City shifts funds to boost housing rehab program, install downtown broadband
With a couple of shifts in funds, residents in Port Huron may soon have better access to both free reliable broadband internet downtown and housing rehabilitation resources for homeowners.
City Council members this month signed off on changes to two of the city’s annual action plans that spell out how federal money is being used — instead moving just under $200,000 to downtown broadband and over $330,200 to home improvement projects — before time runs out to use the funds.
Jazmyn Thomas, the city’s community development program coordinator, said the broadband would be paid for with reallocated community development block grant dollars from the CARES Act in 2020.
She said it would help “close the local digital divide,” while also meeting an essential need seen during the pandemic.
“We did a survey a few months ago, and the feedback was with us being so to the border, the broadband downtown is sometimes shotty from the businesses and things like that. So, this would give people reliable internet if we ever had another shutdown,” Thomas said. “Students, teachers, whoever, professionals who are working from home would be able to come downtown and access this broadband and have a reliable connection but also be able to socially distance.
“Because it’ll be able to be accessed from pocket parks, from your car, in parking lots. I know there’s a lot of picnic tables and sitting areas downtown, so they’d be able to utilize those.”
The CDBG-CV funds include $167,500 formerly slated for a rental assistance program at the Blue Water Community Action Agency and a few thousand to local COVID testing sides and the city’s seed program.
Thomas said BWCAA returned the funds when the focus was put on eviction diversion efforts through state housing funds.
Moving forward, she said she hoped to get a request for proposals out for the downtown broadband project in December, approaching a deadline to spend the money, while looking to start the project “as soon as the weather is nice enough in the spring.”
City Manager James Freed said the broadband proposal took a lot of work for community development officials on the back end, garnering early notice from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as the only application of CDBG funds on community internet needs.
Council members welcomed the need. Downtown internet access has been broached in council goal sessions previously.
“I think it’s right in line and in coordination with our growing downtown area, the lofts and everything that’s there and coming,” Councilwoman Anita Ashford said, calling it a “good move.”
That reallocation amended the city’s 2019 annual action plan.
More on housing rehab funds
Council also OK’d amending the 2022 plan, reallocating $330,200 in funds from a variety of programs, including $100,000 originally set for headquarters construction for SONS Outreach, and several years of sidewalk improvements and rental rehabilitation programming.
Thomas called the latter “a lot of old funding that needs to be cleaned up.”
“If you aren’t spending funding, HUD will flag your activities in IDIS, which is our HUD reporting repository. So, five of the activities on the substantial amendment have been flagged (by) HUD for non-expenditure,” she said. “There’s various obstacles as to why we haven’t spent (the funding).”
With sidewalks, Freed and Thomas said environmental impact study requirements, as well as federal prevailing wage statute standards made it difficult to stretch sidewalk funds.
The city manager later said, “We will backfill with funding from elsewhere” for those needs, having told council members American Rescue Plan funds attributed to sidewalks earlier this year remained.
Additionally, Thomas said the city does have the interest needed to sustain rental rehab funds because compliance under HUD standards was difficult.
“We may have a landlord that’s interested but getting the tenant to comply to give up their personal information and income for five years is a big ask of the tenant,” she said. “They have to be able to submit income yearly, and we have to ensure that they’re a low to moderate income tenant. So, if I landlord switches a tenant out, they basically have to reapply.”
Meanwhile, housing rehabs, Thomas said, are something the city has “demand for like crazy,” calling it their “most popular program.”
She said they had 17 active applications and would be able to fund 13 more households with the CDBG reallocation.
“It covers exterior repairs up to $25,000 for any low- to moderate-income city resident,” Thomas said. “We do a lot of siding, roof repairs, porches, gutters, cement work that helps keep people’s housing sustainable, and it helps with affordability because otherwise they may not be able to afford to make these repairs. They could be blighted, things will go into disrepair. A lot of our referrals actually come from blight. So, we’re able to help people maintain their homes and their neighborhoods.”
For much of the federal funds, had it gone unused, Thomas said it’d be reclaimed by HUD in a few months.
For more information, visit the city planning department’s community development division online through PortHuron.org or call (810) 984-9736.
Contact Jackie Smith at (810) 989-6270 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Jackie20Smith.