The Valley’s $32.4 million application ‘does not demonstrate any experience with demolition,’ an evaluator wrote.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN — Evaluations from two U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development employees described the Mahoning Valley’s $32.4 million housing proposal as incomplete, unclear and flawed.
The nine-community proposal sought to use $7.9 million of the funding to demolish 1,603 structures. The application needed to demonstrate the Valley had demolished at least 75 units in the past two years.
Youngstown, alone, took down 200 houses in the second half of 2009.
But the application “does not demonstrate any experience with demolition,” a requirement to be considered for funding, according to a seven-page summary compiled by two unnamed HUD employees who reviewed it.
“The applicant does not expressly detail the number of demolished units over the past 24 months,” one evaluator wrote in the review. “With demolition such a significant portion of the application, this could be an issue.”
Bill D’Avignon, Youngstown Community Development Agency director who spearheaded the failed application, provided the HUD evaluations Friday to The Vindicator.
The failure to include any information on demolition and the ability to implement the program as well as not including a list of “key staff and their day-to-day activities” doomed the proposal, according to the report.
The proposal received only 15 points out of 40 in the categories of “demonstrated capacity and relevant organizational staff.”
At least 30 points were needed for applications to move to the next level of evaluation.
One HUD evaluator gave the proposal 77 points out of 150.
He stated that the report was missing several basic pieces of information, such as its demolition experience and how demolition would affect low-income residents. It also failed to detail how vacant land redevelopment would stabilize the communities.
This evaluator sprinkled sad and indifferent faces icons — and only one happy face — in his report, depending on the topic.
A second HUD evaluator gave the proposal 111 points. A successful application needed a score of at least 115 to be considered for funding.
That second evaluator wrote: “This is a very solid application with a well-crafted approach. However, the applicant does not clearly discuss how they will manage a program of this size with many different partners. The applicant does not discuss how the partners will work together.”
“Lastly, the applicant does not detail the key city staff and their roles with the project,” the second evaluator continued. “The one other question is the level of demolition experience. It is clear that [Youngstown] has experience with demolition, but it is difficult to discern how much and when.”
The second evaluator also said the “lines of authority [of implementing the program are] very weak.”
HUD officials met with Valley leaders Wednesday in Washington, D.C., to discuss the failed application.
When the announcement of grant winners was made last week, and the Valley wasn’t on the list, local officials, including Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, D-17th, criticized HUD officials for the decision.
At the time, Williams said, “It literally defies belief and explanation.”
Ryan also said he was “stunned” by the announcement.
After learning from HUD that the problem was with the application, neither were apologetic.
“HUD discriminates against smaller cities,” Ryan said Friday. “These cities don’t have the resources to put these proposals together. HUD needs to help and assist smaller areas. We don’t have the resources to compete against the big cities. There is still an inherent bias at HUD.”
Also, Kirk Noden, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, said despite the deficiencies in the local application, the failure is with the federal agency.
MVOC had three staff members review the application last summer, and Noden attended Wednesday’s meeting with HUD.
“The bottom line is not every community gets treated fairly,” he said. “There’s something wrong with the process. It should be an allocation. If the money doesn’t come here, the problem is with HUD policies” that favor larger cities.
Noden acknowledged the Valley has “to play the game better, but the rules also need to be changed.”
Regardless of the shortcomings in the Valley’s application, Noden said, “We stand by the basic premise that the Valley gets left out of funding it needs.”
Other Valley communities that were part of the proposal were Warren, Niles, Girard, Campbell, Struthers, Lowellville, McDonald and Newton Falls.
HUD received 482 applications, and approved funding for 79.
The Youngstown CDA spearheaded the HUD application, but doesn’t have the staff to handle such a major undertaking, D’Avignon said.
He also said he’s learned a lesson: “Don’t take anything for granted. Anticipate what they might be looking for.”
Because Youngstown deals often with HUD, D’Avignon said he incorrectly “thought there was some leeway.”
It’s possible that future major grant proposals could be handled by an outside consultant, Williams said. But that wasn’t considered for this attempt because of the city’s success in obtaining other federal money in recent years, he said.
“Hindsight is 20-20,” Williams said. “It’s an assessment after the fact. We have a good track record.”
The city’s CDA wrote grants that resulted in funding for Youngstown from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, the Clean Ohio Fund, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, D’Avignon said.
D’Avignon said Friday that he’s concerned that articles in The Vindicator that scrutinized the application will “hurt future collaborative efforts” in the area.
Michael D. Keys, Warren’s community development director who provided information on his city to D’Avignon for the proposal, said “collaboration is still a good concept.”
Keys said he’d be willing to work with the other communities again on obtaining money for the Valley.
“This grant was a long-shot,” he said. “I wouldn’t hesitate to collaborate again.”