When derelict properties along historic Brooklyn Avenue were demolished last summer at the tail end of a two-phase revitalization effort, Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis wondered what might have been.
Decades of wear and tear combined with the collapse of the textile industry transformed one of the “nicest” neighborhoods in Lancaster to an area dotted with outdated housing that had become “eyesores,” said Willis. “Rehabilitation would have been a valuable component if we could have done it.”
From 2009 to 2013, the historic neighborhood received utility, road and security upgrades worth more than $1 million of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants with matches from the city and county.
Funding also went toward a new community park that opened in June, police substations and demolition of more than 20 dilapidated structures that had become hubs of criminal activity.
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What the grants couldn’t cover were renovation costs to upgrade existing properties – a growing need across the region’s old mill villages and other low-income urban and rural areas.
According to staff at the Catawba Regional Council of Governments, a new housing consortium in the region would mean more federal funding specifically for restoring blighted properties and communities.
Of Brooklyn Avenue’s nearly 1,500 residents, more than 1,000 are considered low to moderate income by HUD thresholds, which translates to less than $41,000 annually for a family of four in Lancaster. Costs of living are slightly lower in Chester, and slightly higher in York County.
“There is a great need for home ownership rehab,” said Angela Kirkpatrick, a financial assistant for community development at Catawba Regional Council of Governments, which encompasses York, Lancaster, Chester and Union counties.
Kirkpatrick said her office routinely gets calls from local homeowners lacking sufficient income to fund costly upgrades like roof replacements and accessible ramps for aging or disabled residents.
The Catawba Regional Council of Governments works with county and local governments to coordinate land use, economic development and other regional issues. The organization includes 24 local governments that work with staff to apply for annual HUD Community Development Block Grants, which funded Brooklyn Avenue’s two-phase project.
In previous years, home rehabilitation costs were once covered by block grants, according to staff. In more recent years, block grant guidelines have been directed at addressing infrastructural needs.
Since 1977, the regional council has helped secure $22.7 million of block grants in York County, $22.1 million in Lancaster County, and $21.2 million in Chester County. Funding has gone to diverse projects from rural communities such as Sharon and Heath Springs to impoverished pockets of affluent Fort Mill.
But for cash-strapped residents looking to specifically rehabilitate homes, federal funding under HUD’s Home Investments Partnerships Program has been less fruitful.
As a whole, the region receives roughly $300,000 in HUD Home funds annually – a figure that the Catawba Regional Council of Governments staff estimates could go up to $790,000 a year through the cooperative efforts of a consortium. Yearly amounts would fluctuate based on congressional appropriations to HUD programs and the area’s demographics.
“This would set up a pool that would be dedicated to the Catawba region,” Willis said.
A chunk of HUD Home funds would feed directly to the consortium, eliminating competition with other areas in the state. The pooled funding would be dispersed among participating localities for a variety of housing support such as rehab costs, rental assistance, or down payment programs for homeowners.
Similar consortia have been created in other counties, including Anderson and Sumter.
Success of the consortium is dependent on how many localities participate, said Grazier Rhea, community development director at the Catawba Regional Council of Governments. Consortium members have to be contiguous, meaning participating municipalities must physically connect to each other.
The city of Rock Hill is “exploring” the idea of a consortium, according to Jason Weil, director of housing and neighborhood services.
“The availability of funds for home ownership have dwindled over the last few years and (HUD) Home is one of those areas we used to encourage home ownership,” he said. Family housing ranks among the top needs in the area, according to regional studies conducted last year.
Housing rehabilitation is a particular issue among older housing units in Rock Hill’s “urban core,” or about a half-mile radius around City Hall, Weil added. Census tracts in that area have a high volume of lower-cost, rental apartment units.
Municipalities would not have to pay dues to be part of the consortium, though local matches covering a small percentage of the grant project totals are required by HUD. Local governments would decide to participate in the partnership by mid-June.