Morgantown preservation program looks to grow - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Morgantown preservation program looks to grow

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By CYNTHIA McCLOUD
For The State Journal

A neighborhood preservation program in Morgantown needs improvement itself, says a community development expert, but its coordinator says he has plans for it to grow.

Morgantown Homecoming is an initiative of the Fairmont-Morgantown Housing Authorities. It buys single-family homes in the city's in-town neighborhoods, including Greenmont, Wiles Hill, Woodburn and First Ward, then renovates and sells them on the open market. It also buys lots and builds new houses.

The properties carry deed restrictions that require the legal owner live in the home as his or her primary residence to reduce the number of rental units with high-turnover tenancy, specifically college students. Sales are not contingent on the buyer's income.

"We've roughly bought and sold and rehabbed and built 30-35 new homes," said Chris Eckhardt, Morgantown Homecoming coordinator. "We currently have three homes listed for sale on Richwood Avenue."

Margaret Stout, who bought a newly constructed home in Wiles Hill from Morgantown Homecoming in 2009, said the program needs to step up its game if it wants to compete for market-rate housing business.

She knows because she is a West Virginia University assistant professor in public administration with a background in community development.

Before coming to WVU she worked with Northwest Tempe Neighborhoods Community Development Corp. One of its missions was stabilizing neighborhoods around the Arizona State University campus. She was excited to find a similar program in Morgantown Homecoming.

"It's an amazingly fantastic idea they haven't figured out yet how to execute," Stout said. "Morgantown needs this program."

Moving into her house, Stout said she found a number of workmanship problems.

Laminate flooring was poorly installed and laid under kitchen cabinets.

"For me to replace the flooring is a huge drama," she said. "It makes redoing things very problematic. None of the gutters worked properly."

Eckhardt said Morgantown Homecoming made repairs, however.

"We extensively repaired all the items she requested in a timely manner," Eckhardt said. "FMHA offers a one-year post purchase comprehensive warranty on new home builds."

Stout said the workmanship and appointments are not as good as they should be, though.

"These are 1,400 square-foot homes," she said. "They have fairly nice yard space. But in terms of market rate, it was like a construction zone. They don't do any landscaping. They do the bare minimum."

And that's not going to make them competitive in the Morgantown market where the median sales price was $187,000 in the third quarter of this year, according to Trulia, a residential real estate website. 

"I'm not sure they understand that being an affordable housing developer is one thing but being a market-rate builder that can compete on the market for professional buyers is a different story," Stout said. "They can't install appliances that are clearly seconds because they have dents or the doors hang unevenly."

But Eckhardt said installing scratch-and-dent appliances is rare.

"All appliances are bought new for new homes and rehabs unless in a rare instance we have an appliance that is in ‘like new' condition that it can be provided to the homeowner at a discounted rate," he said.

Morgantown Homecoming receives no federal funding. 

"We're as active as we can be," he said. "Everything we do program-wide goes right back into reinvesting in the community."

Funding comes from FMHA, with help from the West Virginia Housing Development Fund. An initial grant from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation helped get the program off the ground, Eckhardt said.

"Without them, we wouldn't be where we are today, but going forward we are looking at some other major contributors, both in the state of West Virginia and some surrounding areas," he said.

Stout said Morgantown Homecoming needs to look further.

Stout suggested Morgantown Homecoming link with a funding intermediary at the national level, like Local Initiatives Support Corp.

LISC funnels corporate, government and philanthropic support to local community development organizations and housing authorities in the form of loans, grants and equity investments, policy support and technical and management assistance.

There are partnerships they could foster closer to home, Stout said.

"I think that what they're doing is critical in Morgantown," she said. "I don't think they're doing enough. 

"I think if, for example, they were working more closely with Sunnyside Up (the Campus Neighborhoods Revitalization Corp., a collaborative venture between the City of Morgantown and WVU), we wouldn't be having the type of development we have on our borders as a neighborhood, and we could be doing a better job producing quality housing for faculty."

Eckhardt said the program partners with WVU for a down-payment assistance program for employees and it collaborates with Sunnyside Up on ideas to improve neighborhoods.

A project in the works now could provide more faculty housing.

"We're looking at adding potentially 300 units, both affordable and some market-rate, focusing on workforce housing for young professionals," he said. "They could be employed by WVU, Mylan Pharmaceuticals or the hospital, our three largest employers."

The projects would include single-family and multi-unit dwellings and possibly some apartments.

"In that mix there's potentially an element for the senior population, people over the age of 55 looking for an active community to live in or other seniors who are in the low to moderate income range," he said.

The program-wide goal is to foster community, Eckhardt said. 

"We're trying to give the residents of Morgantown their neighborhood and sense of community back to them," he said.