Constructed in 1952 and named after an Ohio Senator, the Robert A. Taft Homes just north of downtown Peoria was originally built to serve as temporary housing for veterans of the Korean War. Today, the site is scheduled for redevelopment in multiple phases. Brenda Coates, CEO of the Peoria Housing Authority, and Yvonne Long, PHA development director, took time to speak with iBi about this complex project.
Please provide some background on redevelopment planning at Taft Homes.
Forty years after the construction of Taft, the PHA began to rehab the development. In 1996, the 15 buildings closest to the river were demolished, utilizing various partnerships throughout the community. The Riverfront Development Office was instrumental in obtaining a loan of heavy equipment from Caterpillar Inc., while PHA staff arranged for the U.S. Marine Corps, Navy Seabees and Illinois Air National Guard to provide equipment operators. Also assisting in various ways were Aggregate Equipment, Operating Engineers Local 649, Laborers Local 165 and the West Central Illinois Building & Construction Trades Council, while other businesses and agencies provided meals for the volunteer workers. One additional building of four units was demolished in 2010.
Although parts of the development underwent a modernization in the early 1990s, most of the infrastructure is antiquated, and the remaining 216 units are not comparable to today’s affordable housing market. For example, they are among the few remaining rental units in the market that do not have central air or air-conditioning units provided.
Initial conceptual master planning for the site began in 2009 with the assistance of Farnsworth Group. At the time, phased redevelopment on the existing site was planned, with input from the PHA Board of Commissioners and Taft residents. Redevelopment efforts at that time were focused at Harrison Homes, with the award of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). However, PHA would revisit master planning for Taft Homes through the solicitation of a planning consultant to include a formalized community needs assessment.
In early 2011, Taft redevelopment planning began with the assistance of Brinshore-Michaels Development. The community needs assessment was conducted through a collaborative partnership between the Center for Urban Research and Learning at Loyola University, Bradley University’s Department of Social Work and the Peoria Opportunities Foundation. The needs assessment and community feedback were used to create an option for affordable housing development on-site. In 2013, PHA worked with Taft residents and other stakeholders to research alternative redevelopment strategies, including the relocation of the units altogether or in part to areas of opportunity within the city. Through the generous assistance of the City of Peoria, Training Development & Associates (TDA) Consulting was secured to oversee this process and produce strategies for full-site replacement, with the option of leveraging the value of the current Taft Homes. Upon conclusion of these initiatives, the Board of Commissioners authorized PHA administration to proceed with a Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) application to HUD and the solicitation of a co-developer.
Describe the PHA’s vision for the future of Taft. What is proposed for the site after the move?
PHA’s vision for Taft Homes is that the site (approximately 20 acres) be utilized in a way that residents benefit first and foremost through quality replacement housing options, but that also provides PHA with long-term financial viability, including revenue streams to cover operating costs and resident programming necessary to continue its mission. The ultimate solution for the redevelopment will probably include townhouses and apartments at four to five development sites and an aim to disperse poverty.
Making all or part of the site available for other redevelopment opportunities can also serve to benefit the community and the region overall, along with the revitalization of the Warehouse District, the opening of the Riverfront Museum and the Caterpillar expansion. Proposed future use of the site will be taken into consideration and will be creatively driven through a competitive solicitation process. Its location is a critical connection to downtown Peoria, the riverfront and the medical community, while its sheer mass provides an excellent opportunity to create a synergistic movement that PHA hopes will drive expansive economic development. The PHA is committed to providing Peoria citizens with decent, safe housing alternatives. As Board Chairman Ken Zika stated at several meetings, “PHA is part of the community’s solution, not part of the problem.”
How was this redevelopment plan created? Who offered input?
Alternative redevelopment strategies were reviewed through the utilization of a facilitator with TDA Consulting, within a framework that ensured broad representation from residents, PHA staff and board members, government officials and local businesses. The Taft working group consisted of a few members of a larger task force responsible for reviewing documents, researching options and incorporating input from all stakeholders into the initial strategies. Along with PHA board members Ken Zika and Bob McQuirter and PHA staff Brenda Coates and Yvonne Long, the working group included Denise Moore, First District councilwoman; Brandon Holmes, executive director, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC); Christopher Setti, City of Peoria; Michael Maloof, Jim Maloof Realty; William Ordaz, Detweiller Neighborhood Association; and Mary Chapai, PHA board member and Taft Resident Council president.
