County will apply for housing rehab grant

COVINGTON - County commissioners unanimously agreed Tuesday night to apply for a grant to purchase and rehabilitate foreclosed properties.

The money could be used to demolish and redevelop blighted properties and for non-residential purposes, such as the creation of parks. Properties that could be affected have not yet been publicly revealed.

"The county has identified several potential projects, some of which focus on housing and some of which focus on parks," Senior Planner Scott Sirotkin said.

The application is due Jan. 15, but prior to that, the county must get community input. A public hearing has been scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Turner Lake Park.

The county has been allocated $2.1 million through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program created by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, which is being administered on the state level by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. To receive the funding, the county must submit an application demonstrating need and detailing how the money will be used.

Sirotkin told commissioners there were 823 foreclosed properties in the county in 2008, and another 117 properties soon to go on the auction block.

In addition, 28 percent of mortgages are financed by subprime loans, the second highest rate in Georgia.

"Certainly, I think we can make a case there is a need for these funds," he said.

The county is required to purchase the properties at an average of 15 percent below market value. Properties can be purchased directly by the county, through a land-bank or through a nonprofit organization or a development authority. Commissioners have decided to partner with an as-yet unnamed, nonprofit organization.

Properties must be sold at or below the cost of redevelopment to prevent the county from making a profit. The funds must be obligated within 18 months of receipt.

District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing initially expressed concern that taxpayers could wind up paying for the program.

"I'm not opposed to helping people in need because I do that as an individual on a daily basis. My concern about this project is the potential exposure of the county budget and the taxpayers of Newton County," Ewing said.

However, BOC Chairman Kathy Morgan said the properties would be purchased in the name of the nonprofit organization, which would be responsible should the new owners default on payments. The nonprofit would also be responsible for maintenance and upkeep, insurance and other costs while the houses are on the market, she said.

Once properties are sold, the money would go back to the county to be used to purchase and rehabilitate more homes.

Sirotkin said about 14 properties could be affected initially, with more to come once some are sold.

Following his presentation, commissioners went into a lengthy executive session to learn more about four sites identified as having the greatest need for the program. An executive session, which is closed to the public, is permitted for discussions regarding land acquisition.

After reconvening, the board unanimously agreed to file an application for the grant, and also approved a resolution supporting the city of Covington's recent decision to pursue its share of the pot, which amounts to $428,070 of the $2.1 million allocated to Newton County. The city is partnering with Builders of Hope out of North Carolina, one of the nonprofits under consideration by the county.

The city will hold its own public meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Frank Turner Room at Turner Lake Park.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.