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The North Little Rock Housing Authority took an early step toward an extreme, $46 million renovation to address urgent needs in three of its public housing towers.

On Monday, the housing authority's board of commissioners moved to submit an application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the reconstruction of Willow House, Campus Towers and Heritage House. Together, the three buildings comprise 457 units of elderly and family housing.

The North Little Rock agency -- the second largest public housing agency in the state -- expects to hear back on the application by March or late summer before construction can begin.

Once HUD approves the application, the housing authority can begin employing several strategies for relocating displaced tenants, including giving them Section 8 vouchers to find subsidized housing locally, and cease leasing out units as turnover occurs. The authority would then relocate tenants to other vacant units to begin renovating one section of the buildings at a time. The authority expects to complete the full project by 2019.

Funding for the renovations is being sought through HUD's Rental Assistance Demonstration program, which allows a housing authority to partner with a private investor and developer to bankroll costly and badly needed repairs.

The Rental Assistance Demonstration program is HUD's latest attempt to shore up the nation's crumbling public housing sector while it grapples with decades of underfunding from Congress. The federal agency estimates that $26 billion is needed to repair and restore the nation's 1.1 million public housing units, with each subsequent year accruing an additional $3.4 billion in unmet capital needs.

With about $90 million in capital needs across North Little Rock's public housing stock, which is comprised of eight buildings in total, the agency only receives $1 million a year from HUD for maintenance and renovations.

The agency has yet to identify an investment partner, although it has received proposals, said Belinda Snow, the NLR housing authority's executive director. The agency expects to enter into a partnership with an investor by April, and are doing so under the guidance of the Bennett Group -- a consulting firm specializing in Rental Assistance Demonstration conversions.

But some of the physical needs of the North Little Rock agency's buildings are so urgent, Snow said, that the housing authority may be forced to begin costly improvements before obtaining outside funding.

"We might have to move ahead of the game and just start working on the air conditioning or plumbing, and you can't just wait until it gets hot," Snow said. "We probably have gone as far as we can go without doing anything."

In the three towers, each of which were built in the 1960s, critical needs include improvements of the heating and cooling systems, replacement of deteriorating plumbing, and replacing elevators.

Leaks in water and sewage systems perennially cost the housing authority tens of thousands of dollars in plumbing bills, including an estimated $25,000 leak in Willow House on Monday morning.

"Our plumbing bills and our air conditioning bills will always be the highest bills you see in this agency," Snow said.

Throughout the process, the agency has held educational meetings and collected comments from tenants. While many tenants are excited about improvements, or about receiving Section 8 vouchers in exchange for giving up their units, others continue to express fear over becoming permanently displaced.

"It would be too much trouble to move, because I am not in good health and my daughter and I are both handicapped," wrote one Willow House tenant.

"Save funds, revenue for use of emergency and need. I love my apartment just the way it is," wrote another.

But by and large, Snow said, "they're ready for the elevators to be new and the plumbing to not always be an issue."

On Monday, the North Little Rock Housing Authority also submitted applications for HUD approval to enter Eastgate Terrace and Hemlock Courts --a 178-unit building and 106-unit building, respectively -- into the Rental Assistance Demonstration program as well. Those buildings are on pace to complete renovations by 2021, if the federal Housing agency approves the application.

Metro on 01/31/2017

Print Headline: NLR Housing moves to repair 457 units by '19

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