Leader Blues

Friday, July 25, 2008

TOP STORY > >In hard times, many more need subsidized housing

By NANCY DOCKTER
Leader staff writer

Last week, the Jacksonville Housing Authority sent off its annual self-assessment for management of Section 8 housing a month early in hopes of getting a performance score back as quickly as possible from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency.

The federal program provides affordable housing to lower-income persons by subsidizing rents on qualifying, privately owned properties.

A “high performer” score is what housing authority director Phil Nix and the housing authority board of directors are shooting for as a way to open doors to opportunities that could expand low-income housing in Jacksonville.

“We want a housing authority that is proactive, looking down the road and expanding where we can, because there is a big need,” said Jim Durham, chairman of the housing authority board of directors.

The need in Jacksonville for low-income housing is so desperate that on the two days out of the year that new applications are taken for Section 8 rentals, people are lined at the door before dawn hoping to get a spot.

“They are here at five-thirty, six in the morning, and the doors don’t open ‘til eight,” Nix said. “Generally we have to have a police officer close by. We could easily have a waiting list of a thousand people. We get calls daily from people wanting Section 8.”

By law, the Section 8 waiting list can be no longer than the number of new applicants served in the previous year, currently at 215 slots. When the number dwindles down to 30 or 40, Nix sets a date for taking applications. He thinks that may come in September.

The housing authority oversees 362 Section 8 properties in Jacksonville as well as the Max A. Howell public-housing complex.

The waiting list for that program also stays full. Right now, 98 of the 100 apartments are rented with the other two under repair.

In 2006, the Jacksonville Housing Authority’s performance rating was upgraded to “standard” from “troubled.” The poor rating was in effect for two years under the previous director and board due to failure to follow budgetary and reporting guidelines required by HUD.

One way to alleviate Jackson-ville’s shortage of affordable housing is to build some more. The housing authority board is considering hiring a consultant to advise them on the feasibility of taking on such a project, which they say has already generated some interest from investors.

If the Jacksonville Housing Authority earns the top performance rating, it will be the first time since 1992.

When the board met last week to sign off on the report, members were optimistic about the chance of getting a high score because the Little Rock HUD office has been referring other housing authority agencies around the state to Nix for technical assistance.

“Evidently HUD is thinking we have gotten straightened out and can help other people,” Nix said.