It's been more than two years since the city of Brainerd rejected a request from the Brainerd Housing and Redevelopment Authority to bail out its in-debt Brainerd Oaks housing project.
Since then, the HRA has been scaling back on operations, not because of the failed housing project but for the same reasons many companies, government entities and individuals have been struggling - the poor economy.
HRA Executive Director Doug Grout declined to speak about the Brainerd Oaks project because litigation between the agency and lenders is pending in court. Most of the Brainerd Oaks lots have turned back to the county as tax-forfeited and more than $1 million in special assessments are due to the city.
What Grout can talk about is the direction the authority has had to take in the time since.
More than 80 lots at Brainerd Oaks, including the sales office off Oak Street, are on the county's tax forfeiture list after the properties, owned by Brainerd Housing and Redevelopment Authority, failed to sell. A request by the HRA for funding from Brainerd to eliminate the debt was denied. Now the HRA is focusing on its core programs - housing vouchers and HRA-owned rental properties. Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey
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"Given the economy, we're concentrating most of our focus internally," Grout said. "There's a tremendous need by the public of the Brainerd lakes area for affordable housing, particularly affordable rental housing given what's been occurring with the job market and foreclosures."
The HRA's core programs are 290 housing vouchers and about 200 affordable rental housing units - 158 of which are at the North Star Apartments - owned and managed by the HRA.
For the first time ever, the HRA has had to close its housing choice voucher waiting list and its waiting list for two-bedroom HRA-owned rentals. One-, three- and four-bedroom units are still available.
"Generally speaking, the waiting list in the past was four to six months, occasionally it would get longer," Grout said. "For the first time, the waiting list is upward of three years. That's the point when you need to close it because you can no longer easily maintain the list.
"It was a sad thing for the board to have to do. We're trying to serve the people on it now as openings come up by attrition, which aren't happening real fast. With the public we serve, their need is just so acute right here right now."
HRA Board Chairman Dale Parks said the decision to close the waiting list was a tough one for the board.
"It's nothing we're really proud of but it's something that a lot of HRAs have had to do," Parks said. "It's difficult when you know there's more than enough people that have a need for housing, people who are under-employed or unemployed who have greater need for housing than before."
In the past, Grout said the HRA found housing for people making about $7-$10 an hour. Now it is serving people who make $10-$15 an hour, and vouchers available to the HRA are being used up by people already in the program.
As the economy goes, so goes the HRA, Grout said. Not only does an economic downturn mean serving fewer people, but it means better department efficiency through cutting expenses, downsizing and improving operations.
That doesn't mean there are no new projects on the horizon. The HRA has agreed to partner with the Minnesota Housing Partnership to work on obtaining a grant from USDA Rural Development to analyze the impact mortgage foreclosures have had on Crow Wing County. The HRA also has received about $230,000 in stimulus money to remodel the commons areas on a couple floors of the North Star Apartments and within the next couple of years will look at conducting a market study.
"Limited funding always makes you look harder at ways to save money," Grout said. "The downturn also focuses you to concentrate on what your core mission is, which is helping people who need safe, decent, affordable housing."
MATT ERICKSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5857.
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