With the help of a private developer and changes on the federal level, the city may see upgraded and new public housing units in Flagstaff in four to eight years, and potentially more of them.
Flagstaff City Council directed staff to send a letter of intent to the Department of Housing and Urban Development that begins the process of this redevelopment.
City Housing Director Sarah Darr was quick to say that the process was nonbinding and the city could stop at any time should Council decide to.
Darr added that the program would not mean any residents of the city’s public housing program would lose their homes should the city want to redevelop the public housing communities.
“There are people who live in these units; they will remain foremost in our thought process no matter what we decide to do with those [units]. It’s about the people who live there and we need to be very, very clear that no one is going to lose their housing,” Darr said. “We are not taking people’s homes away.”
The federal path the city is going down is one to “reposition public housing,” essentially transitioning it from public housing to other federal housing programs like Section 8.
Section 8 housing is best known for housing vouchers that a family can hold, but if the city goes down that path, the two main public housing communities in Flagstaff -- Siler Homes and Brannen Homes -- won't transition to that system. Instead, the voucher will stay with the unit but simply under the Section 8 title, not unlike how Clark Homes operates, Darr said.
The program began development under the Obama administration, continuing under President Donald Trump, and was meant to help address an estimated $23 billion of capital works projects and maintenance that many public housing units need across the county.
These are not issues public housing developments have faced in Flagstaff -- unlike other parts of the country, Darr said the city maintenance department has done a great job maintaining public housing.
But because the city does not need to use the program to complete years of maintenance projects, it presents the city with the opportunity to redevelop or refurbish the public housing developments in Flagstaff, primarily Siler Homes and Brannon Homes.
HUD isn’t providing any additional money to do this but the path the city is taking does change some of the rules around these public housing developments. For one, it allows municipalities to take out loans for use toward these housing projects, using the public housing as leverage. Previously, HUD did not allow cities to take out such loans.
This path also allows a city to work with a private developer to rehab or redevelop the housing, meaning newer units and often an increase in the number of units.
In return, the developer may receive a developer fee or tax breaks. Other cities have also allowed the developer to manage or even own the property after the rehab as a privately run affordable housing development, although Darr said in this case, the city would like to keep both ownership and management of the property.
Mayor Coral Evans agreed.
“I think at a bare minimum the city needs to retain ownership of the land and retain the property management function,” Evans said.
Evans did voice some concern over how likely such redevelopment projects would be completed and if they may change the quality of life for residents of public housing in Flagstaff.
She pointed at Siler Homes, where Evans lived growing up, which covers about 20 acres of land and houses about 100 families.
“That afforded those families a yard, a front yard and a back yard, and it afforded us a certain normal quality of life. So as we move to this new model, does that mean people will be in apartments that are three stories high and have no yard?” Evans said. “That worries me.”
Darr agreed, adding that the residents of those communities should have input as well.
“There is no reason we can’t have multiple housing types on one site,” Darr said.
The federal government and Congress have been moving away from federally funded public housing as a way to address issues of housing insecurity and affordable housing, instead focusing efforts on Section 8, Darr said. The program has long been both underfunded and seen unpredictable fluctuations in how much money is provided.
Because of this, transitioning the city’s public housing to operate under Section 8 may provide stability for funding levels, said Deborah Beals, the finance manager for the city housing department.
For years, the city housing department often has little idea of exactly how much they will be getting from the federal government annually for the purpose of public housing, Beals said.
Comparatively, staff have better, earlier estimates as to how much money they are receiving for the Section 8 programs, Beals said.