Hard Times, Big Plans
The city's ambitious housing agenda
"The housing commission needs to change if we're going to survive," says Jennifer Hall.
Ann Arbor Housing Commission board chair Marta Manildi says they had a pretty good year last year: "We brought in a lot of grants, we received a lot of stimulus money, and we increased our reserves." The commission, which oversees 360 city-owned low-income apartments, replaced three-quarters of its furnaces and many of its boilers, roofs, and windows, and added security cameras in some locations.
This year will be a different story. With less revenue from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the commission is cutting its budget 10 percent, to $13.5 million. Its deficit is projected to increase from $26,000 to $336,000. And last July, executive director Marge Novak announced that she was leaving after just a year on the job.
"We were very sorry to see her go," says Manildi. "She was an extraordinarily capable leader." The departure also was a test of the rejuvenated commission: the last time it had to hire a director, it moved so slowly that city council dismissed its members and appointed new ones.
This time, it took the commission only four months to choose Jennifer Hall as its new director. "I've done affordable housing all my career," says Hall, most recently as housing manager for the combined city-county community development office. "Every job I've had, every board I've been on--it all relates to public housing."
She recognizes the dangers of the current situation. "The housing commission's primary funding is from HUD, through public housing and housing vouchers, and every year Congress cuts the budget," Hall says. "Right now we have the reserves to cover the deficit. But if it stays the same, we'll have to cut staff and programs. The housing commission needs to change if we're going to survive."
Hall's solution is to diversify the revenue stream. "It is absolutely possible," she says. "The single greatest source of revenue for affordable rental housing is low-income housing tax credits,
an IRS program using private capital. In addition, there are other HUD funding sources, like Community Development Block Grants, HOME funds, Section 811, and others. The VA has vouchers and funding for development, as [do] private foundations and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. It's not easy to do, but we have to do it."
While HUD has less money to support public housing, Hall adds, more vouchers are available to help low-income individuals who rent privately owned housing. "Those vouchers can also be used in these affordable housing developments, like Avalon Housing does, to subsidize the rent," Hall explains.
Despite the challenges, Hall is determined to grow the city's public housing stock. "Ten years from now, I'd like to see the number of units doubled from 360 now to 750 to 800," she says. And she plans to be here to see it: "This is a job I'm likely to retire from."
[Originally published in February, 2012.]