City accepted into program for housing

COVINGTON -- The third time was the charm for Covington officials in their efforts to be accepted into the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing program.

A partnership of the University of Georgia Housing and Demographics Research Center, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs and the Georgia Municipal Association, GICH offers communities a three-year program of collaboration and technical assistance to help create and launch a locally based plan to meet housing needs. The city was notified last week that after three tries, it had finally been chosen as a participant.

"The city is thrilled to have earned the GICH award. My thanks to the Housing Team, the Covington Redevelopment Authority, Main Street Covington and the leadership of Randy Vinson and Michelle Larsen in Planning and Zoning," Mayor Kim Carter said. "As I have said many times, you cannot be successful at economic development and economic prosperity without working on community development at the same time. This is a great community development tool in our toolbox to improve housing for all of our citizens."

Senior Planner Michelle Larsen said representatives from the city's housing team are expected to attend two retreats next year facilitated by experts in the regional housing industry. Representatives from other participating communities will also be at the retreats to discuss how to respond to housing issues. The only cost to the city will be travel expenses for the five or six housing team members who will attend, Larsen said.

According to the GICH Web site, the retreats will also focus on training housing teams on how to best address their community's needs, including planning, goal-setting, problem-solving and development skills. Technical assistance will also be provided by the Department of Community Affairs regional staff. The staff will check on the progress of housing teams and help them access any specialized assistance they require.

"The ultimate goal is to identify all of our housing issues, all the things that have gotten us where we are today and coming up with a measurable plan towards remedying all of those things," Larsen said.

Examples of actions taken by communities who have participated in the program include adopting strengthened housing ordinances and creating land banks to allow the purchase and holding of a property until it can be sold to a developer or someone who will rehabilitate it.

Some communities have also entered into "hold harmless" agreements with owners of dilapidated properties. The agreements require that the owner hold the city harmless against any lawsuits; in exchange, the city will demolish the property so that it can be redeveloped. Others have passed ordinances that include overlays or other mechanisms to create investment in neighborhoods that have become blighted.

The city has already addressed some of these issues in its Urban Redevelopment Plan, but that plan is overseen by the Covington Redevelopment Authority.

"That's an entirely different organization from the city. The housing program can show us how to work with the Redevelopment Authority to use the powers they have and the powers the city has to create a workable plan where all those things under the city's jurisdiction can be handled and applied as well as the Redevelopment Authority goals of reinvestment and attracting businesses and rebuilding within the community," Larsen said.

The hard work city officials and staff members have put toward addressing housing problems is a big part of why Covington was selected this year, she said. Those efforts include the formation of the Urban Redevelopment Plan and an authority to implement it; creation of a housing team; being awarded Neighborhood Stabilization funds; and supporting a new senior living facility for low-income residents that will be located downtown.

"I think we really impressed them ... They didn't want a blank slate. They wanted a community to have the ability to come to the table with other communities and have something to offer, too," Larsen said.