Millions targeted for public housing upgrades

mstucka@macon.comDecember 27, 2012 

Beginning this summer, some Macon Housing Authority complexes will begin renovations that mark a dramatic shift from traditional public housing.

The Macon Housing Authority plans to convert almost half of its traditional public housing, some 932 units, into a Section 8 voucher program. Meanwhile, the Houston County Housing Authority plans to convert every one of its 40 housing units to the same Rental Assistance Demonstration program.

The change is more than merely bureaucratic and is expected to fund $7.5 million in renovations to Macon’s housing projects and about $800,000 to Houston County’s. The moves to the new program are among the first in the country.

“Most of our residents would never notice the difference, but it in effect takes close to half of our public housing out of the public housing category,” said John Hiscox, the outgoing executive director of the Macon Housing Authority.

The moves put the housing units under 20-year contracts with Section 8 waivers, which would provide guaranteed revenue. That stable income allows the housing authorities to get financing for renovations in public-private deals.

John Walker, chairman of the Macon Housing Authority, said he expects such public-private partnerships -- and those that have built affordable housing -- to be the future.

“Public housing as we have known it is probably, if not already, soon to be a thing of the past,” Walker said.

Over the 20 year-term of the Section 8 contract, overall federal funding is expected to be about the same as traditional public housing would have received. But the Section 8 deal comes with guaranteed income, unlike traditional public housing, which fluctuates.

“When you deal with Congress, appropriations vary, and lately they’ve been varying to the downside,” Walker said.

The Macon conversions are planned for Anthony, Bowden, Pendleton and Felton homes, as well as Mc­Afee Towers and Bartlett Crossing. In Houston County, the Kathleen Bynum project is expected to be converted. The housing authorities have a year to work out financing deals and complete final agreements with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Hiscox said traditional public housing projects haven’t worked.

“Finally, finally, after more than 70 years, the federal government is starting to grapple with the truth of the thing, which is that the traditional public housing model is broken,” Hiscox said.

Macon Housing Authority has renovated other Section 8 housing developments in recent years, including Anthony Arms, Kingston Gardens and Colony West in Macon, as well as Prairie Summit in Gordon and College Square in Fort Valley.

Hiscox said residents are strongly in favor of a move to Section 8 housing.

It’s not clear yet what renovations would be done in Macon, which will depend on an evaluation. Past work has included roof replacements, furnace and air conditioning replacements and kitchen renovations.

Sheryl Frazier, executive director of the Houston County Housing Authority, said she expects about $800,000 worth of upgrades at the Kathleen Bynum Homes off Elberta Road, including improvements to heating systems, sewers and landscaping. The goal is to use private financing to help make the housing complex resemble private apartments.

“We want to make it look more like the open market units,” Frazier said.

Frazier said the Warner Robins Housing Authority, which she also leads, is looking into similar financing mechanisms after restructuring its debt.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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