The larger task force was developed to provide comprehensive reviews of the strategies and the process overall. It included the working group as well as the following members: Carol Merna and Bryan Rudolph, Office of Congressman Aaron Schock; Andy Colgan, Office of Congresswoman Cheri Bustos; Glenn Ross, Caterpillar Inc.; John Gibson, Catholic Diocese of Peoria; Rita Ali, Illinois Central College; Dr. Grenita Lathan, superintendent, Peoria Public Schools District 150; Ronald Jost, OSF Saint Francis Medical Center; and Jim Ardis, Peoria mayor. All meetings were public and advertised through the media to ensure transparency and encourage high-level community involvement. Public input meetings with residents and community members were also held to solicit input.
Overall, stakeholders indicated that the value of the land at Taft Homes could be leveraged to create choice housing options for families living at Taft while also creating a long-term revenue stream for PHA. One critical point of concern was to ensure there were tracts of land available such that PHA could create efficiencies in unit counts that would be easily maintained while creating choice housing opportunities and integrating families into the larger community. Affirmatively furthering fair housing (AFFH) is one of HUD’s guiding principles and a requirement for participating in HUD’s housing programs. We can demonstrate our commitment to AFFH by de-concentrating poverty and providing housing choice. This simply means breaking up the current 216 units into multiple development sites, preferably in zip codes not already concentrated in poverty.
During this process, PHA received feedback from concerned citizens asking if we were planning to bring public housing to their neighborhoods and at what level they would be engaged prior to site selection. One individual was clear that public housing residents would not be welcome in their community. We need to address the long-held negative perceptions and stereotypes of public housing and its residents in general; we cannot effectively resolve concentrations of poverty without the support of the community. AFFH is in the best interests of the region, and it’s the right thing to do. Per Ken Zika, board chairman, “The way a community treats its low-income families is a reflection of its character.”
Some residents indicated a desire to have housing options in the same area of town, while others were open to moving to other areas of the community, particularly where there are high-performing schools and little crime. Most residents will require access to public transportation networks, and many expressed support for training programs so they could be in a position to access better employment opportunities. To address concerns from the community needs assessment and additional requests that came from the resident meetings, PHA applied for an AmeriCorps service member from LISC, and received that award in 2013. The service member’s term began in October and will continue through August 15, 2014. Goals for the AmeriCorps program center around three objectives: healthy living environments, job coaching and specialized training, and job placement. PHA is working to plug into the Focus Forward CI initiative to access such opportunities.
Describe HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program and its implications on the project.
The RAD Program allows public housing units to be converted to a long-term Section 8 rental assistance contract. The purpose is to demolish and replace severely distressed and obsolete properties, allowing housing authorities to access private debt and equity to finance capital needs, streamline housing programs and provide a better platform for long-term preservation. Under this program, there is no new money. The formula utilized to arrive at the RAD contract rents for the development is the FY2012 operating funds plus the capital improvement funds plus the average tenant rents. After the financial transaction is closed, HUD removes the Declaration of Trust, the official legal document that prevents PHA from selling or transferring ownership, from the property. The RAD program is attractive because housing authorities that receive approval would receive RAD contract rents based on FY2012 operating subsidy rates of 94 percent, versus 82 percent for FY2013. Utilizing RAD for Taft Homes, the PHA could transfer this assistance to the new construction units once completed.
When would the redevelopment begin, and how long do you expect it to take place?
After meeting with HUD officials in July 2013, PHA received technical assistance regarding a new program believed to be the best solution for Taft Homes. Our partners at HUD appreciated the opportunity to meet with the PHA board, City of Peoria mayor and staff, and other interested stakeholders regarding redevelopment possibilities. HUD stands ready to work with us.
Upon submitting the RAD application to HUD on November 8, 2013, PHA was advised that more than 60,000 requests had already been received. We are waiting to find out where PHA will be in relation to a review by region. It is possible that not all applicants will receive a subsequent award. If PHA is not selected during this round, the application will be placed on a waiting list. It’s expected that HUD would request additional RAD vouchers, but it is not known whether these vouchers will have the benefit of locking in the FY2012 operating subsidy rate.
PHA hired an attorney with mixed-finance expertise to assist the PHA with the creation of a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to hire a co-developer, expected for completion and advertisement by the end of January. Once a co-developer is hired, additional property locations could be finalized and the financing applications would be completed. If the PHA receives state tax credits as part of the financing, initial redevelopment of 80 units would likely begin in 2015. Without obtaining the nine-percent low-income housing tax credits, which are approved by the Illinois Housing Development Authority, it will be very difficult to secure the financial resources necessary for a redevelopment plan to move forward. Community support will be critical.
PHA residents would be relocated to new construction units in phases as construction is completed, and supportive services will be made available to all residents.
What locations are proposed for the move? Given pushback from some residents, is the plan to spread units across multiple sites throughout the city feasible?
