County chips away at repair list

Mix of funds go to fix Sussex houses
As a subcontractor for the county block-grant program, a crew from McMillan Construction puts in a new ramp at a home along Fisher Road between Milton and Lewes. Workers are (l-r) Redgia McMillan, Bobby McMillan and Derek Thomas. BY RON MACARTHUR
March 20, 2013

A 2007 study revealed there are nearly 3,000 substandard owner-occupied homes in Sussex County – more than 5 percent of all homes – that need repairs totaling $30,000 or more just to bring the homes up to code. Another 3,400 homeowners are at risk of not having enough money to afford needed repairs.

Every year, staff in Sussex County's community development and housing department whittle down a long list of houses needing repair. Thousands of of Sussex County houses would continue to have leaking roofs and windows, plumbing problems and substandard heatings systems without the county's repair program.

Sussex County is entering the final stages of another Delaware Community Block Grant cycle. Over the past 10 years, the county has used $12 million in block-grant funding to repair more than 1,600 homes.

This year, the county has applied for $2.8 million to rehabilitate 137 homes, provide 20 sewer hook-ups and assist with a sidewalk project in Georgetown. About half of the requested funding is likely to be awarded to the county after the Delaware State Housing Authority reviews the county's 650-page application, said Brad Whaley, director of county community development and housing. Additional funding from the county budget provides money for emergency repairs.

The county has a waiting list of 1,200 houses – 400 in towns and 800 in unincorporated areas – in need of repairs. Annual funding covers more than 100 projects each year; about 75 percent of last year's work is complete. To qualify for the program, a house must be owner-occupied, taxes must be current and it must be the homeowner's primary residence. In addition, homeowners must be in low- to moderate-income levels to qualify. The department has a $25,000 cap on block-grant projects and a $7,500 maximum on emergency repair projects.

In the Cape Region, the county has applied for $80,000 for five housing rehabilitations each in West Rehoboth, Mount Joy and Cool Spring. This year's application also includes $105,000 for six projects in Milton.

The county is still repairing damage – especially to roofs – caused by the twin blizzards in 2010, said Mike Jones, project manager.

The housing department will have an additional $150,000 in emergency rehabilitation funding thanks to funds remaining from a budget surplus. “This will be the most money in any one year we've ever had to work with,” Whaley said.

“If the economy improves, I hope we can make more money available,” said Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach.

Staff in the county's housing department coordinates all projects, including those in 13 municipalities.

For the first time, $30,000 will be used to conduct a planning study to determine where housing rehabilitation needs are the greatest, Whaley said.

The county's community development and housing department conducted a series of public hearings on the block grant application in each of the county's municipalities followed by a Feb. 19 county-wide public hearing at the Feb. 19 county council meeting.

During the hearing, Ken Smith, director of the Delaware Housing Coalition, commended the county for its ongoing rehabilitation work. He said there are a large number of Sussex County homeowners – especially those on fixed incomes – who have trouble maintaining their houses.

Jone said repairs to a house go beyond assisting one family. “It ends up helping the whole community,” he said.

For those who don't qualify for the block-grant program, the county's housing department coordinates funding assistance for homeowners and landlords through a 3-percent housing rehabilitation loan program.

For more information on the county's housing department, phone 302-855-7777.


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