City of Port Arthur, EDC hopes ‘Livin’ It Up Downtown’ project will attract businesses to downtown area

The city of Port Arthur, Port Arthur Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and Legacy Community Development Corporation are partnering in an initiative called "Livin’ It Up Downtown" to bring residents back to downtown Port Arthur. The entities are building houses for people with the thought that those people would then attract new businesses downtown to provide commodities and services for these new and relocated Port Arthur consumers.

Floyd Batiste, executive director of the Port Arthur EDC, explained that the EDC was approved in a city bond election to provide $300,000 a year from FY 2016-2018 to provide down-payment assistance for homebuyers.

“Back in 2015 (the Port Arthur EDC) voted to try to redevelop this part of town,” Batiste said. “They invested about $2 million at Lamar State College Port Arthur on the student dormitories. The purpose of their investment was to have people living (downtown) every day. The next phase of it was affordable housing.

“That’s not normally what we do,” Batiste clarified, “so we went to the voters and asked the voters if we could contribute $300,000 a year for the next three years and provide for $30,000 for downtown payment assistance to lower the cost of a person trying to purchase a home. The board did have some stipulations, saying, ‘Yeah we want to do this, but we want a certain type of home,’ and they had a targeted area.”

According to Batiste, the homes downtown must be valued at $135,000. Normally, because it is affordable housing, the city would allow buyers to earn up top 80 percent of the area medium income, but the EDC raised that to 120 percent.

The income limits for the down payment assistance for this project allow for higher annual incomes that HUD normally would because the entities involved are trying to attract a “working class” population that can afford to keep up with their loan payments, Batiste said.

“Those folks that are starting off in their careers,” he said. “A single person making $49,000, for example, would qualify for one of the homes.”

Normally, when it comes to HUD assistance, those in the 30 percent – 80 percent income limit (which ranges from $16,460 – $39,600 for a family of two) are eligible for up to $30,000 towards a down payment and closing costs for new construction and $10,500 toward down payment and closing costs for existing home purchase.

However, for the downtown homebuyer program the EDC is allowing for a 120 percent income limit, meaning a family of two can make up to $59,350 annually and receive up to $30,000 down payment assistance.

“Our role in this is to strictly buy down the note,” Batiste said. “We have contracted through Legacy to be the project manager. Legacy recruits these folks. Legacy makes sure that they qualify for the federal guidelines and makes sure there credit is where it needs to be. Legacy connects them with a bank and puts them through a homeownership program and when everything is said and done and the bank says we’re going to finance the home, they come to us and at closing, we’ll buy down that note, so instead of financing the $135,000 they are actually financing $105,000 where they could afford the note.”

Most of the homes have 3 bedrooms and 2 baths, and most average between 1,300 and 1,400 square feet, said Vivian Ballou, executive director of Legacy, a nonprofit that specializes in the development of affordable housing and the provision of financial counseling.

The project includes construction of 30 new homes, which are projected to finished by the end of FY2018, according to Batiste, in a downtown area ranging south from Fifth Street, one block away from where the city hopes to attract new businesses along Proctor Street, and north to Eighth Street. The area also ranges west from Atlanta Avenue and east to Nashville Avenue.

Two homes have already been built and occupied in the 1100 block of Sixth Street and construction of 28 more is underway. Infrastructure such as waterlines, sewer and roads have been upgraded as well, according to Ron Burton, director of development services for the city of Port Arthur.

Ballou said the city transferred around 20 lots of land to be used for the downtown development project.

“It’s not doing the city any good for them to just sit there,” Burton said. “The cost of mowing these lots is expensive to the city. What we want is to get the lots back to producing tax dollars for the city.”

Another 10 lots were purchased by Legacy, Ballou said, adding that a park is being constructed for residents at the corner of Fifth Street and Augusta.

Batiste said he believes that once people start filling the homes, new businesses will follow.

“Private sector (businesses) come where there is rooftop,” Batiste said. “Until you start developing rooftop around here, private sector is not going to come, and that’s why they aren’t here now. But we’ve got a dormitory that’s housing 100 plus kids (at the college) and we’re eventually going to build 30 to 60 homes in this targeted area. That’s 30 to 60 families. It just entices private sector (businesses) to come.”

The EDC has the option to renew the project for an additional three years after the 30 homes are completed and build an additional 30 homes.

Funding for construction of the homes is being provided by Legacy Community Development Corporation, said Ballou, who pointed out that anyone can purchase a home downtown, but to qualify for down payment assistance, buyers must qualify based on income and go through Legacy’s homebuyer program.

New homeowner Latorshia Stevens, 41, and her son just moved into one of the recently completed homes on Sixth Street.

Stevens said the homeowner classes were helpful and she is enjoying the area, which she said is a quiet place to live. Stevens is a medical assistant for Gulf Coast Cardiology and recently moved from the Sunset Way apartments near Central Mall, perhaps indicating a reversal in a trend that once saw residents leaving the downtown area to relocate near FM 365.

Legacy is also looking at developing the Gifford Pond area, which it also owns. The contractor for the construction of the downtown homes is LLB Construction, based in Port Arthur.

For more information about the project, visit legacycdc.org.

Photo by Kevin King -  A home under construction in the 1100 block of Sixth Street in downtown Port Arthur

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