Frustration builds over program

Published 12:34 am Tuesday, October 23, 2007

VIDALIA — After almost four years of dealing with a bureaucracy that keeps changing its leadership and its mind, Vidalia resident Mary Knight is frustrated.

When she applied for a Delta Share Housing Rehabilitation Grant from the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency to have her house leveled and get a new roof in 2003, Knight was told the applications were accepted on a first come first serve basis.

The program is a house restoration grant for low-income homeowners in the Mississippi Delta with no mortgages on their houses.

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When she received a letter saying her grant had been approved, Knight even started saving boxes from work so she could temporarily move out for the remodeling, and she gave workers a walk-through of her house so they could know what needed to be done, Knight said.

“I even saw papers where they had taken out insurance on my house for the work,” she said.

But then she received a phone call to tell her the work would not happen.

So she applied for the grant again in 2006, now known as a RESTORE program.

Her application was accepted again, but then she was informed that because of cuts to the program her house would not be included in the program.

Knight’s second experience happened to approximately 15 other families from Concordia Parish who applied in 2006, District Four Place “A” Police Juror Cathy Darden said.

When the police jury was first sent information about the RESTORE program, they were told there were going to be at least 20 houses that were going to be restored through the grant, Darden said.

“Every (police jury) precinct got so many houses based on the average median income of the area,” Darden said.

The problems started when constituents contacted their jurors saying they had received correspondence from the housing finance office stating the original number of houses to be rehabilitated in Concordia Parish had been trimmed down to five.

After finding out the program had changed management three times in a short period of time, Darden decided to visit the program office in Baton Rouge.

When she arrived, Darden was informed the program had been changed and that it was operating under different rules, she said.

“When I went, I said ‘This is horrible,’” she said. “‘The least you could have done was notify us because we have been encouraging our constituents to apply for this.

“‘That’s giving them false hope that their houses are going to be fixed.’”

Laura James with Rep. Andy Anders’ office said the office has also been working with the problem.

“We’ve tried to find out why they are taking so long, why they tell people they are approved if they are not approved,” she said.

The last she heard from the program was in August, when she was informed the applications that had been accepted are going through background checks to make sure the applicants qualify for the program.

But it’s hard to find out anything solid because there is no guarantee the person who she last spoke with will be there when she calls again, James said.

“They have such a high overturn of people in that facility it’s hard to get an answer,” she said.

Knight said she has encountered the same problem.

“Every time you call you have to talk to someone new,” she said.

At the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency, Public Information Director Jeff DeGraff — who said he has only been with the program for approximately three months — said the program had to be revamped if it was going to continue at all.

“Because this program is funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, their stipulation is that any rehabilitation has to reach to the extent of the local building code,” he said.

Since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the building code for the entire state of Louisiana is the high-standard International Construction Code.

“We were able to give grants of up to $25,000 to qualified recipients to make repairs and improve accessibility, but the properties in that area would require more than $25,000 to bring them up to code,” DeGraff said.

The agency changed the allocation for each house to $100,000 per house so they would be able to bring them up to code, but consequently had to reduce the number of houses that could be included in the program, DeGraff said.

“With that, we will be able to bring the house up to code or (tear it down and) build a modular home maintaining the same footprint of the home,” he said. “This way we are providing a service that will last.”

Even while they are doing fewer homes, the agency is having to extend its budget for the year to meet all of the needs the program has, DeGraff said.

“This way we can continue to provide this service,” he said. “If we don’t meet HUD’s requirements, we will lose our (federal) funding.”

Meanwhile, Knight said she is writing a letter to HUD to express her complaints, and while she doesn’t begrudge the five Concordia Parish families who are getting the grant work done this time around, she feels like she has fallen through the cracks of an ever-changing system.

“I feel in my heart that things are being handled all wrong,” she said.