HUD-DOT Community Challenge Grant Supports Rural Studies

Randolph County, WV Plans for Aging Population

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Dave Clark is Special Projects Manager for the Randolph County (W.Va.) Housing Authority.

Posted: Wednesday, December 12, 2012 4:57 pm

Housing planners in West Virginia’s largest county knew the silver tsunami had hit.

In 2011, the state edged past Florida as the state with the highest percentage of citizens over 50 years of age -- almost one-third of its population, according to the American Community Survey conducted annually by the U.S. Census Bureau.

But when an analysis of Randolph County was released in a housing study this summer, the gravity of the situation caught a few by surprise, including Dave Clark, a planner who handles special projects for the Randolph County Housing Authority.

“We were aging even more rapidly than we realized,” he said. The study shows a particularly alarming projection from 2010 to 2015 –- working families moving out and replaced by more affluent households of baby boomers moving in.

The housing authority works with low-income households in supplying affordable housing and Section 8 vouchers. To help plan for the future, they applied for a HUD-DOT Community Challenge Grant for the 2010 fiscal year. The payoff resulted in studies on housing and transit, as well as a walkability study of one neighborhood near downtown. The results were all released this summer.

The studies will provide a long-term strategy for the rural county, which does not have a planning commission. The county commission had proposed a comprehensive plan, and abandoned its efforts due to public outcry.

“The fact that Randolph County is grasping this livability smart growth agenda is unique,” said Jason Espie, planner and project manager with the Renaissance Planning Group, the consultant for the studies.

About 28,000 residents live among 1,040 square miles, with a third concentrated in the county seat of Elkins. That’s where most retirees live, close to the city’s downtown area and services.

Planning for the Baby Boomers

For Clark, this information was a call to action, leading to the agency’s decision to acquire and rehabilitate housing in these areas. With nearly 10 percent of non-seasonal housing stock in the county sitting vacant, the agency is actively buying and increasing its portfolio. Currently, 10 of the 60 rental units are set aside for seniors. But in the next year and a half, the senior housing units will increase to 34.

“We had a couple of housing projects that were in the planning process,” said Clark. “We decided to make those senior projects.”

One of them is a turn-of-the-century, two-story brick schoolhouse in Elkins which has stood vacant for nearly four decades. The First Ward School will be adapted into 16 rental units.

In addition, an emphasis is being placed on service-enriched housing for a “seamless way of accessing services,” said Kate Somers, program manager for the housing authority.

Partners, such as the Randolph County Senior Center are already providing valuable services, including in-home care, transportation and nutritious subsidized meals at dining sites.

Regardless of ability to pay, seniors 60 and up can access services. That demographic has grown in the county, from about 5,650 to 7,400, between the 2000 and 2010 census.

But demand for in-home care services are increasing, while congregant meals are decreasing, said Laura Ward, executive director of the senior center.

“The folks who are becoming senior citizens now don't want the same things as seniors before them,” she said. About that stereotype of retirees wanting to join choirs in their free time?

“Those days are gone,” she said. “What entertains one generation may not the next.”

Improving a Rural Transit System

County Roads Transit, Randolph’s only public transit system, a 12-vehicle fleet, is managed by the senior center. It started as a service for seniors, but is open to all ages. It works on a deviated fixed route as well as by demand.

A transit study funded by the Community Challenge Grant and Housing Assistance Council, shows that ridership has remained flat. The average ridership per revenue hour is 1.4 persons. The average (real) cost per passenger trip is $26 based on figures from the 2011 fiscal year.

Needed improvements -- such as hiring a mobility manager, extending service hours beyond weekdays 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and adding bus stops or shelters -- would cost money. And what Ward has been told is to expect cuts in federal dollars, passed through the state department of transportation.

For Somers, the housing authority’s program manager, the vision of service-enriched housing includes better aligning new housing with the existing small transit system. The studies have charted a long-term strategy for the future of the county.

Last week, she presented at a HUD grantee convening in Washington, D.C. There have only been two cycles of funding for the Community Challenge Grant, fiscal years 2010 and 2011. Even though Randolph County's grant -- less than $200,000 -- was smaller compared to others, the county is often held up as an example of what a rural community can do.

“We’ve been able to move forward more quickly than others,” said Somers. There have been few roadblocks, which has helped. “We’ve certainly had a good relationship with HUD all along," she said.

Rural areas can take the lead in driving sustainable initiatives. They are harder to quantify for HUD because the definition may vary, but among the grant recipients in the last two years, 23 of 92 Community Challenge Grants went to areas with populations of 50,000 or less.

“Housing is where jobs come to rest at night.”

Better connectivity between housing, transit and jobs also counters the silver tsunami. For the workforce, an estimated 99 percent of jobs in the Randolph County are located in the city of Elkins.

In addition, the housing authority wants to support creation of more jobs. One concrete solution has resulted in the formation of a community development financial institution (CDFI), a private non-profit which promotes economic development through loans.

Marti Neustadt, business developer for the newly-formed Woodlands Community Lenders said they saw a need for small business lending. She is currently working on a loan to finance equipment for a restaurant. The owner was able to finance his building through the bank, but the equipment was considered too risky.

“We’re willing to take more risky borrowers,” she said, because with technical support, such as planning and accounting, CDFIs are able to ensure the lender’s success, with a lower loss rate compared to banks.

The restaurant adds eight full-time jobs to Randolph County. And that’s something to smile about.

Sustainable Communities in Randolph County, WV from Randolph Co Housing Authority-WV on Vimeo.

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