The Thompson Administration has plans.
Recently, the City of Harrisburg’s Housing and Urban Development (HUD) till got a significant boost thanks to the sale of one of the City’s most beautiful buildings, the McFarland Press Building. The building is located right over the Mulberry Street Bridge, a grand mark of a gateway to South Allison Hill. The large, brick edifice was built in 1880 as a school, but in 1889 well-acclaimed civic leader, J. Horace McFarland, converted it into his printing company, the Mount Pleasant Press. Since then, the building bears his name.
Unfortunately, this landmark saw days of demise as it sat useless and neglected after it stopped housing a printing company. However, by the mid 1990’s, the building was slated to be saved. A joint private/public effort ensued to rehabilitate and reuse the abandoned structure. Ultimately costing over $6 million, construction focused on reasonably restoring the historic grandeur as well as marking it for practical use. The “McFarland Project,” as it was so named in honor of a man who devoted his life to civic improvement, developed 49 apartment units intended for low and moderate income families. Later phases of construction yielded more units as well as a home for Danzante Urban Arts.
Various types of public programs and public monies were used to meet the objective of rehabilitating what was deemed a monumental cornerstone to attracting new business and development in one of the City’s most at-risk neighborhoods. In fact, the City contributed $800,000 of its HUD Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds and $450,000 of its HUD HOME funds, a federal program focused on working with municipalities and non-profits to establish affordable housing for qualified participants.
Thus, the use of these public funds made the McFarland Project a public project even before the first units were completed in 1997. As long as the project kept the HUD funds it received, the building was mandated to fulfill its HUD purpose. As the rules go, if the building ever sold and became a private enterprise, then the HUD funds needed to be paid back to the City, and the City would be required to use the returned funds for other CDBG and HOME initiatives.
In July of this year, that’s what happened. The McFarland Publishing Building sold, and with that sale, $1,250,000 was required to make its way back the City of Harrisburg’s HUD purse.
Now, anyone who has been keeping an eye on the City of Harrisburg’s HUD program is quite aware of the Thompson Administration’s challenges with managing it. Director of Building and Housing Jack Robinson has cited a lack of staff, misunderstandings, and just plumb too many responsibilities as reasons his department has had a difficult time meeting HUD requirements and distributing the funds accordingly. Most notably, the City has encountered several hiccups in dispensing CDBG funds to the various non-profits who have been awarded them. CDBG funds are granted to non-profits that demonstrate projects and services that align with HUD goals. This category of funds are the most discretionary of the City’s HUD funds with any viable non-profit welcome to apply, the Administration making recommendations, and City Council passing the final vote. Despite a timely application, interview, and legislative process, awardees for 2011 funds had to endure an almost one year holdup to access their funds because of the Administration’s confusion with the HUD CDBG program. This delay caused many groups such as the Heinz-Menaker Senior Center, the Broad Street Market, Habitat for Humanity, and the Central Allison Hill Community Center to put off their own projects until the City sorted out its troubles.
In June of 2012, Harrisburg City Council determined the use of the 2012-13 CDBG funds. Much to Mayor Linda Thompson’s chagrin, City Council cut back the City’s Emergency Demolition from $400,000 to $200,000. During the public hearings on these matters, City Councilors were very clear as to why they would lessen Emergency Demolition—the Administration had not used any of its funds from the year before. In May of 2012, Housing Director Robinson stated that no demolitions had taken place in the past year. So, City Council diminished the funds and allocated the money to the approved non-profits.
Since that June vote, though, the City has come into over $1.3 million in new HUD funds. In October, the Thompson Administration posted a public notice outlining its intentions for the additional funds and asking for public feedback. A public notice is really all there was to alert the public. This influx of money did not trigger a media statement or one of the Mayor’s press conference declaring “It’s another beautiful day in the City.” If City Council was made aware of it, no announcements were made during Council sessions asking citizens to submit its comments on the Administration’s suggestions.
So what are the Mayor’s suggested uses for this spill of extra monies?
It’s apparent the Mayor has very particular ideas about what she will promise to do in her last year of her first term as reigning executive of the City of Harrisburg, and her suggested use of the HUD funds reflects this. Not only does she want to bring the Emergency Demolition fund up to $500,000, she intends to use $75,000 to acquire more properties in the City. This fits in perfectly with her Right the Blight campaign she launched at the end of September. By next Spring, i.e. the Primary Election, the Mayor has declared 31 properties will be demolished despite the fact her Administration has shown no ability to accomplish even a fraction of this number with previous HUD allocations.
The Mayor is also pushing an aggressive lead-paint testing campaign, and a glance on HBGTV’s Channel 20 indicates this. Merely watch for an hour to see a repetitive broadcasting of acting-Communications Director Bob Philbin interviewing the City’s grants officer and one other person about the soon-to-be successful Lead-Risk Assessment program. What is noteworthy about this endeavor is that up until now, the City did not fulfill HUD’s requirements of testing for lead in City HUD program rehabbed homes. Professing “program administrative staff turnover” as the reason why lead assessments were never done, the Thompson Administration assures HUD assessments will indeed happen, and surely the additional funds will help the Administration spread the word in schools, churches, and targeted neighborhoods.
While “Operation Front Porch” and “Housing as Wealth” are shining examples of catchy-sounding, late-blooming operations highlighted in the Mayor’s State of the City address, what is most interesting about the Thompson Administration’s wish-list use of new HUD funds is the return of the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development (MOED) Small Business Loan Program. Currently, the program she inherited and took over still has 30 delinquent loans outstanding, and Mayor Thompson has always said the program was on hold with a rebirth in her plans, a rebirth of “doing it right,” as she claims. Well, just in time for re-election, the Thompson Administration is hoping to unveil a renewed MOED with a $163,735.75 upstart request.
