Housing Authority projects continue despite opposition

The Bay-Waveland Housing Authority is preparing to begin the third phase of its rebuilding plan, but the process has drawn controversy.

About 25 people attended a public hearing on the plan Monday at the Leo Seal Community Center in Waveland.

The hearing quickly turned into a gripe session an–at several points–a shouting match between opponents of the plan and housing authority members.

The third portion of the project, the Villages of Hancock, will replace 40 housing units on Camille Circle in Waveland and 18 more on Ballentine Street in the Bay.

The Housing Authority has already begun development on the Oak Haven development on Russell Drive in Waveland, which will provide 80 units designated for the elderly.

Later this month, the authority plans to break ground on the Bay Pines development on Old Spanish Trail in Bay St. Louis which will replace about 100 low-income housing units lost during Hurricane Katrina.

One of the chief concerns raised at the meeting was whether there is a need for more low-income housing the area.

Prior to Katrina, the Bay and Waveland housing authorities operated six facilities in the two cities.

All of those facilities were damaged in the storm and had to be demolished.

After the storm, the authorities were consolidated into one authority and the new single authority began plans to rebuild about 180 units in four locations.

None of the facilities have been reopened yet, and meanwhile, there has been a flood of new apartment complexes in the area.

A good deal of those apartments are accepting Section 8 vouchers, officials said.

“Instead of building more, let’s fill what is already here,” local businessman Phillip Garcia said. “Where are all these people going to work? We are being bombarded with apartment complexes.”

Housing Authority Spokesperson Karen Ladner said the housing authority is only trying to rebuild what was here prior to Katrina and its tenants are different that those living in the commercial apartments.

“There are a lot of people who lived here before the storm who want to come back,” Ladner said. “I want to help our people first. These other apartments are bringing in people from the outside.”

The housing authority targets elderly and disabled tenants, along with people who make less than 30 percent of the mean income.

Housing Authority Board Member Francis Graves said the community deserves to have the housing authority return.

“We have been here since the ’50s,” she said. “Everyone else is doing it for their pocket.”

Chuck Benvenutti questioned the process involved in the authority’s building plan and how much the projects were costing.

“You are operating in a vacuum,” Benvenutti said. “Yes, you have a right to put it back up, but what about the rest of the neighborhood? Its been four-and-a-half years and not the first one is open.”

Benvenutti said he heard the authority was paying more than $260 a square-foot for the Bay Pines project. Housing authority members said they did not have the details of the projects readily available.

The project was bid about two years ago, before the collapse of the economy, officials said.

“That is just criminal to pay that much,” Benvenutti said. “Bids are coming in at 30, 40, and sometimes 50 percent of what they were.”

Corky Hadden said the authority members need to be good stewards of the tax payers’ money.

He suggested the authority reopen the bidding process because the Bay Pines development has not yet begun.

“You guys need to figure out how to save the tax payers dollars,” he said. “The county is going broke and it because of things like this.”

Ladner said the housing authority had no intentions of rebidding the project because the Department of Housing and Urban Development has already signed off on it.

“HUD wants us to build sustainable housing,” she said. “Nobody knows how much paperwork goes into these things. After Camille, the facilities lasted 35 years, we want these to last 50 to 75 years.”

Local builder Henry Martinez said he was upset because the authority did not publicly bid the projects.

Because of the storm, HUD waived the public bidding policy in an attempt to get construction done quicker and take advantage of Go-Zone tax credits which are being used to help fund the project, officials said.

Ladner said there have already been two extensions on the Go-Zone law and the projects must be completed before Dec. 31, 2010 or the authority may lose its investors.

Tax credits are sold to private investors to help fund public projects. The investor puts up money for the project and in return, gets to deduct those funds and save more on taxes later.

The reason why the Bay Pines project was delayed was because one of the tax credit investors backed out at the last minute last year when the national economy tanked, Ladner said.

Because of the Go-Zone legislation and time constraints, HUD allowed the housing authority to “invite” contractors to bid on the projects instead of bidding them publicly, she said.

Yates Construction was chosen for the first two projects and will be given the Villages project also, Ladner said.

“This was always a three-part process,” she said. “We have a unique relationship with the developer. This developer only works through housing authorities. We are not hiding anything, we are building the way HUD wants us too.”

She could not say how much the project would cost or how many square feet it would be, but others estimated it to be about an $18 million project.

“You are basically giving Yates an $18 million gift,” Martinez said.”Your going to be paying twice as much as that project’s worth and nobody is getting alarmed?”

Benvenutti said he believes there may be a conflict of interest with the developer making most of the decisions on the project.

“The developer is payed by a percentage of the overall project, so the more the project is worth, the more he gets paid,” Benvenutti said “The developer is definitely driving the boat.”

The housing authority will break ground on Bay Pines on March 26.

An application to the Mississippi Development Authority on the Villages of Hancock project must be turned in by April 9, Ladner said. The Oak Haven project is expected to be opened by this fall, she said.

Dwayne Bremer

The Sea Coast Echo

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