Riverside residents deserve a plan to keep them in community

Published 11:05 am Friday, March 3, 2017

The decision to close Riverside Place — Oxford’s only city-owned low-income housing — is a consequential one that raises concerns about our commitment to being a diverse community.

For 22 years, HUD contracted with the city to operate Riverside for 100 of Oxford’s lowest-income households. Closing it forces residents into the open market to compete with families for affordable housing options in Oxford.  The result is predictable as families are displaced and forced to leave Oxford because they can’t find affordable homes.

This was not unavoidable. Communication between HUD and city leaders makes clear the city was not forced to close Riverside. HUD wants cities like Oxford to continue their contracts as the most effective, long-term way to provide housing to low-income households. Riverside’s closure is a problem of Oxford’s making.

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City leaders have explained the closure by focusing on Riverside’s poor conditions, including plumbing problems, lack of central air conditioning and pest infestation. However, these conditions are not naturally occurring phenomena. Though the city has owned Riverside since 1994, it appears to have made no repairs or improvements to the property other than cosmetic changes. The city could seek a resolution that does not negatively affect Riverside residents or other low-income families.

Local real estate costs are extremely high, resulting in an affordable housing shortage for low-, middle- and higher-income residents. Apartment housing is the most cost-effective for lower-income residents; however, by articulating an unrealistic policy against low-income apartments in favor of single-family homes, the city is effectively saying its lowest-income residents will be unable to afford to live here. Though Riverside residents are slated to receive a voucher city leaders say will enable them to move into higher-income neighborhoods, they likely will be unable to find housing in those areas or even inside the city limits.

The vouchers amount to 90 percent of the fair market rental value of homes in Lafayette County. The number of available units within city limits at that price point is already small and likely not plentiful enough to house the displaced families. Add in competition within that small pool among students and families, along with Riverside residents using Section 8 vouchers, and you have an insurmountable barrier.

Riverside residents are actively seeking housing elsewhere. Some have been successful, but in at least two instances it is because the resident had a prior relationship with their new landlord. Though the Housing Authority provided residents with a list of landlords who accept vouchers, almost every name on the list has nothing available. The problem lies with Oxford’s growth and, in turn, increased housing demand and related costs. The solution requires a different approach than vouchers that can’t guarantee whether residents find housing.

Cities nationwide struggle to provide housing options for low-income citizens in high-opportunity areas. Riverside has its problems, but its location has significant advantages. Residents can walk to Kroger, Larson’s Cash Saver, the Farmers Market and the Community Garden — all sources of good, affordable food. The library, public schools, banking, medical care and pharmacies are also nearby, along with job opportunities for adults and teenage children.

Why is walkability important? The median income of those receiving housing assistance in Oxford is under $13,000 annually.  Most families with income this low cannot both meet their basic needs and maintain a vehicle. If forced to find housing that requires driving to access community resources, families will absorb an additional expense they already cannot afford. Oxford should preserve Riverside so its lowest-income residents can continue living in a high-opportunity area.

Only the city or a not-for-profit has the incentive and ability to insulate affordable units from increasing market forces that could cause them to disappear or be pushed to the margins as higher-income neighborhoods grow and property values increase. City leaders should protect against this so low-income residents can enjoy Oxford’s amenities. It is well within the city’s reach to preserve what Riverside offers and repair or replace the units with decent, attractive housing. Federal and state financing including Housing Tax Credits, Home Investment Partnership Funds, CDBG funds and Housing Trust Funds can be combined to finance most rebuilding costs. Even better, residents can use vouchers to rent the renovated apartments at a market rate much higher than the amount HUD was paying before — an additional financial boon.

Riverside is not the cash cow some might assume. It is subject to a restrictive covenant dating back to when Oxford purchased the property. If the city sells the property between now and 2024, it has to share 50 percent of the profits with HUD.  If it sells after that, it has to share 25 percent. This provides a sufficient reason for the city to revitalize Riverside into an excellent low-income or mixed-income development in a growing part of town.

What kind of community discards a contract that allowed Oxford to provide shelter to low-income families, particularly when facing ongoing homelessness and a lengthy list of residents waiting for publicly owned housing? Closing Riverside without adequate consideration of these concerns does not provide a real path for these families to remain in Oxford. They deserve a plan for Riverside that provides a way for everyone to live and thrive in our community.

Desiree C. Hensley

Associate Professor of Law

University of Mississippi School of Law*

William B. Bedwell

Second Year Law Student

University of Mississippi School of Law*

*This is the personal opinion of the authors, not the opinion of the University of Mississippi or the School of Law.