The board of the Housing Authority of New Orleans voted 4-0 Tuesday to allow the agency to purchase the former George O. Mondy Jr. Elementary School from the Orleans Parish School Board and immediately transfer the property to a private developer who will turn the St. Philip Street school into a senior living facility.
The school is in the footprint of the massive redevelopment of the Iberville housing complex and a huge swath of downtown New Orleans. The 300-square-block project, bounded by Rampart Street, Tulane Avenue, Broad Street and St. Bernard Avenue, is part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Choice Neighborhood Initiative, HUD’s latest program aimed at transforming distressed urban areas and traditional public housing into mixed-income neighborhoods with links to schools, transportation and jobs.
The Housing Authority and the city received a $30.5 million grant from HUD in 2011 to help fund the redevelopment project. The grant will cover only a small portion of the full plan, but it helped to encourage other investments in initiatives such as apartments, schools and food stores.
The proposal for the Mondy School is an example of that private development.
The school is owned by the Orleans Parish School Board, which under state law can transfer property to another government entity at its appraised value without going through a public bid process.
Under the plan approved by the HANO board, the agency will purchase the property from the School Board for its appraised value of $500,000. HANO will then transfer the property to Neville Development, which will pay HANO the full purchase price. In short, HANO will act as a middleman to get the property directly into the hands of a developer that intends to convert it into housing.
HANO is joining the process, Executive Director Gregg Fortner said, because the proposed project will put it closer to meeting HUD’s grant requirements for the site. The redevelopment plan calls for a one-for-one replacement of the Iberville development’s 821 units with new or renovated structures both on the Iberville complex’s actual site and in the surrounding neighborhood.
Neville plans to convert the Mondy property to 33 one- and two-bedroom units of senior housing that can be counted toward that goal of 821 total units. The developer is in the process of securing financing for acquisition and development of the property, HANO said. The acquisition will not take place until the developer has given HANO the full purchase price.
The agency said it is necessary to move expeditiously to close the deal because the building has a hole in its roof. The School Board does not intend to repair the roof and would prefer to send the building to auction if a buyer isn’t found.
HANO Commissioner Toni Hackett Antrum expressed some discomfort with the speed at which the deal was proceeding because it wasn’t clear that other developers were given an opportunity to express interest in purchasing the site.
But Fortner said the deal was more like a private transaction because it doesn’t involve federal funding or regulations. It allows the housing authority to meet its goals without the protracted federal procurement process.
In other matters, Fortner said HANO will issue a request for qualifications this week to solicit plans for the redevelopment of about 200 scattered sites the agency owns. He said HANO is seeking proposals and letters of interest from “experienced developers” with an interest in turning the properties, which include both vacant structures and empty lots, into mixed-income communities.
However, development plans can include everything from the wholesale redevelopment of multiple sites to a specific plan for just one property. The intent, he said, is for HANO to find ways to generate revenue from the sites and to rebuild its affordable housing stock.
HANO will also consider selling the sites, but its first priority is to have them developed into something that would bring money to the agency.
“We’re in a new dynamic age as far as financing for development. Public housing does not finance itself,” Fortner said. The federal aid that came to New Orleans for the redevelopment of public housing after Hurricane Katrina has “dried up,” he said.
Yet, of the 4,000 units under HANO’s control, only about 1,800 are public housing, he said. HANO needs to find “nontraditional revenue sources” to replace the city’s subsidized public and affordable housing stock.
Tuesday’s meeting was held at the former St. Bernard housing complex, now a mixed-income development called Columbia Parc at the Bayou District. It was the first of what will be quarterly off-site meetings designed to increase “resident participation.”
Fortner, who took over as executive director of HANO in July, has set gaining public trust and engaging with residents of HANO-owned and operated properties as a top priority.