The Fresno Housing Authority will start the new year renovating hundreds of aging public housing units, the nation's largest project to date in a new federal program to preserve low-income housing.
The authority will make over nine apartment complexes in Mendota, Orange Cove and southeast Fresno under the Rental Assistance Demonstration Program administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The yearlong, $40 million project will beautify, upgrade and make more energy-efficient 407 apartments.
So far, none of the other 68 agencies initially chosen to participate in the program, which was introduced by HUD's top official, Shaun Donovan, last January, have received final approval or closed on their financing plans to renovate as many housing units, a HUD spokesman said.
But other housing agencies have submitted plans to renovate several thousand units, for which they must assemble financing and obtain approval in a process that will take at least nine months to complete, HUD's Brian Sullivan said.
Fresno officials are celebrating, since they have already completed a challenging but rewarding year of planning for the project.
"We're excited and proud," said the authority's executive director, Preston Prince. "We're jumping up and down."
The housing authority oversees about 2,000 public housing units from Firebaugh to Orange Cove that need more than $100 million in improvements. But the authority gets only $3 million per year from the federal government to spend, Prince said.
"So if we just did things in the traditional way it would take us 30 years to catch up on the improvements, and that doesn't take into consideration the wear and tear that happens," Prince said.
In 2012, Congress passed legislation to address the estimated $26 billion backlog in capital needs for public housing nationwide. HUD administers the program.
Normally, federally subsidized housing agencies can only use public funds to improve public housing units. Under the RAD Program, agencies can use the federal subsidies and the equity in their developments as collateral for private loans to fund improvements.
The Fresno Housing Authority applied for and received tax credit allocations for the projects last year.
It also received money from the city and county of Fresno and lined up two private investors.
The agency closed on its financial agreements before Christmas and has given its contractors the green light to begin construction.
The plan is to upgrade kitchens, bathrooms, add laundry rooms, improve sewer and water lines, paint the buildings and create drought-tolerant landscapes.
Some of the three- and four-bedroom apartments will get a second bathroom.
"We're adding bathrooms, which isn't very glamorous, but I think it changes the quality of life — maybe not for everyone, but that (family's) mother is sure going to be happy," said Prince, who grew up in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house with three older brothers.
In Mendota and Orange Cove, the agency will build community rooms that will allow the Boys & Girls Clubs to operate programs for children who live in the complexes.
In Fresno, new meeting rooms — none of the complexes currently have any — will allow the authority to partner with the Fresno Unified School District to bring educational activities like a reading program on site.
"While having affordable housing is really important, we know that services are key for families to be successful and achieve self-sufficiency," Prince said.
The project will be completed in phases, and families will be relocated for four to six weeks at a time so units can be renovated. Construction is expected to be finished by the end of this year.
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