Many obstacles to face in improving local housing

Published 9:20 am Sunday, March 25, 2007

All parties want to see adequate housing in Natchez, but getting there may be a construction job of its own.

Growing pains

The local housing authority, like many federal housing and urban development-funded authorities, is going through some mandated changes, Executive Director Alan Ingram said.

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“We’re going through some rough times right now,” Ingram said. “Every public housing agency is.”

The structure of how the organization is run is being re-worked, a huge step, Ingram said. They might be losing staff members, which could affect residents, he said. They’re already running two maintenance workers short.

“Those (agencies elsewhere) that have already switched have encountered tremendous problems,” Ingram said.

Dreaming small

If all goes well, though, Ingram said he would like to see some changes in how the authority’s housing facilities are designed.

“My huge priority, and it’s been one for five years, is the replacement of the only complex we did not build, and that’s Williams Apartments,” Ingram said.

“We would replace it with buildings more like Maryland Heights and Ram Circle, where people aren’t clustered together so much.”

That would take a lot of money, though, Ingram said. Money that’s not available at the moment. Grants for developing low-income public housing have waned, he said.

“It would require partnership with a private developer,” Ingram said.

The housing authority and the city both tried that a while back, but before anything really started, the idea fell through.

Ingram said the developers were not willing to give specific timeframes and cost estimates the city and the housing authority wanted.

“It didn’t materialize,” Ingram said. “They wanted to generalize things.”

But replacing the apartment complex is still “definitely a possibility,” Ingram said.

“It’s hopefully a probability,” he said.

“We just have to rebuild the agency right now, and we’re not sure what we’re going to be left with.”

Like Ingram, Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis wants fewer chunky apartment buildings and more neighborhood-like structures, she said.

“I would like to see more duplexes and mixed-use buildings,” Mathis said.

Most residents in Ram Circle, a neighborhood of duplexes and single-family residences, seem to like the feel.

Brandon Marshall, 24, has lived in the area all his life, he said.

“I love it here because it looks more like a neighborhood,” Marshall said. “Everybody around here knows each other. People let each other’s kids ride their bikes across their yards, stuff like that.”

He said he had no problems with how the housing authority operated. They were quick to fix problems he reported.

“I really don’t have any complaints,” he said.

“The only thing is I’d like to see something more for the kids to play on.”

A bent jungle gym, rusty poles that used to boast basketball nets, and a swing set with one swing are the only toys in the neighborhood.

And although a playground is a short bike ride away, Marshall said with traffic and other factors, he wasn’t comfortable with his children riding or walking that route.

“It’s not like back when we were kids,” he said. “If they’re up there, you can’t just look out for them.”

Future plans

The future of public housing in Natchez has been on Mathis’ mind for years, she said. She said she would like to see more adequate housing, be it private or public — whatever it takes.

“My concern is Wall Street and part of Madison and Maple streets,” Mathis said.

“They still don’t look like housing in the 21st Century. People are working, but they’re not able to qualify for a $200,000 house.”

HOPE VI, a federal alternative to Section 8, is one avenue Mathis hopes the city and housing authority might take in the future.

Not currently in use in Natchez, HOPE VI is geared toward replacing severely distressed public housing and focuses on physical and management improvements and social and community services.

Because it requires a large investment on the part of the housing authority and the city, with which it would partner, HOPE VI is usually found in larger cities, Ingram said.

“It can be tearing down blighted areas and building new housing in its place,” Ingram said.

“It sounds like a wonderful thing, but you have to put up a lot of expense just to apply for it, and there’s certainly no guarantee you’re going to get it. It’s an expense that just isn’t there.”

Mathis asked the board of alderman attorney at a recent meeting to look into the possibility of the city taking the housing authority under its wing as a department.

Ingram and HUD officials in Jackson said that was an interesting idea but impossible under state law.