By Melanie Lasoff Levs
Almost two years ago, demolishing Columbus’s Poindexter Village, a public housing development on the Near East Side, was not just about doing away with run-down buildings as neighborhood revitalization began. It was about giving the 365 resident families of said buildings a second chance.
More than half the residents of the 414 public housing units were present at a community meeting, where they were notified that they would get housing vouchers and help with relocation. “They stood up and cheered,” remembers Bryan Brown, chief development officer of the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority. “It was an amazing moment.”
CMHA and Partners Achieving Community Transformation (PACT), the non-profit organization and Purpose Built Communities network member overseeing the redevelopment of the Near East Side, set aside 18 months to assist residents with relocation, says Brown. But because tenants were empowered to make the change, the process only took six months, he adds. “Most people on the program see the voucher as the golden ticket [and say] `I can take the subsidy and go find housing that meets my needs.’ All those benefits and amenities that people take for granted when choosing where to live, we’ve now allowed them to have that opportunity.”
Not only are former Poindexter Village residents benefiting from quality housing choices, but they also are being closely monitored and assisted by dedicated case managers through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Choice Neighborhoods Grant program, which the Near East Side won in 2014. IMPACT Community Action, Columbus’ local community action agency, was selected as the case management partner for the grant. A requirement of that grant is implementing a “resident engagement strategy,” a way to keep former public housing tenants involved and moving forward in their lives, says Autumn Glover, PACT program director. Though currently they are spread throughout the city, the goal is to give those residents first choice at returning to the revitalized Near East Side, she says.
Each month, IMPACT case managers provide a van that carries interested Poindexter Village former residents to a neighborhood meeting about the status of the project, explains Glover. “We’re letting them know what their options are,” she adds, “so they won’t miss the boat.”
Along with engagement comes assistance — with job placement and readiness, household tasks, finances and school decisions, all provided by four case managers dedicated to the former residents, says Brown. “There is very robust and intensive case management for all those households,” he says, regardless of where the families settled with their housing vouchers. The case managers help identify the goals and objectives of each household “ to ensure that those households that wish to return to the redeveloped site have all barriers removed for them to do so,” Brown adds.
What barriers might befall the former public housing residents? Criteria for living in a mixed-income community — such as salary requirements and bills paid in full — are different than for public housing, explains Brown. So if a family has an unpaid utility bill, for example, the case manager will work on a payment plan, or if a single mother does not make a high enough salary, the case manager can help her with an educational program to complete, which could raise her job level, according to Brown.
“Our approach is resident-driven and neighborhood-focused,” says Glover. “We’re doing this to transform the neighborhood, and we want to earn residents back – those who lived in Poindexter Village and those continue to live in the neighborhood.”
Former public housing residents can return to the Near East Side in stages, as the mixed-income housing phases complete over the next five years, says Brown. And it won’t be too soon, he adds. “The residents are all very excited.”