Programs providing a chance

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 14, 2001

Sharon Lechter came to Oak Towers two years ago after a stroke left her unable to write her own name, and family members had taken custody of her son.

She and 10-year-old Sheldon now have a two-bedroom apartment at Oak Towers and Lechter said she’s never been happier.

&uot;This has taught me that when you think you’re alone, there is someone that can help you,&uot; Lechter said. &uot;Because when I first came here, I thought I was alone.&uot;

Once the Natchez General Hospital, Oak Towers, was renovated several years ago into Section 8 public housing.

The Section 8, or Housing Choice, voucher program is a Department of Housing and Urban Development program to assist low-income families, the elderly and the disabled in renting decent, safe and sanitary housing in the private market. A key aspect of the program is that people are free to choose any housing that meets the requirements of the program and is not limited to properties that are rent-subsidized.

For example, Brumfield School Apartments on Saint Catherine Street was a joint-development between the City of Natchez, the Mississippi HOME Corporation and private investors.

Both Section 8 participants and low-income tenants live in the 29 units at Brumfield, said manager Virginia McDaniel.

&uot;Section 8 is about the best possible thing that’s every happened for low-income families,&uot; she said.

McDaniel, who also manages Oak Towers, said affordable housing programs like Section 8 are a chance for individuals with little or no income to get a fresh start.

&uot;It’s for people to start all over again,&uot; she said. &uot;It’s a help for them to get on their feet.

It’s for people like Deborah Allen, a single mother who lived at Brumfield while getting a degree from Alcorn University.

Allen, who once dropped her children off at the daycare facility at Oak Towers while she went to work and school, is now the director of a private day care center in the basement of Brumfield.

&uot;It would have been hard, trying to go to school and pay a big rent,&uot; she said.

McDaniel said Allen is an example of what low-income and rent-subsidized housing is supposed to do: provide short-term housing for people until they can privately rent or even one day own homes.

&uot;It’s not to get there and stay there,&uot; McDaniel said. &uot;It’s to better yourself.&uot;

Alan Ingram, executive director of the Natchez Housing Authority, said the 296 units they operate differ from Section 8 housing in that the rents are not government-subsidized.

Created by the City of Natchez, the authority is a public, non-profit entity that provides low-income public housing at rents based strictly on the income of the tenant.

What began with Maryland Heights in 1974 has expanded to include Williams Apartments, five complexes of elderly units around town and the Kenneth Graves subdivision just outside city limits among others, Ingram said.

The authority does, however, receive federal subsidies to help offset the cost of utilities and insurances, both of which the authority pays for its tenants.

&uot;Everything else we operate off of rent,&uot; Ingram said. &uot;To a large degree we are self-supporting.&uot;

In the 19 years Ingram has worked with the authority, he said he has watched housing in Natchez and Adams County make great improvements.

In fact, the authority was the first program in the state to provide elderly units.

&uot;I remember a time when we had 100 applications for elderly units,&uot; he said. &uot;Right now, we only have nine on the waiting list.&uot;

And the improvements haven’t been to just the quantity of housing, but also the quality, Ingram said.

A on-going federal drug elimination grant provides the authority with two Natchez police officers, and HUD now requires unemployed tenants to perform community service.

&uot;The idea of low-income public housing is not to stay there forever; it’s meant to be a place for people to get on their feet and move on to private houses,&uot; Ingram said.

And if a trend exists in housing today, Ingram said it is a move toward involvement from the private sector.

James Johnston, community development coordinator for the City of Natchez, said the city has done well in attracting public and private partnerships for housing projects.

&uot;For a community our size, Natchez has done quite a bit in tapping state, federal and even non-federal resources,&uot; he said.

A current project to renovate Carpenter School No. 1 into affordable apartments for the elderly is an example of how government entities and private investors can work together.

The $2.1 million restoration is financed through a partnership with the city, Adams County, United Mississippi Bank, the Natchez Council on Aging, HUD, Mississippi Regional Housing Authority local investors and out-of-town investors and developers.