Augusta bucks national public housing trend

Public housing across the nation is falling further into disrepair, but an aggressive modernization program in Augusta has kept local public housing in good condition.

The nation's public housing system -- which provides affordable living for low-income families, the disabled and the elderly -- needs $25.6 billion in repairs, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report said in June.

That averages $23,365 per unit, 6 percent higher than per-unit estimates in 1998, the last time a study was performed.

Also, future repairs will pile up at a rate of $3,155 per year, a 15 percent increase from 1998. Nine percent of the nation's public housing has been demolished during the same period.

"The ... estimate far exceeds our annual budget for these repairs and illustrates why America needs a long-term strategy to address the loss of public housing units annually," HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said.

Richard Arfman, the Augusta Housing Authority's director of planning and development, said things look much better locally.

"We're nowhere near that," he said of the $23,365 figure.

Two years ago, the authority gutted and modernized Olmstead Homes, a 255-unit complex in Harrisburg. The authority recently finished remodeling interiors for the 228-unit Peabody Apartments on Walton Way.

Of Augusta's other 10 public housing developments, only one needs extensive repairs, Arfman said.

Units at other sites could use an average of $5,000 to $10,000 for repairs to address problems such as energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, improvements to windows and roofs, and better entry security and lighting.

The Augusta Housing Authority, the second-largest housing authority in Georgia, has been able to keep up with repairs because it snagged competitive grant money during the 1990s and early 2000s, Arfmann said.

In 2009, it benefited from $6,000 in stimulus money.

Also, the authority updated buildings by gutting interiors, starting from scratch and bringing everything up to code, rather than by making piecemeal repairs. That has been a cost-effective approach, Arfman said.

Seventy-five percent of Augusta's public housing has been modernized in the past 20 years.

The housing authority has not been immune to all national trends, though. Since 1998, it has lost housing stock -- 528 units from the demolition of Gilbert Manor and Underwood Homes.

The federal government does provide some money to replace what was lost, Arfman said, but the amount won't be enough to pay for the same number of replacement housing units.

Today, designs in public housing are trending toward smaller mixed-income developments, which are expected to produce more stable neighborhoods, Arfman said.

The Augusta Housing Authority is planning more of that type of developments in response to shifting grant availability.