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Hall County may take over federal housing grants after complaints
Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell meets with Barbara Moore to investigate firsthand her complaints about shoddy work on her home renovations recently completed. - photo by Scott Rogers | The Times

Hall County may take a more direct role in implementing a federal grant program aimed to ease rates of foreclosure and abandoned homes.

Citing complaints about slow responsiveness from the agency currently distributing the funds locally, the Hall County Board of Commissioners is set to vote on bringing in-house a $1.9 million grant from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Hall County-based Home Development Resources Inc. currently receives county funds to administer that grant. Established by Hall County and the city of Gainesville in 1996, HDRI is a nonprofit organization that provides homebuyer and debt management education to the community.

The Neighborhood Stabilization Program is set up to allow local governments to purchase and rehabilitate foreclosed residential property for resale to families in an effort to stabilize neighborhoods. The program also provides low-interest loans to homeowners looking to renovate deteriorating homes.

At Tuesday's commission work session, commissioners Ashley Bell and Craig Lutz expressed an interest in bringing the grants in-house because of reports of poor responsiveness from HDRI.

At the meeting, Bell said he'd just got off the phone with a Gainesville resident on Cooley Drive whose home had been remodeled by the first round of the funds from the neighborhood stabilization grant.

Several nagging issues have arisen in Barbara Moore's home since then. Raised bubbles are forming on the sheet-flooring in the kitchen and a bedroom, possibly from an uneven foundation. The slight rises in the flooring present a potential tripping hazard. Her kitchen sink fixture is also coming detached from the wall.

Both features were renovated through grant money administered by HDRI, which offered a low-interest loan to Moore.

On Wednesday, Bell met with the 77-year-old homeowner to look at her issues. Moore told Bell that HDRI has been largely unresponsive to her calls about her sink and flooring. She said she made the first call about some problems in January 2011. She said a man visited her house once to look at the flooring. She said he made a temporary fix, but the problem returned.

Despite numerous calls, she said, no one has come to address the sink.

The Times was unable to reach a spokesperson from HDRI on Wednesday. A woman who answered the phone said Executive Director Mary Ledbetter was not in the office Wednesday afternoon.

Moore expresses gratitude for the work that was done. She said the renovations, which she is paying for through her loan, drastically improved her home. But she is frustrated by the slow response to her concerns. Bell said he has heard this complaint repeated from multiple recipients of the grant. He calls it a "communication issue" with HDRI.

"We're trying to figure out a better way to be responsive to you," Bell told Moore.

When the commissioner told her the county may remove HDRI from the process, she emphatically responded, "That's the best news I've heard in my life."

While the county can't force better communication between the agency and residents, it could provide better oversight if it took over the program, Bell said.

County commissioners will vote tonight on whether to take control of the next round of federal grant money, which is about $1.9 million.

The county may resolve to administer the remaining funds from the first round of the grant, which is about $750,000.

If the county went down that path, it would have to give a 30-day notification, said Jessica Robinson, Hall County grants manager. From there, the county could administer the funds itself or make a request for proposal to other organizations.

Surrounding local governments execute the grants by contracting with asset managers to handle the day-to-day implementation, Robinson said.

County Chairman Tom Oliver cautioned other commissioners not to take that responsibility too lightly.

"This is not a small task," he said. "This is huge."

Bell, while arguing for considering the change, seemed to agree with that sentiment.

"I don't want to take one problem that they have and make it our problem if we can't do anything about (it)," Bell said at the work session on Tuesday.

By Wednesday, Bell seemed certain the county would move forward in administering the grants.

Commissioner Billy Powell requested that Robinson put together a presentation for tonight's meeting to offer how the county may be able to better handle the grant process.