Star Apartments proposal glimmer of hope for Casper low-income housing

2013-11-04T08:00:00Z Star Apartments proposal glimmer of hope for Casper low-income housingBy KYLE ROERINK Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
November 04, 2013 8:00 am  • 

Lucy Zepeda was working 40 hours per week and juggling a full course load at Casper College.

Then she was injured on the job last year.

Money was running out. Her three children didn’t have a father on whom to rely.

The Casper native only had one place to go: the Casper Housing Authority.

The CHA paid for Zepeda’s housing and recently moved her family into a three-bedroom home. She has continued to go to school while recovering from surgery. She plans to have a house of her own one day.

For the time being, her children have a backyard. After the last snowstorm they chucked snowballs at one another and built snow forts. The scene gave Zepeda a sensation she hadn’t felt in a long time — the feeling of home.

“Without the housing authority I would be on the streets or in a homeless shelter,” Zepeda, 32, said. “But a lot of times you can’t get into a shelter because they are full.”

For Zepeda to be placed in a home in Casper is nothing short of a windfall.

Currently there are 937 families on the CHA’s waiting list. The average wait is two-and-a-half years.

People aren't just waiting for homes. The CHA distributes 540 rental-assistance vouchers to 107 different landlords per month at a cost of $200,000.

This year’s purge of low-income residents from extended-stay hotels and deteriorating apartment buildings exposed a giant gap in the city’s housing market: the dearth of low-income housing.

The CHA is fighting to get more roofs over the heads of people in need. It is banking on the Casper City Council to help provide more shelter for the homeless and working poor.

The mass evictions were led by a crowd of landlords and business owners who hadn’t maintained their properties even though some were charging up to $1,200 a month.

With many of the properties still empty and hundreds of people without a place to go, the CHA saw a silver lining in myriad evictions that occurred in the spring.

It has a plan to turn one of the buildings emptied of residents, the Star Apartments, into a mix of apartments for low-income, subsidized families and regular tenants who would pay rent in full. But to do so, CHA officials say they need financial help from the city.

The city evicted tenants from the Star Apartments after a litany of code violations weren’t fixed by the owner. Developers were looking to turn the building into something other than housing units. Advocates in the city were up in arms. So the city bought the building.

City officials quickly tried to raise interest among two local developers. Neither bought the property. The CHA stepped in. It signed a contract to acquire the building. Now the CHA is tasked with raising funds to remodel and renovate the Star Apartments. But it needs cash to abate the building of asbestos and bedbugs before it can do anything else.

The council will vote on Tuesday to decide whether the city will spend $480,000 on abating the building. The total cost to rehab the building will amount to more than $4 million. The CHA won’t be able to receive funds from the federal government unless it spends the $480,000 to abate the building.

If the council gives the CHA the money, the housing authority will be able to close on the deal late next week, said Kim Summerall-Wright, CHA executive director.

With tight budgets and fears of owning too much low-income housing, some members of the council have expressed a desire to stay out of the real estate business. Others want to see the plan come to fruition.

Councilman Paul Bertoglio is skeptical about giving the money.

At a city council work session on Oct. 22, he said the project was going to be a “big challenge.”

“The immediate impact is a long ways away,” he said.

Councilman Daniel Sandoval called the project a money pit at the meeting, but said that government intervention is the only option.

“The private sector won’t bail us out on this,” he said.

Councilman Keith Goodenough is one of the project’s biggest champions on the council.

“The housing authority is a part of the city,” he said at the meeting. “I see this as an opportunity to expand our holdings without blazing a trail.”

Councilman Paul Meyer is leery of spending the money, but realizes there are few options to save the building and provide housing for those in need.

“At this point I would say yes, let’s proceed with the funding — but with trepidation,” he said Friday. “I really want to see private funding and the federal government involved after we get the asbestos out of it.”

City Manager John Patterson said the rehab of the Star Apartments could be a boon for the northern stretch of Beech Street and the surrounding area.

“They will be able to transform that area of town,” he said. “And all the while we are preserving the units.”

He said a renovation will preserve the building — which is registered as historic — while eliminating blight and revamping a portion of the community that’s gone downhill.

He’s not worried about the CHA finding federal and outside funding streams after abatement.

“They have the money,” he said.

Summerall-Wright has pushed hard for a transformation of the Star Apartments since she took control of the CHA nine months ago.

She brought in a whole new staff. She also changed policies for her tenants.

She created a plan to have local police train K-9 teams on CHA-owned grounds. If tenants didn’t like it, she told them they could leave.

She said bringing the police around more often is a way for tenants to build positive relationships with officers and create a safer environment around town.

“There’s a difference between public housing and safe public housing,” Summerall-Wright said.

The common implication that tenants in subsidized housing are lazy and unskilled workers is a myth, she said. The housing authority doesn’t collect data on how many tenants in subsidized housing have professional degrees, but a surprising number do, she said.

“The majority of people are working and in school at the same time,” she said.

Sixty-percent of the country has cheaper housing than Wyoming, according to statistics from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Depending on the number of children and other criteria, people making between $19,739 and $36,254 per year qualify for some type of assistance in Casper, according to federal guidelines.

“Public housing isn’t a career choice,” Summerall-Wright said. “It’s a stepping stone.”

With the high price of housing and lack of space for people to live, the need for the Star Apartments is twofold, said Amanda Huckabay, client relations manager at CHA.

The CHA will determine its own rent prices and not have to depend on a developer to provide shelter for people in need, she said.

“This is not just about building housing,” she said. “It’s about a quality of life.”

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