VHA gets new option to fund major repairs

Federal agency's change a boost for local public housing

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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A change in the way the federal government manages its public housing could pay for some major building repairs on 122 public housing units owned by the Vancouver Housing Authority.

The new funding plan was announced with great fanfare Thursday by officials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The approach "greatly enhances our ability to confront the decline of our public housing and older assisted housing stock," said Shaun Donovan, HUD secretary since 2009. Donovan called news of the $650 million financing program "exciting" in a press conference call.

Called RAD, for Rental Assistance Demonstration initiative, the program essentially allows housing agencies such as the VHA to seek private financing for rehabilitating some of their older units.

That's because HUD will release the deeds of trust on those properties, overseen by some 68 public housing authorities.

"So, we'll be able to incur debt on that property," said David Overbay, federal program policy manager for the VHA. Without the program, "We are completely dependent on money HUD gives us to operate those properties and it is inadequate," he said.

In particular, HUD funding does not address big-ticket repairs, such as new roofing and plumbing on VHA properties built from the 1960s through the 1990s.

Overbay did not know how much capital the VHA would be able to leverage through the HUD program. He was certain the housing authority would not be at risk, despite the lower rent return on the VHA's public housing units.

"The properties have an income stream from rent and housing subsidies," he said.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also announced Thursday that the VHA had been selected for the RAD program, designed to upgrade the nation's aging public housing stock.

"This is a shot in the arm for affordable housing in Vancouver," said Murray, chairman of the Senate Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, in a news release. "This program will help preserve critical public housing by jump-starting much-needed renovations."

Overbay could not estimate the total amount in loans to be made available to the VHA. He said the local 122 units will need to be appraised to determine the amount of the loan and that each housing authority involved in the program would have up to 100 days to come up with a financing plan.

Nationally, Donovan said he expects some of the work to start this summer.

"We expect by this summer to have workers on the job swinging hammers," he said.

Overbay wasn't as optimistic. He anticipated it would take at least one year before work begins on Vancouver's units, which are not apartments, but units in duplexes, triplexes and four-unit complexes scattered throughout the county.

"Generally, our properties are in good shape," he said. "But they are aging and will eventually need capital funding."