A heated March 9 Jackson City Council meeting followed a March 8 work session attended by about 40 angry South Jackson residents concerned over the plan to create a lease-to-own single-family home subdivision. Neighbors say Valley Park Subdivision with its 15-year leasing option, is akin to "canned instant decay—just heat and serve," according to one opponent.
"I think that the 15-year window will prevent people from becoming stakeholders in their property," said South Jackson resident Erick James. "You don't know if you're ever going to own the house, and you don't have to, so you're not going to plant flowers or care about the bushes.."
Many council members said they also saw a flaw in such a lengthy leasing option.
"After [the 15-year lease] they can get a 30-year mortgage, so you're talking here about a 45-year stay, and that little piece right there doesn't make a lot of sense," said Ward 6 Councilman Marshand Crisler, who promised to "continue to discuss this issue and keep it alive" because he couldn't "see any good that can come out of a program like this."
The project, partially financed by tax credits through the Mississippi Home Corp., allows for the funding of home repairs during that 15-year period, prompting residents to keep their homes up during that time. Ward 1 Councilman Ben Allen argued that the money offered during that time was not enough to properly maintain a home.
"One of the things we were told (at the work session) was that there was going to be an escrow amount of money that would be put up each year by the developer for the maintenance of this $80,000 home, and the amount last year was $250 a year. Well, do the math. That's $3,750 to maintain a home over the course of 15 years. Anybody who owns an $80,000 home knows that you're going to spend a lot more than that for the maintenance."
The Council had requested the appearance of Chuck Morris, senior vice president of program operations at MHC to address concerns over the lease to own system at the March 8 work session. Morris informed the council that his organization could only give out the tax credits funding such development through a point-based rating system awarding three to 15 points apiece for qualifying attributes, such as 10 points for providing three bedroom buildings, three points for partnering with the Mississippi Housing Authority or 10 points for attending an application workshop. Morris said outside the point-based selection criteria the company had no real say in the nature of the development itself.
James later refuted this assertion, saying the company's handbook outlined MHC's ability to supersede their own awards system.
"Morris makes it sound like it's out of his hands, but it's in his hands as a steward of those tax dollars. … I'm telling you, they could stop this if they wanted to," James said.
Morris did not return calls requesting a response to James' comments. Developer representative David Strange, of Porter and Malouf PA, also declined comment.
Council President Leslie McLemore demanded that somebody had to do something, however, calling the lease-to-own program a "scheme" for circumventing the Council's 2004 moratorium on new apartment construction in the city.
"We have 12 or 13 major apartment complexes in the city that need to be rehabbed. … If these developers are really concerned about improving the housing stock in the city let them tackle some of those decaying complexes," McLemore said.
Ward 7 Councilman Margaret Barrett-Simon alluded to the secretive behavior of the developer: "There really was no notification process except for a legal notice that, thank God, somebody saw in the newspaper; otherwise we wouldn't even be here talking about this," she said.
Genny Seeley, president of the Association of South Jackson Neighborhoods, said she saw the notice because she makes a habit of scanning the public notices—a lack of vigilance in the past led to the construction of similar affordable housing complex in her neighborhood.
"We got blindsided with a housing tax-credit apartment complex two blocks from my house, and we didn't find out about that until it was a done deal," Seeley said, referring to the Blossom Apartments, which opened last year at 3100 Woodbine Terrace.
"It's frankly embarrassing when we the council are the last to know when an apartment complex under a federal or state program is going up in our city," Allen said.
Crisler later said that Jackson "has more than its fair share of affordable housing," compared to the surrounding bedroom communities. "There are cities outlying Jackson that don't have any affordable housing," he said. "I won't be crass enough to call those names out, but every city is required to have them."
McLemore wanted to take immediate action, asking city attorney Terry Wallace how the Council could "stop these nice people (developers) from doing these bad things to the city of Jackson?" He also inquired if the council had the authority to send a "letter or resolution to The Mississippi Home Corp. so that when they get their proposals that they will at least have a sense that we will not be beholden to any schemes."
Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes said he was wary of the tone the council had adopted. "This reminds me of years ago when people in Clinton had a fit over some apartments because they knew that the people in those apartments would be black people," he said. "We keep using the code words 'affordable housing,' but in most cases we're trying to dodge the issue that we're actually talking about black people. Let's make sure that people who need affordable housing can have it. … Low income people are not just crackheads or robbers. They're just people who can't afford expensive homes, and we have to see to them."
Ward 4 Councilman "Bo" Brown said he was amazed that his colleagues were continuing to "state that we don't need any affordable housing and that anybody can afford a home." Brown said: "As we tear down these cheap houses and build more expensive homes the poor people have to go someplace. This council ought not to be in the business of saying Jackson doesn't need affordable housing. It's in conflict with our long-term plan that this administration has undertaken," said Brown.
Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson, Jr. said he was familiar with this lease-to-own program because he had previously run three similar programs in smaller towns before becoming mayor. He said his own projects were not flawed, however, by such an extended lease time, and pointed out that MHC offered shorter windows (sometimes 39-months) for leasing options in its other projects.
"We need our housing people to get in touch with those developers and see how we can maybe take those houses and use them for infield development, and not with a 15-year lease program but with a 39-month program," Johnson said.