Underwood demolition moved up

The Augusta Housing Authority is seeking permission from federal authorities to rid the city of a second public housing project, part of a strategy to break up warehoused poverty and integrate the poor into middle-class neighborhoods.

Director of Resident Services Buddy Oldfield told Underwood Homes residents Wednesday that an application to demolish the complex off Sand Bar Ferry Road will be submitted within the next two weeks to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A response should take three to four months, he said.

No one seems happier at the prospect of razing the 38-year-old buildings than the residents, who will be moved to other projects or given Section 8 vouchers to live in rental homes. The 90 or so people gathered in the community center twice applauded when Mr. Oldfield asked how they felt about tearing down Underwood Homes.

Like Gilbert Manor -- shuttered and sold to Medical College of Georgia -- Underwood is outdated. Built as private apartments, it was instead sold to the housing authority. Its units lack central heating and air conditioning.

"It won't take much to demolish Underwood Homes," said Planning and Development Director Richard Arfman, who wasn't at the meeting. "It's very poorly built."

Of 249 units, 192 are occupied. The housing authority has been reducing the number through attrition, Mr. Arfman said.

Mr. Oldfield said that the HUD application should be "a slam dunk." The more pivotal, less certain, application will be one for low-income housing tax credits due to the state Department of Community Affairs in May.

That decision will determine whether the plan moves forward, because the authority needs tax credits to replace Underwood Homes with its first mixed-income community, where public housing-eligible families would live side-by-side with residents paying market rates.

It's an experiment that's seen mixed results in other cities, but the authority is banking on an advantage from the site's proximity to the Savannah River. The authority selected Atlanta's Walton Communities as developer.

Under the authority's time line, demolition of Underwood Homes would start in early 2010.

In Atlanta, advocates for the homeless have alleged that, before it demolishes projects, the Atlanta Housing Authority cuts down on relocation expenses by ejecting as many tenants as it can through aggressive enforcement of lease agreements. An Underwood Homes woman accused the Augusta Housing Authority of doing just that Wednesday, telling Mr. Oldfield she's facing eviction for unpaid utility bills.

Mr. Oldfield assured her it has nothing to do with the planned elimination of the complex.

If all goes well with the two applications, Mr. Oldfield said, residents should start getting letters late this summer telling them they have 90 days to move. The housing authority will cover moving costs and provide boxes, and, as with the Gilbert Manor relocation, be very flexible with the 90-day deadline, he said.

"We will try to put you where you wanna' go, what's best for you," he said. "We're not gonna' do you wrong. We're not gonna' throw you out on the street."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

WHAT'S AHEAD

Last summer, Augusta Housing Authority Director Jacob Oglesby said demolition of Underwood Homes was at least five years away, but it has been bumped up to 2010. At a July meeting, residents were told the replacement mixed-income community would be built in phases as sections of Underwood are closed, but Director of Resident Services Buddy Oldfield said Wednesday the development will be done in "one swoop."

The time line:

WITHIN THE NEXT TWO WEEKS: Submit an application to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to raze Underwood Homes

MAY: Submit an application to the state Department of Community Affairs for tax credits so the authority and developer Walton Communities can build its replacement

LATE SUMMER: If both applications have been approved, begin moving residents to other projects or to rental homes using Section 8 vouchers

EARLY 2010: Raze Underwood Homes