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Hearing set on Section 8
Input sought on whether to transfer program

Thursday, March 13, 2014

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Martinsville City Council will hear public comments before deciding whether to transfer the city’s Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, which also serves Henry County, to the Danville Redevelopment & Housing Authority.

Amid budget constraints, the move would save the city up to $65,000 a year by not having to operate its Housing Services Office on Fourth Street, according to Assistant City Manager Wayne Knox.

The council on Tuesday set a comment time during its March 25 meeting.

“We like to make major decisions like this with public input,” Vice Mayor Gene Teague told administrators of Danville’s authority.

Ultimately, though, “I think we’ll go forward” with the transfer, he said.

That would require the council, seated as the Martinsville Redevelopment & Housing Authority, to adopt a resolution of intent to transfer the program.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials then would audit the program’s finances and records before deciding whether the transfer could occur.

About 430 Martinsville and Henry County households participate in the Section 8 program. About 65 percent of them are in the county, Knox said.

HUD is providing them with a total of about $1.7 million in annual assistance toward their rent and utility expenses. The money is paid directly to landlords and utility providers, according to Knox.

Section 8 refers to a section of the Housing Act of 1937 that authorized federal assistance payments for rental housing.

Over the years, HUD has reduced funding it provides to the city to operate the program, and that has kept the city from hiring as many employees as it needs to run it efficiently, Knox said.

As a result, staff members of other city departments, including community development and utilities, have had to provide help at times, he said.

Danville’s Section 8 program is larger than Martinsville’s, with roughly 890 households served. Gary Wasson, executive director of the Danville authority, said he thinks the authority will be able to incorporate the local program due to “economies of scale.”

“We can do it because we have so many things in place” now to serve clients effectively, Wasson said without elaborating.

Overall, he said, HUD funding cuts “have made it really difficult” for smaller Section 8 programs, like Martinsville’s, to continue operating.

The three employees of Martinsville’s program might lose their jobs if Danville takes over Martinsville’s program, Knox said.

If the transfer occurs, the Danville authority will hold meetings with Section 8 household members and landlords to explain what they can expect, officials said.

Several council members expressed concern over the quality of customer service that Danville would provide Martinsville-Henry County residents.

“We have an obligation” to local Section 8 recipients to make sure they are treated well, said Councilwoman Sharon Brooks Hodge.

Councilman Danny Turner asked how the Danville authority, being about 30 minutes away from Martinsville, would respond if, for instance, a Section 8 recipient’s heat stopped working or his or her ceiling developed a leak.

Terry Ferguson, the Danville authority’s housing choice voucher director, said the recipient’s landlord immediately would be notified. If the landlord did not respond, his or her Section 8 income would be stopped, he said.

According to officials, local recipients would communicate with the Danville authority largely by phone and mail. The authority also might send employees to Martinsville to meet with recipients if necessary.

But “it’s kind of hard to estimate how much” the authority would need to send employees here, Wasson said.

Many people feel more comfortable doing business in person than by phone or mail, said Councilman Mark Stroud.

If the transfer occurs, “you’re going to be held to the same criteria” that the council expects Martinsville housing office employees to meet, Stroud told the Danville program’s administrators.

That might be easier for the council to say than do.

Hodge asked about what kind of relationship Martinsville would have with Danville’s authority if the program is transferred. Wasson said he does not envision the authority needing much of a relationship with Martinsville.

The transfer would be permanent, based on HUD rules, Teague said.

There is “no way to get it (the program) back,” he said, such as if Martinsville officials disliked how local residents were treated.

“Once we give it to them, it’s out of our hands,” Knox said in a phone interview Wednesday.

During the council meeting, Hodge asked what would happen to the Fourth Street building — formerly the Piedmont Regional Criminal Justice Academy headquarters — if the housing program is transferred to Danville.

Knox said he would recommend selling it.


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