In addition to vacant land already owned at Harrison Homes, PHA is reviewing available property and plans to work with the co-developer, who will assist in property selection. There still appears to be some fear among Taft residents regarding relocation, and PHA administration has been conducting meetings to keep them informed. During one meeting, residents were asked to write down any fears or questions they would like answered, which PHA staff answered to the best of their knowledge. Residents were relieved to know that no resident would be displaced and everyone would have a place to live. We have continued to emphasize that Taft Homes is in need of repair, with high maintenance costs, and due to a master-metering system, 100 percent of utilities are paid by the PHA. In the future, Taft Homes cannot exist as it exists today—as traditional public housing. The plan to relocate residents across multiple development sites is feasible and offers residents better opportunities for housing.
What are the implications of converting these units from public housing to Section 8 housing?
Converting public housing units to project-based Section 8 allows the housing authority to lock in FY2012 operating subsidy rates, eases access to debt and equity, and releases the property’s declaration of trust. Public housing operating and capital funds are continually at risk for full funding through appropriations, forcing housing authorities to sometimes operate on as little as 82 cents on the dollar. Not only would PHA be able to lock the subsidy rate from 2012, we would also receive annual increases generally at one to two percent for the term of the contract (15 to 20 years).
Under the project-based Section 8 model, PHA can continue to be the landlord. Further, PHA can partner with another developer to access equity and debt for redevelopment in a less-regulated environment. Preservation of affordable housing units is one of the goals of RAD. Without accessing equity and debt for redevelopment, PHA would have to continue operating Taft Homes on a restrictive budget and hope for another initiative like HOPE VI or Choice Neighborhoods for redevelopment. The other options are: to redevelop in very small phases, partner with another entity without having something as substantial as project-based Section 8 for the deal and possibly losing affordable housing units, or dispositioning the site and possibly losing affordable housing units. Either way, HUD’s current movement with voluntary conversion will likely continue, and may later become mandatory. Right now, PHA can participate in a demonstration program with great flexibility and identify strategies that will help others be more effective in later programs.
For residents, the biggest change will be the mobility the project-based Section 8 program offers. After one year, residents can request to take a voucher to rent another housing unit without restriction to location. The project-based voucher stays with the unit for the term of the contract, but the resident gets to move to the top of PHA’s regular Section 8 voucher waitlist and can be issued the next available voucher to move where they wish.
How would the prospective move be paid for? How will any hardships experienced by current Taft residents be mitigated?
Under HUD’s Uniform Relocation Act, relocation expenses would be covered through the development budget, and the dislocation allowance for which families would be eligible would help cover transportation costs for the move. A PHA staff member would be assigned to ensure that any residents with special needs are accommodated. Otherwise, during site selection review, a property’s walkability will be taken into consideration. Walkability is the proximity of the site to resources such as grocery and other retail stores, medical facilities, etc., thus reducing dependency on a vehicle. Of course, proximity to public transportation would still be a high priority. With the plan currently submitted under RAD, no residents would be displaced; PHA would replace all 216 units through new construction.
What were some of the alternatives submitted by the board?
An initial option submitted to the board for review was to redevelop on-site, likely in phases, with approximately one third of the units being public housing units. This option was not immediately selected because the board wanted to have as much information as possible regarding redevelopment options and the implications. In particular, this option would decrease PHA’s public housing portfolio. Further, it would not provide PHA with significant financial resources to negotiate a deal, and PHA’s ability to meet its mission could be compromised. PHA is striving for the “best use” and best economic return. We must leverage the value of the existing land to redevelop housing at other potential development sites.
It’s been suggested that the razing of Warner and Harrison contributed to the rise of street gangs due to the relocation of residents with different allegiances into the same neighborhoods. How can we ensure this does not happen with the Taft relocation?
In 1997, PHA received a HOPE VI federal grant, along with state tax credits and City of Peoria funds for the former Warner Homes redevelopment. Although Warner Homes was a 400-unit public housing development built in the 1940s, only 97 residents were living there at the time of the award. Out of those 97 residents, several were relocated to other public housing developments and some received a Section 8 voucher as their names reached the top of the waiting list. With the Harrison Homes demolition, residents were relocated to vacant units at other existing housing development sites. We are not aware of any information that specifically links the relocation of public housing residents to crime in other neighborhoods.
No residents at Taft Homes will be displaced, but will be relocated to multiple development sites with supportive services and resident programming to help them be good neighbors.
Anything else you would like to add?
The PHA plans to kick off a public image campaign in 2014 and is committed to any redevelopment of Taft Homes being a WIN/WIN/WIN: for the residents, the PHA and the community. iBi