Later this month, Partners Southeast, the nonprofit development arm of the East Baton Rouge Parish Housing Authority, will break ground on a 19-unit multifamily development on Oklahoma Street near the Water Campus called the Cypress River Lofts.
The development, a mixture of market rate and affordable units, will have a sleek, contemporary design with stylish amenities that include solid surface countertops and laminate wood floors. Based on renderings, the $5.2 million project would not be out of place among the student housing complexes near LSU or the multifamily developments downtown.
In other words, it won’t look anything like the public housing developments you grew up with. But then, that’s the whole point. Public housing authorities are changing the way they finance, develop and manage their communities, and in the years to come those communities will look very different than they do today.
Baton Rouge has been slow to adapt to this change but it’s getting on board and its new CEO, J. Wesley Daniels, is leading the charge.
Armed with a fresh strategic plan and marching orders from a housing authority board of directors that, itself, comprises mostly new members, Daniels is overseeing the development of more than 2,500 new housing units over the next decade, 300 of which will be constructed in the next two years. Many of the complexes will be less dense than traditional public housing developments and visually more appealing.
More significantly, they’ll be developed through public-private partnerships and, in some cases, like the Cypress River Lofts, blend market rate with affordable units. What’s more, they’ll replace aging housing stock, addressing a $40 million backlog of deferred maintenance that the housing authority cannot afford to tackle.
It’s an ambitious undertaking that won’t be nearly as easy as it sounds on paper, and it won’t solve all the problems that exist in the public housing sector. But Daniels says it’s a start that is long overdue.
“We are in a season of transformation,” he says. “We are literally changing the way we do business in the organization. Ultimately, to ensure sustainability, we have to reposition public housing.”
Public sector goes private
Daniels speaks the bureaucratic language of the public housing sector, rattling off its alphabet soup of acronyms—HUD, RAD, CIPs—and peppering his speech with the updated vernacular of the day. (Developments are now called “communities.” Section 8 has become “Housing Choice.”)
But Daniels doesn’t seem like a bureaucrat or act like one. He comes across like a private sector developer, with a brisk walk, quick cadence and engaging, outgoing demeanor.
“We are in a season of transformation. We are literally changing the way we do business in the organization. Ultimately, to ensure sustainability, we have to reposition public housing.”
J. WESLEY DANIELS, CEO, East Baton Rouge Parish Housing Authority
Perhaps that’s because Daniels has private sector experience, having previously worked with a private development firm in Atlanta, Dynasty Capital Partners, as well as in the real estate development divisions of the Atlanta and Charlotte housing authorities.
Daniels came to Baton Rouge in 2016, to serve as chief operating officer for Partners Southeast, which, at the time was called Partners for Progress. He led the organization in its rebrand and helped infuse it with new energy.
When the housing authority board decided in 2018 not to renew the contract of longtime executive director Richard Murray—who left under a cloud of controversy for pocketing $52,000 he allegedly hadn’t earned (the money was ultimately repaid) and missing the deadline for a major grant application—it appointed Daniels as acting director. Earlier this year, the board offered him the job permanently, a deal that was finalized in late September, when it reached an agreement with him on a five-year contract.
Even before his new contract was finalized, Daniels had taken an important first step towards moving the housing authority towards its new vision. He helped secure a prestigious $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some of the funds will be used to redevelop the agency’s Ardenwood Village apartments, constructing in its place a 168-unit housing community called Cypress at Ardendale.
But $4 million will go to the neighborhood for microloans, community improvement programs, art installations and other community enhancement initiatives. Another $5 million will be allocated to support services for residents of the area.
Those ancillary investments are important to the overall vision for the area. Having a community surrounded by support services, enhancements and easy access to schools, mass transit and health care is a model the agency wants to replicate in other neighborhoods, as it begins drawing up its master redevelopment plan for more than 900 units.
“The strategy is to locate these communities in areas of opportunity, where residents have access to the things they need,” Daniels says.
New funding model
Largely propelling the housing authority’s move to the new model are changes in the way HUD funds public housing. In recent years, the agency has sharply cut back on the lump sum allocations it once made to local agencies to build and run large developments.
In its place are a number of programs and tools that incentivize the private sector to get involved in the development of public housing while also providing tenants with more choices of where they want to live.
Some of the tools have been around for a while. On the financing side, Low Income Housing Tax credits were created in the mid-1980s by the Reagan administration and have been effective in incentivizing the private sector to partner with agencies to build badly needed housing.
Other tools, like HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program, or RAD, have only been around a few years, and Baton Rouge didn’t become eligible to participate until November 2018. RAD tackles the problem from a different angle, serving as a subsidy swap that converts the traditional Section 9 revenues HUD allocated to local housing authorities to “Housing Choice” Section 8 vouchers that agencies distribute to their clients, enabling them to have greater choice in where they want to live.
Key, of course, to the program is to develop new housing stock for the clients to access. The housing authority has a plan to do that over the next decade. Though a handful of new communities are on the drawing board, several others will be announced and unveiled in the months and years to come.
“We will take our developments and decide either to demolish and come up with new construction or we demolish that site and take it to another area of opportunity,” meaning, relocate it, Daniels says. “We are disbursing the public housing model. What we’ve learned is that concentrated poverty does not work so our goal is to de-concentrate poverty. So if we have a 30-unit public housing community, our goal is to position that asset into a different more mixed-income environment.”
While low-income housing tax credits and partnerships with the private sector will finance much of the new development, Daniels is aggressively pursuing funding from a variety of sources. The planned Cypress River Lofts community, for instance, will be funded with federal flood recovery dollars from the Restore Louisiana program, which Daniels realized could be tapped as a legitimate source of funding for new projects.
“You have to be aggressive about going after funding,” he says. “You have to be committed to getting funding for your region.”
Daniels is hopeful local investors are committed to the region as well. He says there are many opportunities for the private sector to partner in the development of public housing, particularly now that the housing authority has stepped up the pace of developing new housing stock for the population its serves.
“Tax credits have been around for a while,” he says. “But investors have more an opportunity to participate now because we’re building more aggressively than we were in the past.”