Years of planning and work came to fruition on April 14th as The New Smyrna Beach Housing Authority held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the completion of their new open market homes. A collaborative effort between the Housing Authority, the City of New Smyrna Beach, and Volusia County, these houses represent some of the first significant rental housing development in the Historic West Side neighborhood in nearly 50 years. City plans describe the Historic West Side as a predominately African-American community dating back 150 years to the period after the Civil War, and the community thrived with the beginning of the Florida East Coast Railroad. However, a 30-year strike lessened the railroad's economic impact on the area and severely impacted the neighborhood's economy. New Smyrna Beach; and the West Side, in particular, were also hit hard by recessions such as the recent housing crisis in the late 2000s.
While the neighborhood has maintained a strong cultural identity and sense of community, economic struggles have caused many of the houses in the Historic West Side neighborhood to go into decline. Rental and home prices in nearby areas have increased rapidly over the past several years, which has led to a lack of quality, affordable rental housing in the neighborhood according to Housing Authority Executive Director Brian Clark. Recognizing the need to protect the core group of residents (61% of whom are renters according to the city's development plan from 2011) and to bring something else into the community other than the federally-assisted public housing already managed by the Housing Authority under the direction of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he decided it made sense to step in. "We just have to find any opportunity available to us to make some difference, and what I put in our original grant application was we're already invested in the community. We have 126 families living here, so it's of our highest concern to make sure that community doesn't become blighted if we can," he said.
Working with a $271,979 grant from the Community Redevelopment Agency for the City of New Smyrna Beach, a $340,000 grant from Volusia County's HOME program as well as Housing Authority funds, construction of six homes began on land donated by the city at the corner of Railroad and Dimmick streets. Using this mix of financing is something Mr. Clark said he isn't aware of any other housing authorities doing, and it has created an opportunity to rent these homes affordably without debt service or using federal rent subsidies. Additionally, the Housing Authority signed an agreement with the city and county that the houses have to remain affordable for a period of at least 25 years and almost exclusively hired local contractors to perform the construction work.
In a speech at the ceremony, which was also attended by Housing Authority staff and board members, county and city officials, and new residents of the community, New Smyrna Beach's Mayor James Hathaway applauded this unique strategy. "Because of this incredible team effort, this area has been transformed into a family oasis, a place where children can play and families can grow. We are so proud to be a part of such a wonderful collaborative effort," Hathaway said. Each of the homes has three bedrooms and two bathrooms and was designed to accommodate working families making between $14,000 and $45,000 per year; as well as to bridge the gap between the maximum rent in a public housing program and local rental rates. They will rent for approximately $736 to $945 per month, around half of the market rate for the area. "I'm very excited about [the new houses], I can't even explain, I've never had my own house," said Joy Moore, 21, who will be moving her family into one of the properties after nearly three years in public housing. "It's brand new and it's bigger."
Mr. Clark stated that this is only the beginning of the solution, however, and hopes to have more similar development take place in the future. "Hopefully this serves as the foundation, the goal is to start out with one house a year and then hopefully two and three and four and so on until we've filled up all these blighted lots in the community, because as those disappear other developers will become interested," he said. Mr. Clark also added that the wide disparity between housing prices closer to the beach and in the Historic West Side neighborhood means that investing in the neighborhood makes sense, and it is important to include affordable housing. "I want to make sure we have a strong enough foothold that we can still supply housing to the core families who live here because otherwise they won't be able to; it will be public housing or nothing," he said.