Jose Alverez, regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said listening to housing stakeholders is critical to being able to help address the national housing crisis on the community level. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku/The New Tri-State Defender)

With Jose Alverez, regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as the hub, a roundtable discussion about local housing issues unfolded in the Memphis office of Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09) on Tuesday.

“Our priority now is we want to know what is working, we want to know what is not,” said Alvarez at the end of the one-hour session. “There are certain initiatives that we have through HUD that we want to make sure we provide information as needed.

“And the initiative also is to listen,” emphasized Alvarez, disclosing that he would be doing the same later in the day during a meeting with Mayor Jim Strickland.

“We want to make sure that we understand what the city is going through so that we can find solutions together.”

Rep. Steve Cohen convened stakeholders to address ways they can work together even more to address housing issues in Memphis. (Photos: Karanja A. Ajanaku/The New Tri-State Defender)

Cohen said the meeting, in part, was to “know who to call and what to do” regarding working together to “make housing more affordable and safer. Dr. King talked about housing being a right and it should be in America.”

Housing, he said, is a key to a good education, which unlocks doors to opportunities and the likelihood of a better life.

“Memphis, I think, is slipping a little bit in getting people good, clean, safe affordable housing and we need to work on that,” Cohen said, acknowledging the good work of the people in the room.

He mentioned Peppertree and Serenity as two instances of local housing problem areas involving federally-subsidized property management.

Alvarez said housing “is a crisis not just here in Memphis but nationwide. And while the President’s fiscal ’23 HUD budget includes $32.1 billion for the housing choice vouchers program, the largest one-year increase in vouchers since the program was authorized, I recognize there is still work to be done.”

Kenneth Free, the Alabama HUD field officer, said he met several times with Peppertree residences “and I think we have moved that in a positive direction. … As of last week, we had 53 housing choice vouchers that were issued to the families. They are being provided relocation assistance working through the Memphis Housing Authority….”

Pictured: Kenneth Free and Felecia Harris. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku/The New Tri-State Defender)

Felecia Harris with the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development said the dire need for housing in Memphis amounts to an estimated 30,000 units.

“We are working constantly not only on being able to adjust our housing levels in terms of number of units but, more importantly, that it is affordable, that it is safe.”

Harris said one of the areas that most often prompt daily calls is the need to rehab in North and South Memphis. She also said exploration is underway to see if approaches not traditional to Memphis might work here to address the shortages and conditions.

Kathy Cowan (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku/The New Tri-State Defender)

Kathy Cowan, executive director of LISC Memphis, which works to expand affordable housing opportunities, and improve neighborhoods and economic mobility in Memphis, shared the effort to establish a home-preservation effort here based upon a model LISC worked with in Detroit.

The home-loan program for lower-income homeowners makes use of city block grant funds in conjunction with other leveraged funds. The launch date is April 11.

“By making it a loan, we are hoping to keep regenerating that fund as well as constantly leveraging and try to grow this fund.”

Cowan noted that 54-plus percent of the local housing stock is rental. A lot of our low-income citizens can’t get access to capital.

“We know that if we help a homeowner preserve that asset, we are helping them in terms of wealth building. … We don’t want to lose any more homeowners.”

MHA’s Dexter Washington (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku/The New Tri-State Defender)

MHA’s Dexter Washington said the housing authority is one of the oldest in the nation and the focus for the last 25 years has been revitalizing aging housing.

“Now we have our focus on other ways of strengthening our housing communities,” he said, detailing the effort of converting from the public housing program to the Section 8 platform.

“One of the concerns with that is after conversion there are certain supports and funding mechanisms in place for social services for housing residents that go away once we do Section 8 conversion. That is something we are constantly looking for ways to fill the gap.”

Amy Schaftlein (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku/The New Tri-State Defender)

Amy Schaftlein, executive director of the private, non-profit United Housing, said, “We’re all about creating more access to home ownership. Our priority is to close that gap between Black and white in our city.”

That involves education, lending and using home funds to build new units, mostly single-family housing development.

“Home funds are hard to use, especially for home ownership,” she said. “So, any ways that we can work on some of the compliance to help more families connect with homeownership is really what I am looking for.”

Rep. Steve Cohen’s roundtable discussion on housing issues included developer Henry Turley. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku/The New Tri-State Defender)