HOPE Rewarded

Affordable Housing Funding for Main Street

Every year since 2006, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has generously made HOPE VI Main Street grant funds available for new affordable housing projects in the Main Street districts of communities with populations of 50,000 or less. And every year, a handful of municipal officials tackle the lengthy, complex application form — the intricacies of which are only compounded by its relatively short turnaround time.  Why the effort? Awards can total up to $1 million dollars.  These funds are at work across the country, fueling historic rehab projects that are adding a housing dimension to commercial districts, creating jobs and catalyzing new developments, while providing hard-working families a safe, comfortable place to live. It's easy to lose sight of that when staring down a monstrous application form.

Awards were recently announced for FY 2010, making this the perfect opportunity to introduce a few recent grant recepients who are either nearing project completion or about ready for ground-breaking. In researching these stories, I learned that this funding opportunity is best suited to a community with a qualifying affordable housing project ready to go and an experienced developer willing to pitch in on the application.  Meet some of the winners:

Henderson, North Carolina

In Henderson, a town of 16,000, the $1 million HOPE VI Main Street award spurred a new era in the community's downtown revitalization efforts: upper-floor housing, combined with mostly ground-floor retail. The FY08 grant supported the Henderson Lofts project, which created 12 units of affordable housing in four of the historic downtown's buildings. The nearly $1.5 million project also included 4,100 square feet of remodeled commercial space in two of the properties, which had been vacant for more than 30 years. The upper floors where most of the apartments were built were in no better shape, having stood vacant for at least a decade longer. Henderson Lofts is the first-mixed use project of its kind in Henderson, and one that Erris Dunston, Director of Planning and Development for Henderson, calls a major step forward in helping the city achieve its goals of revitalizing downtown and expanding the housing stock. With the apartments located in four locations on S. Garnett Street — the town's main commercial artery — the intention is to stimulate the entire corridor by encouraging adjacent property owners to join the redevelopment process. This ground-breaking project began in November 2009 and is days away from its grand opening.

Marshalltown, Iowa

Good news keeps coming for Marshalltown, Iowa (pop. 26,000) these days, with the announcement of its FY10 $1 million award only the most recent sign of its downtown development success. Redevelopment of the Iowa Wholesale Building will create 28 affordable rental units in the vacant former grocery warehouse. Michelle Spohnheimer, Community Development and Development director, is very excited: "We've been waiting on this announcement since April," she said. "It will show a positive change and be a nice complement to our downtown plans."

The historic commercial building at 201 E. Main Street, which had been vacant for years, was identified in 2004 as the key to Marshalltown's overall downtown development plan. Spohnheimer and her colleagues actively promoted the property to prospective developers, but it wasn't until Cohen-Esrey Real Estate Services called, looking for a historic rehab for senior housing, that the pieces fell into place. The Iowa Wholesale Building is a contributing structure to the National Register-listed historic district and its rehabilitation fits in nicely with several other redevelopment projects in the area. The 1949 Orpheum Theatre, for example, just opened across the street in June, with a 152-seat movie theater, state-of-the-art black box theater, learning studios, exhibit hall, amphitheater, and coffee shop. The City of Marshalltown's offices recently relocated to the five-story Carnegie Library. Constructed in 1902, the building was vacated when the new, LEED-silver public library opened in January 2009 — the first of its kind in the state.

Essential to the application's success in Spohnheimer's eyes was having an affordable housing project waiting in the wings, ready for go forward when the NOFA was released. Spohnheimer also stressed the importance of partnering with an experienced developer, and involving them heavily in the application process.  Now the team is awaiting word on its Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) allocation before beginning construction — but odds are they'll continue Marshalltown's win-streak.

Hawkinsville, Georgia

The tiny town of Hawkinsville (pop. 3,280) was another FY10 winner, earning $650,000 to adapt the turn-of-the-20th century Pillowtex Mill into affordable housing. Phase I of the Cotton Mill Lofts project will create 10 to 11 apartments, and will be eligible for historic tax credits and New Markets Tax Credits. Later phases will create approximately 40 housing units — 10 more than originally planned thanks to the HOPE VI Main Street funds — and a community food market.

The 88,000 square foot Mill at Saco River mixed-use ushers in a new era for Biddeford?s stately textile mills

Biddeford, Maine

For the $14 million Mill at Saco River project, notification that Biddeford had received a $1 million HOPE VI Main Street grant couldn't have come at a better time. The FY08 award to this city of 21,000 provided essential funding right when the bottom dropped out of the real estate market. With $1 million secured, the developer could leverage it to obtain additional funding for the rehab of an 88,000 square-foot former textile mill. The grant was especially useful in strengthening their application for Low Income Housing Tax Credits. Amy Cullen of The Szanton Company and a four-year veteran of the federal government provided six weeks of assistance on the city's application — a huge boost for Biddeford and its small staff. She strongly recommended that the city government enlist the support of a private developer with the staff resources to devote to the application process.

Now the Mill at Saco River project is nearing its November 2010 completion date and 20 deposits have already been received for its 66 mixed-income apartments (40 of them affordable). This project complements a revitalization movement that is sweeping through Biddeford and its neighbor across the river, Saco, both of which benefit from a new Amtrak station, the city's Riverwalk proposal, and the planned redevelopment of an additional 1 million square feet of vacant mills, what developer Doug Sanford calls "America’s best bones — pyramids that were built in the Industrial Revolution."

Burrillville, Rhode Island

Burrillville, Rhode Island, a town of 16,000, also has firsthand experience with these Industrial Age pyramids. In 2006, the town received a boost in redeveloping its vacant mills in the form of a $500,000 HOPE VI Main Street grant. These funds were applied to the $15 million Stillwater Redevelopment Project, which converted a historic three-story former wool-weaving mill into 47 apartments, 37 of them reserved for low or very-low income families, and two office suites. Thomas Kravitz, Director of Economic Development, credits the HOPE VI Main Street funding with paying for all of the project's soft costs, including engineers, architects, and lawyers fees — professional services that produced the documents and drawings so useful in generating community support for the undertaking. The Stillwater project, due to open in December 2010, is joined by a new 25,000 square-foot library that opened in 2008, and a riverwalk that runs through Main Street. The owner of an eatery adjacent to the Stillwater project was inspired to rehab and rename it the Waterfall Café, in anticipation of the loft development. Besides the inherent sustainability of the historic rehab, the project wins major points for utilizing six geothermal wells that will provide low-cost energy to the mill development.

NOTE: Regarding future HOPE VI Main Street funds, it is uncertain whether Congress will approve an FY 2011 appropriation for this program. If there is HOPE VI funding, a Notice of Funding Availability will be released approximately six to eight months after the appropriation is passed. To stay informed, please check the National Trust Main Street Center's HOPE VI page, and register with www.grants.gov to receive email updates.

 For additional information about past recipients and the eligibility criteria, refer to our previous HOPE VI Main Street Story of the Week.