Affordable housing scarce, experts say

Official says public housing needs growing as market rents rise.

The impact of the struggling economy has caused people to spend more on housing that may be of a substandard level, Jeffrey Diver, executive director of Supports to Encourage Low-income Families, a Butler County community action agency that works to help low income families to become self-sufficient, told this newspaper.

“I don’t know of any other time when I have seen a greater need. The need is greater than it ever was because people are desperate,” said Phyllis Hitte, the Butler Metropolitan Housing Authority executive director and who has been with the agency more than 20 years.

“Right now we’re running at a 98 percent occupancy rate.”

Diver said his agency is seeing more people coming in — about 40 percent of his client base — as first-time users of any of SELF’s programs.

“Our staff said it’s a big challenge for the clients we are seeing,” Diver said. “There are waiting lists at BMHA (Butler Metropolitan Housing Authority) and that market rent is too high for our clients..... The safety net is there but it has many holes.”

Diver said SELF assists first-time home buyers with education and savings programs as well as helping people repair their homes when they cannot afford to. Last year, SELF assisted 6,911 families or about 17,000 people.

“The majority of people are trying to find good, safe housing,” he said. “It’s hard in a good economy and it’s more difficult in a recovering economy.”

Hitte said she has 10 vacant units, but those will be filled by people who are already prequalified as soon as the units are ready to turn.

BMHA owns 1,156 public housing units and administers 1,111 Section 8 housing choice vouchers. She said residents include the elderly and disabled as well as single individuals and families.

Hitte said there are currently 800 people on the waiting list for public housing in BMHA properties in Hamilton and Middletown. She said her agency also has another 600 people on the waiting list seeking Section 8 housing choice vouchers.

Hitte said the wait is long, about two to four years, to receive a Section 8 housing voucher.

“We’re also seeing people who never thought they would be seeking out public housing,” she said. “We’re seeing working families and a lot of hard working folks who are just struggling.”

Hitte said she doesn’t see any decreases in the foreseeable future.

There will be some relief for BMHA as it will be breaking ground on its Beacon Pointe project on South Front Street in downtown Hamilton this month or early August.

Hitte said 60 townhouse homes will be constructed in the $9.6 million project.

Doug Adkins, Middletown’s community revitalization director, said the Middletown Public Housing Authority also has a waiting list for Section 8 vouchers but none are available.

The city is also in the midst of an ongoing federal investigation of several landlords who were in the Section 8 program. Adkins said three to four landlords have been removed from the Section 8 program for fraud.

He said there are about 1,500 vacant rental units in the city which are leased at market value, according to the 2010 census. In addition, property values in the city have dropped 8 percent and that there are more than 3,000 vacant homes.

Adkins said the Hamilton/Middletown area has the lowest affordable housing in the region but added that “there’s difference between affordable and decent housing.”

“But if you have a minimum wage job, you won’t be able to buy a house because you can’t make a down payment or get a mortgage,” he said.

Adkins said the city is working to remove blighted properties and save what’s good in the city’s housing stock. He said the city works with several organizations to assist people with home repairs.

Bud Scharf, Hamilton’s community development director, said “we believe it’s (affordable housing) a critical issue and we’re doing all we can.”

He said for the past 20 years, the city has worked with various organizations to assist low income homeowners with emergency home repairs which is funded through the federal Community Development Block Grant it receives each year.

“We typically average 40 to 50 minor emergency home repairs each year,” he said. “The housing stock is getting older.”

Scharf said the city also uses CDBG funds and Neighborhood Stabilization Program grants to demolish blighted structures.

Hamilton is also using its federal CDBG, NSP and HOME grants to work with nonprofit organizations to build some housing where city schools once stood.

Scharf said the city is working with the TriState Habitat for Humanity organization to construct six homes this fall on the site where Madison School was located. He said the city will be using $290,000 from its HOME grant and $290,000 from its NSP grant for the project.

He also said an agreement has been made with Neighborhood Housing Services to construct six homes on the former McKinley School site if that organization can reach a deal with the Hamilton City School District. Scharf said the city will contribute $450,000 from its HOME grant for the project.

Warren County Administrator David Gully, who is also a commissioner on the Warren Metropolitan Housing Authority, said the agency operates 350 public housing units and administers about 300 Section 8 vouchers.

Gully said WMHA provides low-cost housing at a cost depending on a person’s income.

“It’s for people who can’t afford to rent or to buy a house,” he said. “We provide one of many options.”

Gully said the need is less of a problem when the economy is good. He also said WMHA also works with various organizations to assist its clients who are first-time home buyers and transition programs to assist homeless families to eventually become self-sufficient.

Contact this reporter at (513) 696-4504 or Ed.Richter@coxinc.com.

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