Interim City Community and Business Development Director Peter Varney told the City Council he believes there are opportunities the municipality could look at regarding making affordable housing more available in Rocky Mount.

After Varney spoke, there also was much discussion about how to make a certain municipal housing grant program more available to homeowners.

During the City of Rocky Mount’s 2021 annual retreat early last month in Asheville, Varney suggested looking at the area of the Beal Street Square apartment complex and the area of the Holly Street neighborhood for having additional affordable housing.

Varney showed parcels of land the municipality still has along Grace Street between Beal and Thomas streets; along Thomas from just west of Middle Street to Howell Street; on the east side of Howell from Thomas just past Beal; and at the northwest corner of Howell and Sunset Avenue.

Varney said he believes those parcels are available for redevelopment and could be transformed into single-family lots. To do so, he believes the municipality needs to do a land survey and reconfigure some of the lots in part because some of the land is zoned commercial and needs to be zoned residential.

“I’m getting calls from people, mainly in the Raleigh and Durham areas, looking for property to develop,” he said. “And so I’m saying to them, ‘I think I’ve got some I can put together in the next several months that you could be interested in.’”

In the area of Holly Street, Varney showed that there are many lots where municipal code enforcement action is occurring.

Additionally, Varney noted that every house on the west side of the 500 block of Myrtle Avenue is abandoned, that a couple of houses in the 400 block of Myrtle are abandoned and that there are abandoned structures in the area of Carolina Avenue and Goldleaf Street.

Varney said that what he wants to try to work on, if he could, is acquiring those boarded-up houses and looking into renovating them if possible. He said that if they are in bad shape, then he supposes the municipality could look into demolishing them and engaging a developer to construct new houses at those locations.

He also said he was looking at the idea of a redevelopment project at the former O.R. Pope Elementary School and the immediate area of the buildings and grounds.

He said his concept would be, if possible, to have an architectural and engineering evaluation of the former Pope site and some of the land area right around the buildings and grounds to see whether trying to do some kind of a housing project would make sense.

The discussion became extensive after Varney switched to talking about housing grant programs, namely a municipally funded one dating back to fiscal year 2018 and offering rebates.

According to that program, the house has to be at least 50 years old, occupied by a tenant or a homeowner, have homeowner’s insurance and the tax payments on the house have to be current.

Varney said if one wants to do, as an example, a $25,000 improvement project, then the municipality would pay up to $12,500 after completion of the work.

Varney showed utilization of the program by homeowners started out at 59.3 percent and dipped to 18.2 percent before increasing to 33.3 percent. He showed utilization of the program by investors started out at 40.7 percent and increased to 81.8 percent before dipping to 66.7 percent.

He said he has been spending a bit of time trying to look at tightening some of the accountability provisions of the program’s policy and get the details to City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney’s office.

Councilman Reuben Blackwell said his assumption was that people who were in line to receive that investment from the program were living on the properties and said he is hearing from those people that the money for the program has run out.

Blackwell said it looks to him like those getting the first crack at the matching rebates are the investors. He said there is nothing wrong with that as long as they are not increasing the rents on the property with the city’s investment.

Varney said the program’s policy does not have any text about rent amounts for investor-owned properties, but he said that could be added as a condition because the demand for the program is there.

As for the statement by applicants saying there is no money, Varney said that is right because from July to October funding will be committed.

Councilman Andre Knight expressed concern about an imbalance between access to money by homeowners compared to investors and about those lacking $12,500 for a $25,000 project facing barriers to benefit from incentives.

Varney emphasized the homeowner has to have the $25,000 up front to do a $25,000 project, but he said he does not know many low-to-moderate income households that have $25,000 “tucked under the mattress” or that can easily get a loan.

Varney said one of the things the city may want to look at in addressing the program’s policy is to ask if there is something the municipality can do to make it possible to allow homeowners easier access to money.

Knight emphasized that he and fellow officials do not want to create “extra layers of bureaucracy” that prevent or deter people from getting the grants.

Blackwell spoke about the possibility of having a type of program for investors with separate allocations and objectives and a program for the homeowners and the people occupying the houses, with the latter including multiple factors subject to change.

Blackwell also asked whether the municipality has any appetite to finance improvements to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems of houses, given that Rocky Mount has so many old houses and that the leakage of cooled or heated air causes high utility bills.

Blackwell wanted to know from Small-Toney whether she and her team can look at what other municipalities are doing.

Knight also said he believes the coffers of the City of Rocky Mount Public Utilities are healthy and spoke of the possibility of using funds or offering grants from that fund to help residents who see sharp increases in their utility bills.

Blackwell went further and asked about financing the improvements of HVAC systems at houses with repayments to the municipality via the monthly utility bills.

Small-Toney said she and her team can take a look at this and noted the utility fund supports the general fund anyway.

Small-Toney did make clear there needs to be assurances before providing such funding that people’s houses have attics, roofs, walls and windows fitted to reduce the amount of power needed to cool or heat the structures.

“So we would want to look at this as a complete energy-efficient program for these houses,” she said.

The council majority in February made clear it wanted the city’s 2021 annual retreat to be in Asheville so they could learn how the Buncombe County seat is addressing housing issues.