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Economic crisis finds S.P. Housing Authority on cusp of change

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Economic crisis finds S.P. Housing Authority on cusp of change

City may partner for use of $800K in stimulus funds 
SOUTH PORTLAND — The city's Housing Authority is on the cusp of big change, with demand for services is on the rise because of the poor economy and housing crisis.
SPHA Executive Director Elaine Neelon said current economic conditions are forcing many families to seek housing assistance from the authority, which generally serves the city's elderly, disabled and low-income residents.
More than 70 families who are waiting for housing were previously above the income threshold to receive that assistance, but some have become eligible due to job losses, she said.
"We're kind of cyclical with the economy," Neelon said. "And this is the worst economy I've seen in my 26 years here."
As demand for housing assistance continues to climb, SPHA commissioners, who are appointed by the City Council, are trying to find a new executive director. Neelon told the board last October that she is stepping down, but agreed to stay on until a permanent replacement could be found.
"This place means a lot to me," said Neelon, who took the job right out of college in 1983 and hopes to start a new career. "I wanted to make sure the transition went as smooth as possible."
SPHA Chairman Kevin Glynn said the goup has whittled at field of 24 applicants down to two finalists, and a replacement for Neelon will be chosen soon.
The SPHA was created in 1943 to find military housing during World War II and currently manages 650 housing units throughout the city, including Mill Cove Apartments, Ridgeland Estates and the Betsy Ross House.
The authority has 338 people on its waiting list, which has been closed since last summer. Neelon said the list will be reopened for the elderly between March 30 and April 4; that list already has 85 people waiting for housing and another 21 people waiting for Section 8 vouchers.
Waiting lists for families are not expected to be reopened until the spring, she said. That list 159 families waiting for Section 8 vouchers in addition to the 73 seeking housing.
Meanwhile, the city is hoping to partner with the authority to renovate homes that have been foreclosed or abandoned. Although the council appoints Housing Authority board members, the two entities are not otherwise affiliated.
Neighborhood stabilization
Assistant City Manager Erik Carson said city expects to receive $800,000 from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which was created by the Economic Recovery Act of 2008.
The program enables city governments to purchase
foreclosed or abandoned properties and redevelop them into housing before
they become a neighborhood blight.
Although no properties have been selected for redevelopment, Carson said the city has identified seven that may be eligible for redevelopment: on George Street, valued at $175,000; Sawyer Street, $192,400; Highland Avenue, $193,700; Broadway, $252,000; Fillmore Avenue, $188,000; Ocean Street, $166,700, and Broadway, $173,600.
Carson said the city hopes to buy some of these properties, with a total appraised value of $1.34 million, below market value and renovate them for first-time home buyers. He said the city is "pretty likely" to work with the Housing Authority and may turn these homes over to the authority to rent or sell.
"(The plan) is a little bare-bones right now because we're still working out all the details," he said.
Carson said the council will likely hold a public hearing and accept the federal funds in early April. Once accepted, the city must commit those funds within 18 months, or they will be returned to the state for redistribution.
Long-range planning
Glynn said the housing authority is eager to work with the city, since the authority is currently working on a long-range plan to address housing needs of the city's elderly, many of whom have grown uneasy about their ability to stay in their homes.
Glynn said housing clients are getting younger, which means there is very little turnover in the units that are increasingly in demand.
Part of the authority's plan could include building another housing complex, a project that would have to be undertaken by the South Portland Housing Development Corp., the non-profit arm of the SPHA that has not constructed housing since the Betsy Ross House in 2000.
Glynn said the board would also like the city to consider the authority as a potential recipient of any unused city buildings. Also, the SPHA may pitch a proposal to take over the city's Welfare Department, since clients typically use both services, he said.
"This is some of the hardest economic times our city has seen," Glynn said. "But the South Portland Housing Authority is going to be there to be a strong and viable player."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net.