Of course, it could be argued that it is purely coincidental that this money came in when it did months before campaigns for Mayor are about to ramp up. And of course, also, the money must be spent. That’s a HUD rule, a rule which almost cost the City funds this past summer when unaccessible CDBG funds sat in wait for the non-profits anguishly put on hold while the City figured out its paperwork and processes.
Yes, it is nothing more than coincidence that this infusion of money came at this time. Nonetheless, the way the Thompson Administration is suggesting the money be used is anything but coincidence.
While Linda Thompson has not yet officially announced it, it is fairly clear she will be running for a second term as Mayor of the City of Harrisburg. She can’t help herself. She is unable to resist the pull of her own perceived glory of her tenure. She wants more. She has identified with being “the Mayor” and regardless of a trail of deficiencies and mistakes, Linda Thompson views herself as a successful CEO. Like her 54 minute State of the City address she travels around reading, Thompson is long-winded and obtuse to the reality of her record. She is a blind leader seeking the blind to follow her into the ditch.
And what better way to do that than to allocate money to promise things.
The fact of the matter is that the outline of how to use the additional CDBG funds the Thompson Administration provides is a decent one….on paper. It is ambitious and will require swift and skilled management to accomplish. Yet, Linda Thompson’s record as Mayor is not swift or skilled in accomplishments, and this is certainly true of the way her Administration has handled the HUD program. Thumbing through pages and pages of correspondences and reports back and forth between HUD representatives and the City, it is difficult to believe the Thompson Administration can pull off the process of demolishing so many properties, setting up regular lead checks, and acquiring parcels through eminent domain. Plus, it may be cynical but the “Operation Front Porch” (an initiative for homeowners to be granted funds for facade improvement) and the MOED Loan program could too easily fall into ingratiating support as well as fodder for campaign touting. Never mind the fact that so many of these initiatives will require organizational savvy the Thompson Administration is not marked by. Rather, the risk is that these initiatives will sit as slogans and promises, not real things done.
Any new allocation of HUD funds will have to be approved by City Council. Because the additional money and its use becomes a part of the City’s HUD comprehensive plan, the final of approval is a legislative function. City Council will decide.
It seems the best use of the CDBG funds, specifically, is to be used to enhance the work that non-profits are doing in the City. There is no “timeliness test” done on the CDBG funds (i.e. checking if there’s too much money not expelled, thus, risking the funds) until next summer, so there is time for the Thompson Administration to call on groups to apply and interview for these bonus grants. If allocated smartly, the City could entrust a rich burst of activity from dependable non-profits and well-strategized public/private partnerships. Take for example what was done with the original $1.25 million dollars to rehab an almost-lost treasure of the City and make it an anchor of the neighborhood. With vision and the right people, the Hudson Building on the corner of N6th and Maclay Streets could be another McFarland Project. A mixed use residential, non-profit, and business space would be much more welcoming than the boarded-up windows of a sadly neglected building sitting despondent at one of the City’s major gateways.
Regardless of what ends up, there has been little public discussion about this substantial amount of public funds back in the City’s hands. If City Council comes out and begins to directly cut the Mayor’s suggestions, Thompson will find ground to point fingers and accuse City Councilors of political maneuvering and vengeful actions, as she has unabashedly done before. No matter if there is justification in City Councilors’ objections to giving an incompetent Administration the means to fund projects that could likely be mismanaged and detained as the past (and HUD evaluations) indicate. No matter if there is hesitancy in giving the Thompson Administration funds that seem more like desperate campaign collateral rather than doable initiatives of a capable office. No, none of that matters if City Council isn’t prepared to inform the public of the record this Administration has in respect to the City’s HUD program.
The City is asking for public feedback on the amendment below. The deadline is November 16th to submit written comments to the Thompson Administration.
Substantial Amendment to the 2012 Annual Action Plan
Pursuant to HUD regulations in 24 CFR 91.105(c)(2) and the Consolidated Plan Citizen Participation Plan adopted by the Mayor and City Council on June 29, 2012, the City of Harrisburg hereby gives notice of proposed amendments to the 2012 Annual Action Plan for the funds received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Mayor Linda D. Thompson invites citizens to provide public comment on a substantial amendment to the City of Harrisburg’s FY-2012 Annual Action Plan to allocate program income to newly created, and previously approved housing and community development programs.
The City received program income from the sale proceeds of properties funded with HUD Community Planning & Development funds in the following amounts:
- Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program $926,235.75
- HOME Investment Partnerships (HOME) Program $247,500.00
- Lead Hazard Control (LHC) Program $163,020.00
TOTAL Funds Available $1,336,755.75
1. The following new activities are to be created and available funds will be allocated:
Tri-County HDC – Housing Services $200,000.00 CDBG
Property Acquisition $ 75,000.00 CDBG
“Operation Front Porch” $187,500.00 CDBG
“Housing As Wealth” $187,500.00 HOME
Total amount to be allocated to new activities $650,000.00
2. The funding for the following activities will be increased by the following amounts:
Emergency Demolition $300,000.00 CDBG
Home Improvement Program (HIP) $60,000.00 HOME
MOED Small Business Loan Program $163,735.75 CDBG
Total amount to be added to approved activities $523,735.75
$131,976.00 in LEAD funding will be allocated to CDBG-funded rehabilitation projects for lead-based paint testing and abatement
Written comments are welcome and should be sent to Nichole Purcell, Deputy Director for Housing, DBHD, 10 North Second Street, Harrisburg, PA 17101 by 4:00pm on Friday, November 16, 2012. For additional information, please call 717-255-6419. Nichole Purcell’s email address: NPurcell@cityofhbg.com