CDBG program helps cities finance facelifts for aging housing, downtowns

BY KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

Downtown redevelopment and providing affordable housing for residents are two of the biggest challenges facing many communities across Tennessee.


The Community Development Block Program’s Downtown Façade Improvement grants are only available to communities in Tennessee that have participated in the Tennessee Downtowns program with an active design committee or Tennessee Main Street communities. The grant applications must be submitted by the local Main Street organization, the sponsoring non-profit organization for the Tennessee Downtowns program or the city in which the improvements will be made.


Projects eligible for these funds include exterior improvements to for-profit or non-profit commercial businesses including signage, painting, awnings, lighting, windows, doors, entryways and other improvements approved by TNECD. Interior improvements are not allowed.


The University of Tennessee-Knoxville Institute for Public Service found cosmetic repairs in downtowns were one factor that can contribute to new investment, create new businesses and jobs, and increase the number of visitors to local downtowns.


Paris is one of several Tennessee communities that has taken advantage of the CDBG downtown program. Jennifer Morris, community development director with the city of Paris, said the city received $100,000 from the Downtown Façade Grant program for improvements to downtown Paris. After the city was awarded the grant and went through the environmental process, Morris said city officials met with downtown business owners to discuss how the city planned to award different projects.


“We are in the midst of the façade grants,” Morris said. “Rather than one major project we are trying to do 11 smaller projects. We are touching up different areas of the downtown, like awning projects, painting projects, restoring bricks, installing new lamps and lighting, and window replacement. That way, it spreads the money around. One of the projects we are doing is replacing a double door that has been there forever. They are replacing it with a newer door that looks like the old door but is handicap accessible. The current door isn’t in a shape for a wheelchair to get through it.”


Morris said the projects were chosen by a five person committee that included a historian, contractor, a marketing expert, and a real estate agent. The committee ranked the submitted applications and approved 11 projects. There are an additional seven projects Paris hopes to complete if there is still funding left over.


City officials in Paris have already been working to make improvements downtown. Paris has received a Tourism Enhancement Grant to help install a new restroom facility and a grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission to install art murals in downtown alleyways. Downtown Paris is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district and recently became a part of Tennessee’s Main Streets program. Downtown Paris has seen a revitalization in terms of retail as a result of investments into the area.


“For one thing, downtowns represent our heritage and history,” Morris said. “Many of our downtown buildings are at least 100 years old. As far as economic development, industries often look very closely at a city’s downtown. If the downtown is vibrant and is taken care of, it tells them that community takes pride in itself. That is a big selling point for industries. We are also sales-tax driven, so that retail is important to our downtown. It is also a gathering place for people, so downtown is the heart of the community. It is what makes us unique.”


Housing, especially affordable housing, is another important issue many communities are facing. Housing projects through CDBG funds include providing housing counseling services – such as advice on pre-purchase, credit, money management, and foreclosure prevention – to potential homebuyers or to keep homes safe and accessible, projects often used to help neighborhoods with a high volume of elderly residents on fixed incomes.


Housing funds from the CDBG program are often used to develop or renovate affordable housing that already exist, but the construction of new housing is not allowed under the program. At least 51 percent of houses funded through the project must be occupied by low-to-moderate income-residents.


Paris has twice taken advantage of the program, first receiving a $500,000 grant in 2006 to renovate homes in the Peden Hill neighborhood, which was then combined with a Tennessee Housing Development Agency grant of $250,000. The CDBG funds alone allowed for the rehabilitation of six homes on Sparks and Yates streets in the community. The city then received a second CDBG grant of $255,000 grant for housing rehabilitation in the South Porter, South College, and West Blythe Street areas of the community in 2013. Most of these homes were built in the 1960s or earlier.


“Paris was originally built around the railroad, and a lot of these older homes that are within two or three blocks of downtown were where people lived in those days,” Morris said. “These are older homes, and over a period of time – like in a lot of other cities – some of those older homes become the place for people with lower incomes to live. Sometimes there are residents who cannot fix the home the way they need to. One of the homes we repaired was for a young woman who had a stroke, and we helped install a wheelchair ramp into the home.”


Paris City Manager Kim Foster said the CDBG housing grants are an invaluable tool.


