By Debbie Adams
The Town of Vinton applied for and received a $3000 Planning grant from the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) this fall for preliminary planning on a project for housing rehabilitation in the neighborhoods adjacent to the Downtown Business District.
Th intent of the planning grant is to assess current housing conditions and to determine the feasibility of implementing a rehabilitation program.
Consultants David Hill and Evie Sloan of Hill Studio were hired by the town to conduct the initial assessment and feasibility study of three Vinton neighborhoods under consideration for the rehabilitation program: Jefferson Park, Cleveland, and Midway, all of which border downtown Vinton.
The purpose of the assessment is to identify and prioritize candidates for rehabilitation in order to improve living conditions, restore property values, and encourage affordable single-family home ownership opportunities.
According to Assistant Town Manager/Director of Economic Development Pete Peters, town staff applied for the grant in early summer 2017, was awarded the grant in late November, and has a “quick turnaround” of six weeks (until January 16) to proceed to the next stage of the project by submitting their findings to the DHCD. The idea for the rehabilitation project had its beginnings at last year’s Town Council strategic planning retreat.
The town hopes this first planning grant will lead to an additional grant of about $30,000 in funding to develop a full strategic plan to address housing rehabilitation in Vinton. That may in turn lead to construction funding up to approximately $1 million for future rehabilitation and construction.
Town staff reached out to numerous community stakeholders and invited them to participate in two downtown management team meetings to discuss and draft final summary comments to submit to DHCD for review.
The first meeting to discuss parameters for the project was held on Thursday, December 21; the second is scheduled for January 5. The plan is to add stakeholders to the team who live in the community neighborhoods themselves and might be eligible for grant funding for rehabilitation of their homes.
Those who attended the inaugural meeting included president of the Vinton Area Chamber of Commerce Justin Davison, John Conner of the Conner Group, former WBHS principal and Chamber Board member Dr. Richard Turner, Director of Planning and Zoning Anita McMillan, Mayor Brad Grose, Councilwoman Janet Scheid, attorney Bruce Mayer, realtor/property manager Stephanie Brown-Meade, Vinton resident Doug Forbes, and Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission planner Bryan Hill, along with Peters, Hill, and Sloan.
The ninety-minute meeting resulted in a wide-ranging discussion of the housing situation in Vinton, where 40 percent of residences are rental properties. One goal of the town is to encourage single-family home ownership; however, one constraint the town faces is that given its small area, it is basically “built-out,” especially downtown. Peters said that leaves options of tearing down existing homes or rehabilitating them.
Evie Sloan defined the purpose of the housing pre-planning grant as “improving the living conditions of low to moderate income families,” as well as strengthening the ability of residents to be able to own their own homes. Historically one measure of stability in a community is the level of home ownership. One consideration mentioned in the meeting is the tendency of millennials, interested in mobility, to rent rather than buy.
Councilwoman Janet Scheid stated that she believes the focus of the grant funding should be on improving the condition of homes in Vinton whether owned or rented.
Dr. Turner remarked that in his experience as principal, students who live in better homes with a higher of standard of living tend to do better in school, so any program to improve quality of life will be a boost to individuals and to the community as a whole.
Hill and Sloan have conducted a “windshield inventory” of homes in the three neighborhoods targeted, classifying them as “Sound, Having Minor or Major deficiencies, Dilapidated, or Substantially Dilapidated.” They concluded that there are many “Sound” homes in the neighborhoods, with clusters of homes needing improvements to varying extents.
The town is not wedded to the initial boundaries of those three neighborhoods and may make adjustments in their focus as the review continues. They will also take into consideration whether residents show an interest in rehabilitation of their homes as the $1 million construction program which is the ultimate goal of this project is a low-interest loan program, not a grant.
Sloan explained that 40 percent of the loans in that program are destined for landlords, 60 percent for home-owners. Generally, the loan program allots $25,000-$40,000 per home for improvements. The loans may also be used for infrastructure improvements.
At the follow-up meeting in January, members of the committee will be asked to identify the direction they want to take in continuing to pursue funding and the areas they see as most in need with residents who wish to participate in the program and are able to undertake debt.
The $30,000 grant includes services of a consultant from DHCD to assist with planning for the subsequent construction program. According to Peters, the consultant might also point the town and interested residents to “other buckets of money available.”
Those who participated in the initial planning meeting were asked to go out, drive around the neighborhoods under consideration for rehabilitation, and see existing conditions for themselves. They were also asked to help identify “champions” in each neighborhood who might be willing to participate in the program and the subsequent discussions, to act as “sparkplugs” for the project.
Peters said that once the plan is submitted in January, the DHCD will consider the proposed project and notify the town in the spring as to whether they are eligible for the next step of funding. At that point, participants in the planning process will become a management team meeting for about six more months to refine the project.