A boost for local public housing

Some agencies' budgets will triple. The money is part of $13 billion in stimulus funding for HUD.

After years of cutbacks, agencies in Philadelphia and surrounding counties that supply affordable housing and invest in community development will get a $128 million boost from the nation's stimulus package.

Some local public-housing authorities will see their capital budgets triple, even quadruple.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority's capital budget will increase from $55 million to $146 million. Two of the region's poorest cities, Chester and Camden, also will see sharp spikes in public-housing funding: a jump from $1 million to $5.2 million for Chester, and $2.5 million to $6.7 million for Camden.

On the community-development front, funding will return to levels not seen in eight years.

"It's very exciting," said Deborah McColloch, director of Philadelphia's Office of Housing and Community Development. "This is more money than I've seen in my adult life coming into Philadelphia at one time."

The new money for both public housing and community development is part of $13 billion in stimulus spending for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The allocations, announced last week, are based on formulas factoring in population and income.

For housing agencies, the stimulus money is restricted to capital projects - such as renovations, building improvements, or construction - and is not to be used for operations.

"It's a shot in the arm for us," said Steven Fischer, executive director of the Chester Housing Authority, which manages 1,000 public-housing units.

The funds will allow the authority to make its housing more energy-efficient, he said. One of the largest properties, with 261 units, was built in the 1940s and has not been substantially upgraded since then.

Mark Alan Hughes, a policy adviser to Mayor Nutter, said the new HUD money would go to existing programs, which should speed results.

"Congress did not invent new things to spend money on," he said. "We're hurrying things - not inventing them."

Under HUD guidelines, housing authorities have one year to allocate the funds.

Carl Greene, executive director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, said it would be able to move faster on some priority projects. For instance, he said, a $30 million plan to rehabilitate 300 vacant homes, requiring up to 500 workers, now can move ahead, instead of being stretched out over four years.

"It will keep a lot of people employed for two years," Greene said.

The Housing Authority of Camden will receive an additional $4.2 million for capital projects, which will include the upgrading of two large, barrack-style family developments that are obsolete.

"This is extremely welcome in Camden," said City Council President Angel Fuentes, "because we have a waiting list of thousands of families who need housing."

The Gloucester County Housing Authority will get a $565,000 stimulus grant. That will double the agency's capital budget, allowing it to renovate as many as 15 homes for the poor and make improvements such as new carpeting and kitchen cabinets in apartments for senior citizens.

In community development, Congress is boosting the blocks of money allocated to cities, counties and townships for a broad range of improvement projects.

The stimulus funding reverses a decade of successive cuts in so-called community-development block grants. Philadelphia, for instance, saw its block-grant money drop from $72 million in 2001 to $52 million this year. The stimulus spending will add $14 million to the total for the Office of Housing and Community Development.

McColloch, director of the agency, said HUD had yet to issue guidelines on how the additional grant money should be spent. One area of need in the city, she said, is the backlog of applications for grants for home repairs - basics such as new plumbing, electrical wiring, or roofs.

With the influx of block-grant money, communities will have more funds for everything from Meals-on-Wheels for elderly shut-ins to small infrastructure improvements such as stormwater drainage or wheelchair-accessible sidewalks.

Montgomery County's community block-grant funding will increase by $990,000, or about a third. In addition, Abington, Lower Merion, and Norristown will get separate grants totaling $820,975.

Like other counties, Montgomery County distributes block-grant funds on a competitive basis to nonprofits and municipalities. According to Kathy Phifer, director of its Office of Housing and Community Development, the county awarded $3.4 million in community funding last year, but received twice that amount in requests.

"We'll get these grants out to the communities as quickly as we can so we can do our part in putting people back to work," Phifer said.

Phifer said the economic slowdown was increasing the number of contractors bidding on smaller infrastructure projects. Pre-bid meetings that used to draw five contractors are now attracting 20 or more, she said.

Camden County, which last year received a community block grant of $2.5 million, will get an additional $690,000, an increase of 28 percent. Ken Shuttleworth, a spokesman for the county, called it "another step in the right direction."


Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com.