Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Published in the Monadnock Ledger Transcript on 10/29/13

Is HUD a threat to your community?
I might as well start with the case of Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and his battle with HUD.  This is the case that people opposing the use of HUD grants cite as an example of how HUD “attaches strings” to grants and “changes the rules” forcing you to accept affordable housing, even when it violates local zoning laws.
Well, it so happens, I do know something about Westchester County and what happened there.  Westchester County accepted HUD funding to attract developers to build affordable housing.  One of the restrictions of that funding is that once a certain level of affordable housing is reached in a given town, you can build more affordable housing, but you are not eligible for HUD funds to help you build them.  Why would they make a rule like that?
Well, if you were a resident of New Rochelle, you would probably be pretty upset to find out that your County government was trying to load your town up with all the affordable housing for the County.  HUD has no interest in being a party to that.  So, if the developers can justify the cost, they are free to build there, but the County government will not be getting any infrastructure help from HUD to do so.
When Mr. Astorino talks about being sued by HUD, he is actually referring to the fact that the County attempted to get HUD funding for neighborhoods that already exceeded affordable housing goals.  HUD wants that money back. Alternatively, the County can apply those funds to affordable units in other towns.  The problem is, many of those other towns have restrictive or “snob” zoning that prohibits affordable housing and they don’t want to change their zoning.  HUD’s reaction is “Okay.  Then just give the money back.”   This is the “suit” they keep talking about. 
At the October 16  Rindge Board of Selectman’s meeting it was mentioned that in building Payson Village, an affordable senior housing project, people believed the contract SHOULD HAVE BEEN between the developer and HUD; not the town.  In the first place, this type of HUD funding, known as a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), can never go directly to a developer and in the second place, the agreement between HUD and the town means that the town has adequately considered the project and agrees that it is acceptable to the town.  Would anyone prefer that the town NOT be required to give permission in such a situation? 
Payson Village wasn’t sprung on the Rindge taxpayers overnight.  There were three separate town meetings over a period of ten years asking for the vote and will of the people.  It wasn’t even close.  The voters wanted affordable senior housing so that we could keep some of our most precious resources (our senior citizens) in town for many more years.  It has been a great addition to the town and the property was well-constructed and is beautifully maintained.
HUD funding made the project affordable for the developers by tackling a water availability problem that had plagued the town center for many years.  The HUD/CDBG funding amounted to $500,000.  The developer raised over $3 Million.  One of the restrictions of the HUD/CDBG funds is that it must be spent on infrastructure (mostly site work or utilities).  In this case, the town kept ownership of the land and most of the $500,000 went into developing a Community Well system on that land.  It is estimated that the well yield could supply water to over 1000 homes, if necessary.  It’s a tremendous potential asset for the town.  
At the Rindge Planning Board meeting on October 15, a resident suggested that Rindge not accept any more grants because there are always “strings attached.”  And, he’s right.  Whenever you accept a grant, you will be asked to sign a contract stating that you will not break any federal, state, or local laws and will uphold the terms of the contract.   Not all grants are a good deal for a town, but like anything else, you need to do your research and insist on complete transparency. 
Rindge gets a lot of grant money because our employees and volunteers work really hard and try to find ways to relieve the tax burden by getting grant funding.  Taking initiative like that should be applauded; not treated with suspicion and anger. 
So what happens if our town stops accepting grant money?  Either our tax rate will go up substantially, or as the resident at the Planning Board meeting suggested, we will have to find “some other way” of raising money.  I am not sure if he was suggesting we hold bake sales?
The question on the table is, “Should Rindge return a $24K HUD planning grant and end our relationship with HUD?”   I can’t find anything in the HUD contract which stipulates that returning the planning grant money will sever all obligations.  In fact, the contract states that even if one condition of the contract is deemed to be in default, all other conditions are still in force.  I believe Rindge will be required to finish the planning project whether or not the money is returned. 
I encourage the residents of Rindge to request the Board of Selectmen invite Ben Frost of NH Housing to attend a meeting to answer their questions about HUD funding.  I won’t speculate on the motives of the people spreading misinformation about how HUD operates, but I’m pretty sure that asking the taxpayers to return $24K or $524K would have no legal impact of any kind. 

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