Stimulus funds could help families in North Carolina

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 26, 2009 

WASHINGTON — More than $10 billion in stimulus money announced by federal housing officials this week could help families in North Carolina move from the streets to permanent housing in Durham, pay for renovations to poor senior citizens' apartments in Raleigh and develop low-income communities in Chapel Hill.

The cash from the Housing and Urban Development agency is among the first — and most local — infusions of dollars to come from the massive economic stimulus bill that President Barack Obama signed into law this month.

Local housing advocates say they welcome the money, but for many programs there are remaining questions about how — and how quickly — the dollars can be spent.

"In a couple of areas, this certainly is going to be an opportunity in people's lives that we haven't had previously," said Chris Estes, executive director of the N.C. Housing Coalition in Raleigh. The challenge will be to ensure these resources will be allocated in a way that they get spent. It's not like we have a network of folks ready to jump.

Around North Carolina, local housing and redevelopment agencies learned late Wednesday how much they would get from more than $100 million being sent to the state. The money goes to Community Development Block Grants, to homelessness prevention and to assistance to help companies build affordable rental housing.

Across the state, more money will pay for lead mitigation in Greenville and Charlotte, and for tribal housing projects for the Lumbee, the Eastern Band of Cherokee and three other state-recognized tribes.

"I'm absolutely delighted," said Steve Beam, executive director of the Raleigh Housing Authority, which will receive $4.2 million — about twice his normal yearly allotment for renovation projects.

"It's going to allow me to jump ahead almost two years on our 5-year capital plan," Beam said.

The announcement in Washington came just eight days after Obama signed the stimulus bill into law, and the money should start flowing as soon as possible, said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for the Housing and Urban Development department. Much of it is focused on projects that can be contracted within 120 days.

Altogether, the law includes $13.6 billion for the agency. Some $10 billion was announced Wednesday under state-by-state formulas; the rest will be distributed by grant applications with a focus on energy efficiency.

While local and state officials said Thursday they were excited about the news, many questions remain.

There is no state-run homelessness prevention office, for example, set up to spend the $22.2 million headed to North Carolina, said Denise Neunaber, executive director of the N.C. Coalition to End Homelessness, a non-profit agency in Raleigh.

That new money is designed to keep families on the verge of homelessness in housing, and to help families on the streets move quickly back into housing. Money could go to utility deposits, rental assistance or budget counseling, Neunaber said.

But now, Neunaber said, the state focuses primarily on emergency shelter programs.

"The state has to decide how they’re going to spend it," she said.

State and local leaders also aren't sure how they can spend millions for Community Development Block Grants, which usually go to revitalize struggling communities.

Every community has a wishlist, but planners need to know just what they're allowed to do with the new funding, said Rae Buckley, a senior planner in Chapel Hill.

"We'll absolutely find something to do with it," she said.

In Raleigh, Beam rushed to put together a preliminary list to bring to the Housing Authority’s board meeting for approval so he can begin to spend the money as soon as it's released from the federal agency.

Every public housing community in Raleigh will see some of the funding, Beam said. Cash will go to large-scale landscaping projects, to install new gutters and to a massive overhaul of hundreds of senior citizens' apartments in Glenwood Towers and Carriage House Apartments.

Beam will hire a new staff member to oversee the funding; more jobs will come in the private construction sector to make the renovations, he said.

Harrison Shannon, the chief executive officer of the Durham Housing Authority, announced the $4.3 million in new money Thursday to a cheering group of resident council presidents at a bi-monthly meeting.

The new dollars, on top of the $2.8 million in annual funding Durham will receive this year, will go far to tackle a long list of $47 million in renovation needs for about 1,500 housing units, Shannon said.

He expects to renovate cooling towers, replace boilers, install energy-efficient lighting in 160 apartments, upgrade smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and build a playground fence.

"We had projects already in the pipeline," Shannon said. "I guess the new phrase around town is 'shovel-ready.'"

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