‘MAJOR STEP FORWARD’: Disaster recovery funds could be used for Home Again project

St. Johns County is one step closer to securing $47 million in disaster recovery monies through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program for some big-ticket projects that tie back to Hurricane Matthew.

The projects must primarily address unmet housing needs or clearly support low- and moderate-income individuals and families, while not duplicating any benefits.

Michael Ryan, spokesman for the county, told The Record on Thursday that the county has what is essentially pre-approval from HUD and the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity to proceed with proposed projects in three categories.

A scope of work for the commission’s consideration on Tuesday includes a housing program and public facilities program that, combined, could potentially cover all the capital expenses for a major homeless services center on roughly 13.5 acres at 1850 State Road 207. The anticipated influx of money could end Home Again St. Johns’ years-long wait to bring the project to fruition.

According to the county’s project description, housing program funds would be used to develop up to 80 new rental units (with all associated infrastructure) to serve low-income individuals and families.

Public facilities funds would go toward developing an integrated social services building serving low- and moderate-income as well as vulnerable populations, such as those experiencing homelessness or at the risk of homelessness.

This “Unified Services Center” would house administrative and supportive services, including kitchen/cafeteria facilities, offices, meetings rooms, temporary emergency shelter space, and medical and social service space for a food pantry, medical clinic, dental clinic and similar uses.

Troy Blevins, president of Home Again, said the potential funding is a “major step forward” for the organization and its many partners in the community that work with the homeless.

“We’re talking millions and millions of dollars and it would have taken us years and years to raise that money,” he said. “It’s one bright thing that might have come out of Matthew, and there were so many bad things, but we’re very excited as a board and as an organization that this might happen.”

Blevins said they’ll be bringing in a number of partner organizations to handle different aspects of operations at the new facility and provide a wide array of services.

To illustrate the potential impact of this project, he said all they have right now is a facility that consists of minimal infrastructure and two portable buildings, one housing the Salvation Army, the other housing Home Again.

Another housing program would help qualifying owner-occupants of one- to four-unit residential properties apply for financial assistance for storm-related damage due to Matthew or Hurricane Hermine.

The range of services covered would include repair and elevation, reconstruction of properties that were substantially damaged, replacement of manufactured homes, temporary relocation of homeowners (and, if necessary, tenants) while repairs or reconstruction is completed, mortgage payment assistance, and buyout and acquisition for redevelopment pilot programs.

The county estimates this project will meet the low- and moderate-income national objective by serving at least 70 percent low- to moderate-income households with the 30 percent balance serving those meeting the urgent need national objective.

Ryan said more information on eligibility and how to apply for this assistance would become available as the county gets further along in the process, assuming the commission chooses to proceed with the plan as is.

An infrastructure program will address storm-related damage due to Matthew and/or Hermine. The project description includes funding of drainage improvements for the Armstrong area, N. Rodriguez Street, Orange Street, Avenue D, Lake Maria Sanchez and the intersection of St. Augustine Boulevard and Cypress Road. Also on the list: two phases of sewer improvements for Hastings.

Ryan said the county will have to add as many as eight new full-time employees in order to manage the obligations of the grant program and navigate the federal requirements involved. Of the eight full-time positions required, the equivalent of about 1.67 of those positions will not be covered by the CDBG monies.

Commissioners on Tuesday will consider bridging the gap by drawing down about $560,000 from the General Fund over the next five years. About $58,000 would be needed for the remainder of this fiscal year.

Ryan said once a grant agreement is signed, the money is made available immediately and the county has five years to complete the projects. He said the CDBG program differs from other disaster recovery programs in that it offers funding upfront rather than through reimbursement.

The county received the lion’s share of CDBG disaster recovery funding headed to Florida for Matthew and Hermine as it was deemed most-impacted from Matthew. Monies for Hurricane Irma have yet to be distributed.

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