50 New homes will fill empty city lots low-income families could eventually purchase properties going up on city's south side

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The Post Standard (Syracuse, NY)
By: Paul Riede
September 25, 2010

The Syracuse Housing Authority plans to address a desperate need for affordable housing by building 50 homes for low-income families on the city's South Side within the next two years.

That's about the same number of single-family homes built in all of Syracuse in a typical year, Assessor John Gamage said.

The SHA and city officials say the $11 million project, which will break ground in the spring, will provide a path to homeownership for low-income families while filling in some of the vacant lots that plague the city. The homes will be concentrated on the South Side for cumulative impact, SHA Executive Director Bill Simmons said.

"This whole project could be transformative for a particular neighborhood," he said. "You get a spinoff -- when a neighborhood sees 11 homes go up in an area, other property managers begin to spruce up their homes and make improvements."

Simmons said tenants will be carefully vetted for what is being touted as a "lease-purchase" program. Tenants will begin by renting, but will accumulate credits that can be used to buy the homes. If they move out, the new tenants will begin developing credits from scratch. The homes become eligible for purchase 15 years after construction.

The idea is to "groom" public housing tenants to be homeowners, said Paul Driscoll, Syracuse's commissioner of neighborhood and business development.

"They're trying to get people to look at public housing as a stage in a process," he said.

To be eligible for the program, a family of four must have an annual income of less than $33,600, Simmons said. Some of the homes will have an upper income limit of about $17,000. The homes will not be luxurious -- the four-bedroom models will average 1,315 square feet -- but they will have two full baths, parking for two vehicles and fenced-in yards.

The homes will be built using green design and include low-flow toilets and Energy Star appliances. Six will be adapted for people with impaired mobility, and two will be designed for people with hearing or vision impairments.

Net rents will average $320 to $750 a month, although the rent for each family will vary depending on income, family size and access to housing vouchers. To promote habits needed for homeownership, tenants will pay their own utility bills.

The city has pledged $400,000 for the program from its annual $2 million federal housing allocation. The federal Housing Trust Fund will provide $2.4 million, and $8 million will be raised using federal tax credits. The co-developer of the project -- the NRP Group, of Cleveland, Ohio -- will sell the credits to investors, who will reap federal tax benefits over 10 years.

While many of the three- and four-bedroom homes will fill in streets that have one or two vacant lots, others will be clustered in a single location.

The largest cluster, at Cortland Avenue and Blaine Street, will have nine homes and a "community clubhouse" with a full-time manager to help tenants. That cluster will be built on lots where SHA-managed homes were mothballed during construction of the controversial Midland Avenue sewage treatment plant. The city's initial plan was to reopen those units, but the boarded-up houses will be demolished and new units built, Simmons said.

All the other homes in the project will be built on vacant land that either belongs to the city or the SHA or is "seizable" because of tax delinquency.

As significant as they are, the homes will put only a small dent in the city's housing woes. There are some 3,000 vacant lots in the city. And Simmons says there are 1,500 people on a waiting list for public housing and 3,000 waiting for Section 8 subsidies, which help pay for rent.

Still, the project will make an impact by offering low-income residents something rare in the city: new, energy-efficient rental units, said Sharon Sherman, part-time executive director of the Greater Syracuse Tenants Network. Having the chance to eventually own them is a bonus.

"I think it's a very big deal," she said. "We really need housing like this in Syracuse. ... I think it's a way out of poverty for individuals."

The "lease-purchase" aspect of the program will need constant monitoring, said Kerry Quaglia, executive director of Home HeadQuarters Inc., in Syracuse. He said it will be difficult to find people who will spend 15 years in a single rental unit and then be ready to buy. Home Headquarters, which rehabilitates and constructs affordable housing while helping hundreds of residents purchase and maintain their homes, works extensively to prepare first-time homeowners for the shift from renting to buying.

"It's not an easy thing," Quaglia said. "There's a whole culture shift. Most tenants who have rented their whole lives need support to become a homebuyer."

Simmons said the SHA will be vigilant in finding tenants who can honor a long-term commitment.

"If you have somebody who's going to rotate in and out, then it kills the program," he said.

The project will prepare tenants by offering credit counseling and homeownership classes, said Christopher Dirr, vice president of development for NRP.

The SHA's application was approved in August by the New York Division of Housing and Community Renewal. The application was developed after NRP contacted the city while Matt Driscoll was mayor, and was finished in February under Mayor Stephanie Miner.

Dirr said NRP has developed 6,500 housing units across the country using similar financing. This will be the company's first foray into New York, and it is hoping to do more work in the state -- and in Syracuse. The SHA is calling this "Phase 1"; it intends to apply for another allocation of tax credits next year, likely with NRP's help.

NRP will be the general contractor. RDL Architects Inc., of Shaker Heights, Ohio, is project architect. NRP will hire local labor, Dirr said.

Driscoll and Simmons said NRP's experience will benefit the SHA, which manages public housing. Simmons acknowledged the authority has built only one house from scratch: a single-family home it constructed last year on South McBride Street.

Contact Paul Riede at priede@syracuse.com or 470-3260.

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