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Cumberland commissioner advocating new approach to provide affordable housing

Jimmy Keefe offers resolution he says will boost financial responsibility


Cumberland County Commissioner Jimmy Keefe wants more “bang for the buck” when using county money to buy homes for the homeless, and he is asking fellow commissioners to endorse a plan to remedy the problem.

Keefe is asking the board to adopt a resolution that spells out specific ways to ensure the county can provide a greater number of affordable homes at more reasonable costs. He will submit his proposal at a commissioners meeting on Tuesday.

The 1 p.m. session will be in Room 564 of the Cumberland County Courthouse and is open to the public.

The three-page draft resolution will be presented by interim County Manager Renee Paschal.

If adopted, the resolution will be placed on the agenda for the Feb. 20 commissioners meeting, according to Paschal.

The resolution calls for the commissioners to work with affordable housing and workforce housing stakeholders and experts, including area builders who have expertise in the design and construction of low- and moderate-income developments. These experts would develop housing policies that address the availability and affordability of workforce housing in the county.

A key part of the resolution is a proposed board policy that all homeless project funding will not exceed the median cost of a similar dwelling in Cumberland County. Keefe wants to base that figure on the most recent tax evaluation or census data. Keefe says adoption of this policy would ensure the construction of more affordable housing, greater financial oversight, and would be in keeping with the board’s mission statement to provide quality services while being fiscally responsible.

Another component is the creation of a housing coordinator position with responsibilities associated with the homeless situation. That staff member would report to the county manager. Some of the coordinator’s responsibilities would include:

  • Drafting and recommending homeless or affordable housing policies and action plans.
  • Contacting designers, developers and construction companies about competitive and responsible partnerships on projects.
  • Coordinating a process that ensures applicants get into affordable housing and making sure anyone who is not eligible vacate those properties.
  • Research funding sources.
  • Monitor housing inventory, including identifying compliance violations.
  • Community outreach and education programs.
  • Marketing affordable housing.
  • Helping prepare plans for housing projects.

The county Community Development Department administers federal and local funding to provide affordable homes for county residents who cannot afford proper housing.

At a recent board meeting, Keefe balked at moving $2.7 million from a sewer project to fund another affordable housing project with what he considered unrealistic costs. According to Keefe, the county would pay close to $285 per square foot for construction when the average cost in Cumberland County is closer to $130 per square foot, especially for townhouse-type dwellings that share common walls.

Although the money comes to Cumberland County from the federal and state governments, there are complex rules about how and when the money must be used.

In November, the Board of Commissioners was asked to transfer $2.7 million from the Shaw Heights sewer project to the Robin’s Meadow supportive housing project, which would fund 12 additional apartments and a community resource center.

Each unit would have three bedrooms and 1½ bathrooms. They would range from 1,290 to 1,450 square feet, and two units would be disability-compliant.

The state allocated about $2.5 million in Community Block Grant disaster recovery funding to build affordable housing in the county. In June 2020, the county commissioners approved the design of the Robins Meadow project. In October 2020, the county asked for an additional $100,000 in grants for construction and support services. The total budget for the project rose to about $3 million.

The county sought construction bids, but there were no responses, county Community Development Director Dee Taylor told committee members at a previous meeting. She added that since the initial approval of funding, construction prices have increased.

“Everything increased drastically during the pandemic,” she told the commissioners. “The original budget is no longer sufficient to cover the cost to build this housing project. The current projected cost is $285 per square foot.”

Grant guidelines required that the project close the financing gap by Nov. 30, and the county must have a qualified contractor in place by March 20. If the county does not meet those deadlines, it could lose the state grants.

Another trigger for Keefe came via an internal email from interim County Manager Renee Paschal. It involves a proposed 40-unit high-rise to provide housing for the elderly at 108 Wiley St., off Ramsey Street. The project is a combination of 10 one-bedroom and 30 two-bedroom units. Ten of the two-bedroom units will accommodate inter-generational families, which include families with a child, a grandparent, or a relative raising a child. The estimated construction cost is $14 million.

The Fayetteville Metropolitan Housing Authority is spearheading the project and has signaled to the county that it would eventually ask for partial funding. The developer is Hillside-Fmha LLC, and most of the proposed funding would be from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Keefe said $14 million for 40 units would equal $350,000 for each.The average home in Cumberland County is valued at about $200,000, he said.

Keefe is suggesting taking a new approach to provide homes for the homeless.

“The old way of doing things is not working. We’re spending a lot of money but not getting much of an impact to help the homeless,” he said. “It doesn’t look like we’re making progress.”

Commissioners Veronica Jones and Michael Boose agreed. Both suggested buying existing housing or apartments and foregoing new and more expensive construction. Commissioners Vice Chairman Glenn Adams suggested creating an advisory committee that could help determine whether the county builds new homes or buys existing properties.

Cumberland County, commissioners, housing