Sept. 19, 2012 09:15

New program moves residents out of public housing

Sunrise Towers residents credit Jordan Green

BY JORDAN GREEN
jordan@yesweekly.com

The journey from public housing to homeownership might seem long, but recognition of looming publicassistance cuts coupled with an almost universal motivation to make a better life for their families has prodded some public-housing residents to consider an offer from the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem.

Robert Kelly, his fiancée Amanda Compau and their two small children were among some 60 people at the Sunrise Towers residents council meeting who heard Housing Authority CEO Larry Woods’ inaugural pitch for the Path program last week. Woods pledged that families committed to moving beyond dependence on public support would receive assistance in education, job training, employment placement and home-mortgage financing — classic pathways in the complicated and challenging journey from poverty to middle-class stability.

For Kelly, who has lived with his family in the Sunrise Towers high-rise on Martin Luther King Drive for about a month, one particular piece of the offer sounded appealing: employment placement.

Kelly trained to be a cook and has worked in a number of restaurants, including O’Charley’s. He has done some construction. Kelly worked for Foothills Brewing for a while, but didn’t get along with his supervisor and ended up getting fired. Then came a stint with a temporary labor agency.

Now he works for Prestige, a Charlotte janitorial company. The pay is not very good and the job requires frequent travel to Charlotte, where he cleans floors at the Marriott Hotel and several stores.

“I would like to find something else,” Kelly said. “My uncle does welding. He was telling me about underwater welding. I was thinking about trying to get training to do that.

“It’s extremely dangerous,” he added, with a note of hope in his voice, “but it pays good money.”

Kelly said he tries to take advantage of every opportunity that comes along, and strives to maintain a positive attitude.

“I’m trying to keep my head up and keep pushing,” he said. “I would like to go back to school, but I’ve still got to work. The bills keep coming.”

Unfortunately, the things they’re going to cut out are things that you depend on most. If we can help you bring some money into your pocket where you have some control over your life, where you’re no longer totally dependent on federal and state support, you are well better off.’

— Housing Authority of Winston-Salem CEO Larry Woods

The opportunity presented by the Housing Authority comes at a time when the national picture for poor people looks increasingly grim. The official poverty rate nationwide has stalled at 15 percent — up  from a prerecession level of 12 percent — but the poor do not figure prominently in the rhetoric of either major political party, with the Democrats highlighting middle-class Americans and Republicans focusing on entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, with public rev enues stagnant and the national federal deficit ballooning, elected officials at all levels of government are relentlessly focused on cutting costs.

“If you listen to the debates on TV and about this country’s economy, things are getting bad,” Woods told the residents at Sunrise Towers. “I don’t care who you talk to; everybody’s talking about cutting out something. And, unfortunately, the things they’re going to cut out are things that you depend on most. If we can help you bring some money into your pocket where you have some control over your life, where you’re no longer totally dependent on federal and state support, you are well better off.” like other Sunrise Towers residents, was receptive to Woods’ message.

“It’s been awhile since someone has  come around to offer that,” he said. “It would be uncivilized to not respond positively.”

The Path program is available to all public-housing residents in Winston-Salem. Employment will be required for all participants over the age of 25. Those currently unemployed will be offered access  to one-stop career counseling through the Forsyth County JobLink Center, and training and job placement from Forsyth Tech — all free of charge.

Woods said the Path program is the only one of its kind in the nation: No other housing authority has established a partnership with another development agency to provide new opportunities to residents.

The Path program fits into a broader vision promoted by the Housing Authority to break up large blocks of public housing. As Woods left the meeting a resident trailed behind and asked if the building was going to be torn down.

“Eventually,” Woods replied. But not to worry: He said it would be another three years at least before that happened.

Woods’ warnings about an impending cutoff of federal funding for housing can make him seem like a chief intent on dismantling his agency — a far cry from the stereotype of an entrenched bureaucrat zealously defending a fiefdom. Standing outside the towers, Woods said he prefers to think of the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem as “an affordablehousing, real-estate development and property-management company” rather than a public-housing agency.

Woods told the public-housing residents that those approved for the Path program will get the opportunity to move into the Oaks at Tenth, a 50-unit apartment community that is currently under construction one block away.

“If you qualify to move into this development, then you will be eligible to receive financial literacy assistance — find out how to budget your money,” Woods said. “If you’re having credit problems, they’ll help you resolve credit problems. Get your credit straightened out. If you have a job, no police activity in the household, your kids are going to school and you have children, then you become pre-qualified for a mortgage, the Housing Authority is guaranteeing to give you a voucher to help subsidize your mortgage so you can buy a house. You will be a homeowner at that point.”

The audience erupted in applause and an “amen” could be heard from one man in the back of the meeting room.

Woods said participants who are between the ages of 18 and 25 would be eligible to apply for  tuition assistance from a $1 million annual fund established by the Winston-Salem Foundation.

“You may have to take out some loans,” Woods said. “Hopefully it will not be that much; our goal is not to burden you with debt. But we provide you with enough financial assistance, whether you’re going to school locally, you’re going to school in South Carolina, you’re going to school in Boston — we don’t care. If the school accepts you and your main barrier to going to that school is financial aid, we’re going to work with the Winston-Salem Foundation and our partners to get you the resources to help you go to school.”

In addition to tuition assistance, job training and career counseling, Woods outlined a host of offerings to support children in kindergarten through high school: free tutoring with homework; partial assistance to help cover the cost of Girl Scout uniforms and club trips; and a $250 cash award to each child who graduates from high school. The last pledged reward, a $1,000 savings bond for any young person who decides to go into the military, drew another round of applause.

During the presentation, Karen Hudson, a career counselor at the JobLink Center, handed out business cards, and urged residents to call and set up appointments with her.

William Pass, assistant director for workforce development at the Piedmont Triad Regional Council, told residents that employers are seeking to fill positions in advanced manufacturing, logistics and distribution — particularly in Greensboro — and healthcare. Depending on whether they have experience in the traditional textile or furniture sectors, they might need six months to a year of training for an advanced-manufacturing job. Some employers will pay half a salary while teaching the job to a new employee. An entry-level job at an advanced-manufacturing facility such as Caterpillar might pay anywhere from $25,000 to $30,000 per year.

“You can do it,” Pass told the residents. “It just may take a little longer to obtain any goal you might have.”

WANNA go?

Housing Authority of Winston-Salem CEO Larry Woods will present information about the Path program at resident council meetings at Piedmont Park Apartments on Sept. 27 from 1:30 to 3 p.m. and at Cleveland Avenue Homes from 3 to 4:30 p.m.

CORRECTION: This article originally misquoted Larry Woods by indicating that he said the Winston-Salem Foundation had agreed to award $1 million annually to provide tuition assistance to Path participants. In fact, the grant is not exclusively for Path participants, but they would be eligible to apply for assistance. The article has been amended to reflect the correction.

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