“We have been trying to take advantage of the CDBG housing grants every time we can qualify,” Foster said. “Like most rural communities, housing and affordable housing is always an issue and a concern for us. Usually, there is a lot of sweat equity in these grants, but there isn’t a lot of financial matches required. That is a win-win for the community, and meets a need we otherwise couldn’t provide. It’s very disheartening and sad when you get into these programs and find out the conditions some of these people are living in. We do whatever we can to make improvements for these residents.”


Foster said repairs to homes included replacing windows, energy-efficiency upgrades, adding new roofs, plumbing corrections, new floors, and new HVAC units. Foster said the repairs made to these homes are “more than just cosmetic.”


“A lot of time the place where your oldest housing stock is tends to be lower-income,” Foster said. “The homes have to be owner-occupied, and our current round is a $40,000-per-household grant that can be spent through the grant. That allows us to spread the money a bit further.”


Foster said residents who have been part of the program are extremely grateful to have participated.


“These projects are a lot of work, but they are so gratifying,” Foster said. “You know you’ve made a difference in someone’s life through this program. We have people whose homes in are in such a condition that without this funding they might not be able to stay in their homes.”


Paris isn’t the only community that has seen positive change following a CDBG housing project. The city of Columbia was awarded a $315,000 grant through the program in 2014 to revitalize its East Columbia neighborhood.


Columbia Assistant City Manager Thad Jablonski said Columbia worked with the Columbia Housing and Redevelopment Corporation and the South Central Tennessee Development District to make the project a reality.


“When structures that are dilapidated dot the neighborhood, it is hard to attract investors and it is hard to get people excited about maintaining their property,” Jablonski said. “We knew something had to be done about these structures, and the CDBG grant provided the opportunity for this project. These houses can attract a lot of illegal activity or activity we want to discourage. You have someone bringing in drugs or alcohol or crime into these vacant structures, and it makes the entire area a target for crime.”


Lorie Fisher, community development director at the South Central Tennessee Development District,


“This area had a large stock of vacant and abandoned properties, a high crime rate, and needed economic investment,” Fisher said. “Neighborhood decay can encourage small crime which then can lead to more serious crimes. A lot of times, people inherited properties and structures but didn’t have the money to remove the structure or to rehab it. The structures then fell into decay over several generations. The city was getting a backlog on their permit violations of all these structures, but the city didn’t have enough money in their coffers to go and remove these structures.”


Through the grant, Columbia took down 37 homes that had become dilapidated to the point they were no longer inhabitable. This freed up the vacant lots for redevelopment into affordable housing for the residents of the neighborhood as well as eliminated properties that might attract crime to the neighborhood. Other funds were used to improve walkways and make East Columbia more connected to downtown.


Without the CDBG funds, Jablonski said it would have been a struggle for Columbia to redevelop the neighborhood.


“We budget about $40,000 a year for paving in Columbia, and this grant allowed us to take care of houses that were blighted by spending $30,000 to $40,000 on each of them. We worked with property owners in the community who had a need and getting them to a point they felt comfortable taking advantage of the program. We worked on 37 homes, and it was hard to believe that people were living in some of these homes because of their condition.”


While it may seem counterintuitive, Fisher said taking down these old structures to make room for new structures actually is one way to improve a neighborhood. Columbia has already issues several building permits for new homes in the area.


“The program was voluntary, and there had to be a title to the program proving who the owner was,” Fisher said. “One of the issues was finding properties with a clear title. The goal of the project was to increase single-family homes. Once you clear the property, a nice single-family home can be built on that property. Columbia even changed some of their zoning so that you couldn’t have rental property or modular homes to encourage single-family homes. Once you have ownership of property, people tend to take better care of it and have better pride in their community.”


Fisher said that affordable housing is an important economic development tool for communities, and without programs like CDBG, it might be harder for communities to keep revitalizing local neighborhoods.


“I have worked in the CDBG program for more than 30 years, and this is by far the program that assists small, rural communities more than any other,” she said. “This is really the only program that is available on a regular basis that helps small rural towns. I don’t know what some communities would do without this program. I have some towns that apply for funds every other year. Small towns who don’t have the population or revenue can’t afford to do these major projects without assistance from a grant program.”