Public housing officials in St. John the Baptist Parish are in the process of selecting a developer to determine how to replace the parish’s mostly dilapidated public housing units with mixed-income properties, more than a year after an outside consulting firm recommended demolishing three of the agency’s four buildings.
Six firms have responded to the agency’s request for qualifications, which the St. John Housing Authority released to gauge interest in redeveloping its 296-unit system, spanning LaPlace, Reserve, Garyville and Edgard.
Trina Henderson, the authority’s executive director, cited Columbia Parc, the $440 million development on the site of the former St. Bernard housing complex in New Orleans, as a model of a mixed-use, mixed-income public housing development similar to what she hopes to accomplish in St. John.
Last year’s study, completed by Econometrica Inc. in August 2013, set out to evaluate the condition of the parish’s housing stock and recommend changes. Paid for by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the study recommended tearing down most of the properties and offering residents vouchers so they could relocate to privately owned apartments in the meantime.
“Overall, the (public) housing stock is dilapidated and obsolete,” the report said. “It no longer provides safe, sanitary and decent housing for its residents.”
Hurricane Isaac in 2012 pushed many of the already maintenance-starved buildings further into disrepair, Henderson said. Roofs were damaged, and many units took on water.
A separate study conducted earlier last year estimated that the cost of rehabilitating the damaged units would range from $11,000 to $18,000 each, not including the cost of remediating mold contamination or removing asbestos.
The storm “really increased some of the issues we had with our housing stock,” Henderson said.
About half of the 296 units are currently occupied.
In evaluating the physical condition of the units, Econometrica also considered whether redevelopment should occur on the sites or if the parish should look elsewhere.
The study noted, for example, that whether to maintain public housing in Edgard is “a significant issue” because that area is less developed than the parish’s east bank. But Henderson said that fact alone doesn’t mean that the agency would not consider reinvesting there, noting that Edgard could eventually become better developed if industries begin moving to the area.
“The parish is growing, trying to bring new business in, so it may look one way today and tomorrow it may look differently,” she said. “We can’t make that decision based on what we have today, but we have to look at in the future, what’s viable.”
Henderson cautioned that any rebuilding effort is “not an overnight” initiative. She hopes to select a developer in the coming weeks, after gaining approval from the agency’s board.
“We would like the rest of the parish and the community to see something done quickly, but we all know funding is limited,” she said.
Finding ways to pay for the work will largely be left up to the chosen developer, she said.
That could mean using a combination of state tax credits, rental subsidies and private financing.
“That’s the whole point of bringing on developers who have experience with these projects,” she said. “They know where the funds are.”
For nearly two decades, the St. John Housing Authority has been on HUD’s “troubled” list because of its low marks on annual assessments, including apartment inspections and managing of its finances.
A report released last year by the state’s legislative auditor found that the agency had kept inadequate records on many required documents, including rental agreements, tenant background checks, Section 8 eligibility paperwork and annual inspections of apartment units.
The report painted a bleak picture of the agency’s record-keeping, highlighting a dozen areas where officials were not in compliance with federal or state regulations. Many of these problems were repeat infractions that had been cited in past years and remained unaddressed, the audit said.
The consultants’ report last year largely absolved Henderson of responsibility, saying she was “doing a good job at correcting the administrative backlog she inherited and should be retained.” It concluded that the size of the agency’s staff should be pared down.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.