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Eastern Panhandle counties to form housing consortium

March 05, 2006|By ROBERT SNYDER

MARTINSBURG, W.VA.

As much as $600,000 in federal money could be targeted for affordable housing programs in the Eastern Panhandle annually starting in July, following a decision by several area jurisdictions to form a regional consortium.

The decision by representatives from Jefferson, Morgan and Berkeley counties, as well as several area cities, to band together will help the region qualify for federal HOME Investment Partnership program grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Martinsburg Community Development Director Pat McMillan said.

The various jurisdictions had until March 1 to indicate their intent to participate in the consortium, McMillan said.

During a meeting last month, a HUD official told regional leaders that teaming up would be the best way to qualify for the funding. Neither Martinsburg nor other jurisdictions acting individually would meet a $500,000 threshold to qualify for HOME program dollars, HUD Community Planning and Development Division Director Lynn Daniels said at that time.

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All three counties and their nine municipalities would have qualified for $619,920 in 2005, McMillan said. Allocation estimates have not yet been totaled for 2007, he said.

Funds can be used to assist with the rehabilitation costs of older houses along with new home and rental housing construction, down payment and closing costs for home buyers, and rental assistance for tenants, McMillan said.

"In any given consortium, you could have several different programs," McMillan said. "It depends on the nature of the program and the way you choose to deliver it to make housing affordable."

With only $600,000 to spread around, and housing costs and rental rates in Berkeley and Jefferson counties exceeding low- and moderate-income earners' affordability levels, options could be limited.

A housing unit is considered affordable if it costs no more than 30 percent of a renter's income.

In Berkeley County, where the $629 monthly cost of a fair market rental apartment exceeds the statewide average of $506, a worker would have to earn $12.10 per hour or work 94 hours at 2.3 full-time jobs earning minimum wage to be able to afford an apartment, according to data from Out of Reach, a publication of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

In Jefferson County, a worker would need to earn an hourly wage of $11.92 working a 40-hour work week, or work 93 hours weekly at 2.3 full-time minimum-wage jobs to be able to afford a two-bedroom fair market rental apartment.

"It's a huge problem," said Jefferson County commissioner Rusty Morgan, who acknowledged that growth management policies counter efforts to develop affordable housing in Jefferson County.

Morgan also blamed higher commercial property tax rates for discouraging rental housing construction.

McMillan acknowledged the consortium will have to decide how best to allocate a limited amount of funding.

"The question is: How many people do you help or how much do you help people?" McMillan said. "That's always the balancing act."

Eligibility in the HOME program is based on Martinsburg's status as a Community Development Block Grant entitlement community, with funding based on poverty levels as well as the age and quality of a community's housing supply.

The HOME consortia program would require matching funding, totaling 25 percent of the award, to enable receipt of HOME dollars. Participants also must set aside 15 percent of their allocations to nonprofit groups for housing development.

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