mortgage down payment.

“About a fourth (of the funds) would go toward home rehabilitation,” Jackson said. “In Warren County, given our amazing and illustrious history, we have beautiful homes that are in disrepair that, with a little bit of work, actually can turn into luxury homes.

“The unfortunate part of being an older city or county is you have homes rolling off the rolls that were once glorious estates, honestly,” she added. “Rehab in a county like ours gives us tremendous value.”

The second proposed bucket would be new construction, which would be assisted through what Jackson called an accelerator. In theory, an accelerator could be used to purchase lots, cover lot or infrastructure improvements or land acquisitions, expenses contractors would then repay upon sale of the properties.

The third bucket would be home acquisition and rehab, where homes would be acquired, rehabilitated and sold. The fourth bucket would be down payment assistance, something already in use by the City of Vicksburg.

“My suggestion is to make sure we are really keen on equitable contractor opportunities. That’s not just race or socioeconomic, it’s also thinking about where in town as well,” Jackson said. “For example, if this is an infill play, for county residents we could weigh the rehab more for the county and new builds more for the city. There are different ways to do it.”

The strategy to which Jackson was referring was infill development, meaning new construction would be placed on existing lots where homes have been torn down or cannot be rehabilitated. The concept aims to eliminate or reduce some costs for builders, as infrastructure components like sewer, electricity and sidewalks are already in place.

Instead of master-planning a new development, infill aims to revitalize what is already in existence, she said.

“The last part, for those who may be fearful of housing plans, there are ways you can hold the taxes steady. You don’t want to invest and then automatically quadruple the taxes the next day,” Jackson said. “Proper housing plans make sure the incumbents in that community don’t get penalized.”

Board President Kelle Barfield offered her input on the “four buckets” approach, noting feedback she had received from residents.

“Of all the categories, (down payment assistance) seems to be the smallest in terms of a gap. I don’t hear people saying, ‘There’s a house I want to buy. I just need to come up with a down payment,'” Barfield said. “Of course, Mississippi Home Corporation has that feature already.

“It seems to be more the problem that there’s not a house that meets the criteria of what people are looking for: a very basic $200,000 house,” she added. “There aren’t any out there.”

Board Vice President Dr. Jeff Holland followed Barfield’s comments with a request of his own: Getting a concrete plan on paper.

ARPA funds must be allocated by Dec. 30, 2024, and spent by December 2026. Effectively, that leaves a year for the county to implement a housing plan and arrange for all funds to be used.

Jackson said she was “very much in favor” of the county not attempting to formulate a plan on its own without outside help, adding that she had reached out to several partners at the state and regional level for their preliminary input. Holland said he also wanted to make sure community partners were aware of the timeline at stake.

“Anybody locally who would jump on board with this would have to have a vision that was complementary in their pocket right now, given our timeline,” Holland said. “Meeting with local developers, for example, if someone looked at (the plan) and then came back a year or two from now, that wouldn’t do us any good.”