After years of City Council pulling HUD dollars granted to East Lansing away from social services in favor of rebuilding downtown sidewalks and paying down the Avondale Square debt, the current City Council appears poised to shift direction back to funding services. Now that the HUD loan on Avondale Square is paid off, funds are being freed up for other uses.
In recent history, the controversy over the use of these HUD Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds has run high. Past Councils have argued over whether the City ought to be in the business of providing social services, or whether that role properly falls to the counties, the state, and nongovernmental sources.
But a lot has changed since those intense debates. This is a Council with only one member with more than sixteen months’ at the table — Mayor Aaron Stephens — and this Council has an agenda that talks often about “intentionality” with regard to issues of equity. This group appears more unified on plans.
At last week’s discussion-only meeting (Mar. 16), the Council considered multiple recommendations from City Staff regarding the use of the CDBG funds.
The discussion began with East Lansing’s Community Development and Engagement Manager Amy Schlusler-Schmitt briefing Council on the City becoming eligible for $228,126 in additional CDBG-CV funds, which are to be used in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
With an original allocation of CDBG-CV funds in May 2020, the City implemented two programs: one providing emergency rent and mortgage relief for residents, and the other providing small business relief. According to Schlusler-Schmitt, both those programs are on course to be out of funds by the end of June 2021.
She recommended that Council allocate $128,126 of the new funding into the rent and mortgage program, while expanding it to include utilities assistance, with the remaining $100,000 replenishing the small business relief program.
Beyond the Covid-19 specific CV funds, Schlusler-Schmitt filled Council in on the usage of regular CDBG funds and offered a recommended expenditure plan for Fiscal Year 2022. (See the presentation here.)
If allocated as recommended, the CDBG funds would be provided to service programs that help residents with things like food and housing and also spent on public infrastructure like sidewalk improvements aimed at accessibility along Albert Avenue.
The recommendation for the regular CDBG funds also calls for dedicating the maximum amount — 20% or, specifically, $93,787 — to pay for staffing by the City.
Council broadly concurred with Schlusler-Schmitt’s recommendations, and asked a handful of questions about how the money would get doled out.
Before any of it does get allocated, the City must confirm with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that the plans are up to spec and hold public hearings — one hearing for the CDBG-CV funds and two for the regular programming.
Council members were pleased with the idea of adding utilities assistance to the rent and mortgage program, and they pushed for marketing the CDBG-CV programs to a broader audience.
While updating Council on the rent and mortgage assistance program — which allowed residents to receive up to $5,000 per household in assistance — Schlusler-Schmitt said the City has helped 30 households to date. The majority has gone for rental assistance, she said.
Mayor Stephens asked about the racial demographics of households that had been assisted. According to Schlusler-Schmitt, of the 30 that received assistance, 16 households were black or African-American, nine were Caucasian, four were American Indian or Alaskan native, and one was Asian. (The demographic data collected is from self-identification and falls into categories put forth by HUD.)
Schlusler-Schmitt also added that to be eligible for assistance, a household had to fall below 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI) for a household, and that 23 of the households being assisted actually were below 50% AMI.
Stephens lauded the inclusion of utilities assistance, noting that could be a big boost for students who are struggling financially and may not have been eligible for other assistance. He also asked Schlusler-Schmitt about efforts to market this program to students to make sure they are aware.
Council member Dana Watson concurred with Stephens about helping students, particularly considering the specific eligibility challenges that come with multiple people sharing the cost of a lease. She thought the utilities assistance could be specifically helpful, as that cost — while shared — is paid directly from one person to the utility provider.
“I hope we can make space to help them individually,” Watson said.
Council member Ron Bacon agreed with Stephens and Watson, but also advocated for marketing to older people in the community, particularly through non-digital methods.
Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg suggested the City should include information about the program when it sends out notices for late utility bills. Watson went further, saying the info could just be included with all utility bills.
Stephens agreed, suggesting the City can reach out to Consumers Energy and the Lansing Board of Water and Light to do the same.
The use of regular CDBG funds recommended for FY 22 includes expanding some housing assistance programs and continuing infrastructure work in certain public parks and along Albert Avenue.
The proposed use of CDBG funds for FY 2022 — $493,938, in total — presented by Schlusler-Schmitt on Tuesday broke down into two main categories.
First was $74,090 set aside for “public services” such as providing funding to Haven House, the Tri-County Office on Aging, or MSU Safe Place to offer various services like providing meals to seniors or providing crisis counseling. All of the services being provided must meet certain requirements set forth by HUD. Schlusler-Schmitt also alluded to a matrix from HUD that outlines the various acceptable services.
Bacon said he’d like to see some new partnerships with different groups for public services. He referenced the City recently declaring racism as a public health crisis and the general anti-racist stance being taken, and said he’d like to see the City work with people in those spheres.
Watson agreed, and noted to Schlusler-Schmitt she already had some groups in mind. Schlusler-Schmitt said she’d be happy to work with interested groups and share that matrix of services with them.
“I think the priorities are right,” Stephens said. “What we’re going for are basic needs, especially during this time. But I do think that being intentional is something that we’re attempting to do, so if there are organizations that are putting a priority on that or an emphasis on that, that should be recognized.”
Stephens asked Schlusler-Schmitt about the various public infrastructure programs.
The main change is an expansion of the homeowner rehabilitation program done in partnership with the Capitol Area Housing Partnership. That program provides homeowners (only in eligible neighborhoods) with up to $24,999 in funds to complete work on their home. The uses can range from work aimed at code compliance like electrical work or a complete roof repair.
The money isn’t a grant, but a 50% forgivable mortgage — meaning upon sale and transfer of the home to a new owner, the beneficiary (who just sold their house) will pay half of what they received back into the program.
Schlusler-Schmitt said the hope is to expand that program City-wide, and provide for more people to get assistance in any given year.
Gregg said she was “gung-ho” about expanding the program.
Besides the homeowner rehab program, Schlusler-Schmitt said she’d spoken with Parks and Recreation staff, and their recommendation for park improvements was to do accessibility work around Hannah Community Center and in Stoddard Park, and to put down a rubberized, level surface at the new play structure in Bailey Park.
Additionally, CDBG funds have been used by the City to modify sidewalks along Albert Avenue. This work is justified as providing better accessibility to persons with disabilities. Schlusler-Schmitt said that work is set to continue and be complete by the end of FY 2024.
Stephens asked for specific attention to be paid for making the sidewalks and crossings accessible for those with hearing or vision impairments, too.