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Ever since the Fayetteville Housing Authority agreed in March to sell its Willow Heights public housing complex for $1.25 million to a developer, the conversation about whether it's the right move has never quite seemed broad enough.

How, where and when public housing is delivered in Fayetteville seems, to us at least, like a subject worthy of a comprehensive community discussion. Selling off the five-acre site that is home to about 100 residents may make all the sense in the world, but the Housing Authority's conclusion has left plenty of people worried about the residents and about the resulting plan to expand Morgan Manor, a separate public housing property in a different part of town.

What’s the point?

An appeal to the Fayetteville City Council may be an opportunity to launch a broad, community discussion about public housing.

The Housing Authority Board might be forgiven for not recognizing the ripples their decision would send across the community. Let's be honest: Most of the time, public housing needs don't get much attention beyond this organization. The day to day effort to operate public housing isn't very exciting, but is vital work.

Selling Willow Heights and expanding Morgan Manor is not a typical decision. It has repercussions for the greater community, which does have an interest. The controversial action has simmered along for months now, with questions about whether it's the right deal for public housing residents and about whether it's wise to further consolidate public housing in one location. These are fair questions, ones the Housing Authority Board members appear to have answered to their own satisfaction. But the rest of the community has been a little slow to catch up, and even if the board has done its due diligence, it's time for a robust, broad-based discussion about the future of Willow Heights and, perhaps, the broader question of public housing in the city.

Willow Heights needs far more repair and renovation work than the Housing Authority has money to deliver, according to Mike Emery, the board's chairman. The agency operates with funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, but that funding hasn't kept up with needs. One would be foolish to bet the Trump administration will become the savior of public housing in the United States.

The Housing Authority developed plans for 58 new units at the 52-unit Morgan Manor, and that plan bogged down in the city's Planning Commission during the summer months as legal questions were explored. Housing and Urban Development, however, said the Housing Authority followed the federal agency's rules. In August, the Planning Commission approved the expansion plans, but the Housing Authority's pursuit of state tax credits to fund adding on to Morgan Manor didn't make the cut when the Arkansas Development Finance Authority released its list of tax credit projects for 2017.

Now, Fayetteville City Council Member Sarah Marsh has appealed the Planning Commission's approval to the City Council, whose members this week voted 8-0 to table consideration of the measure. They want to hear more from the Housing Authority board about moving residents of Willow Heights.

The Housing Authority is one of those odd governmental creatures that is related to city government but not really a part of it. The board elects its own members, but those members must then be confirmed by the City Council. The organization operates, however, on its own within the rules of the federal housing program.

That said, however, maybe bringing the issue before the City Council is precisely the way to get a broader conversation going. The city's elected leaders, surely, are due some input. Public housing -- where to put it and how proposed changes impact city residents who live in public housing -- is a fair topic for the mayor and council members to explore alongside the members of the Housing Authority Board.

From a Housing Authority Board perspective, the city's involvement now may appear to be interference in an issue they've put a lot of time and energy into. It's fair to have such emotions, but both the authority and city leaders no doubt want to get this right. The opportunities presented with the potential construction of 58 new public housing units don't come along often.

Maybe, just maybe, there's an opportunity for collaboration, for conversation, for discovering shared goals and greater understanding of what's possible and what's not. And maybe through that process, the people served by public housing and the greater community they're part of can find solutions that ease everyone's concerns.

It's definitely worth a try.

Commentary on 09/23/2017

Print Headline: A housing hubbub

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