Prospective homeowners on the move to downtown

Published 6:15 pm Thursday, July 19, 2018

Time was when downtown Port Arthur residences were constructed one at a time.

In fact, that was last year.

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Nowadays, city of Port Arthur officials, partner agencies like Port Arthur Economic Development Corp. and Legacy Community Development Corp. are accelerating the downtown housing program, with a vision of constructing 30 new homes between Fifth and Eighth streets, from Augusta to Nashville, by April.

“This is one way to bring rooftops into our downtown area,” said Ron Burton, director of development services. “Businesses will follow, the rehabilitation of old buildings will follow. Property values will rise.”

Slowed by Harvey

That’s a whole lot of expressed ambition for a housing development effort that, as of this week, has placed two families into homes. But the plan doesn’t stop with the home finished and the home started in 2017. The program fell victim, at least for a while, to Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey. That’s done.

Now prospective buyers are lining up for new housing in downtown Port Arthur, an area of town that remained dry during Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey. Where the city might’ve begged for new residents in the eerily quiet downtown short years ago, now buyers have to qualify for grants that will help put them in their homes.

“The homes are being purchased by families with low-to-moderate incomes,” said Vivian Ballou, executive director of Legacy CDC. Before she took that non-profit agency job, she was housing director for the city of Port Arthur.

Ballou said income levels for applicants vary according to the grant or assistance desired under programs sponsored by the Port Arthur EDC and the city. But roughly, she said, a family of four might earn up to $70,000 and qualify for help in buying a new home.

“It’s a ‘working-family’ program,” Ballou said, which enables different levels of income in what will be a burgeoning neighborhood. In fact, three people have opted to buy without qualifying for assistance; they just want in on acquiring an affordable home in a dry part of town. Grant money helps others who qualify to bridge the gap between the cost of construction and what they can purchase.

Electrical work progresses in one of four homes under construction. (Ken Stickney/The News)

You must qualify

There’s more. Prospective homebuyers must hold and have held a job for two years. They must have a workable credit rating and they must take an all-day course on homeownership, which is offered from 9-5 on the third Saturday of the month.

The next class meets Saturday at the Museum of the Gulf Coast, 700 Procter St. About 40 can enroll; 25 already have.  Breakfast and lunch is provided. You must preregister; call 409-832-2723.

Ballou and Burton say the homes will be consistent with the city’s downtown planning document. For the most part, the homes will include three bedroom, two baths and some 1,350 to 1,400 square feet.

Special care is being paid to homes that are permitted in the area, especially to maintaining and fostering home values. Burton says homes will be valued at about $135,000.

Target area

The homes will rest squarely in a target area for the Port Arthur EDC program. The program was approved by referendum, and established by the EDC and the city, which both offer programs for which prospective homeowners can apply.

And downtown is offering more than cheap, dry land nowadays. The neighborhood is easy walking distance to Lamar State College Port Arthur, Woodrow Wilson Early College High School, City Hall, the seawall, the Museum of the Gulf Coast and more.

At the construction site Wednesday, contractor Dinh Nguyen of LLB Construction, which is Port Arthur based, was keeping a close eye on the steady progress at this worksite. Roofing work was well underway on two homes, a subcontractor was working on the electricity on the other two homes.

“Framing is done; we’re 50 percent there,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen said his company built the first two homes, now occupied, and was building the four under construction on Sixth Street, between Augusta and Savannah. Within weeks, he said, work would begin on five more homes that will be constructed within the program. He said he’s waiting on the city to issue permits.

Waiting list

Here’s why program enthusiasts are confident the program will meet the short-term goal of 30 homes by April: 30 prospective homebuyers have qualified for the program and are awaiting construction.

In fact, there is a waiting list of about 125 for the program, and Burton and Ballou suggest they could build that many homes and more. Eventually, they said, the Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster-recovery money will be released to Hurricane and Tropical Storm Harvey victims, some of whom may collect on buyouts for their old homes. There is an abundance of residential space within the downtown plan area for single-family homes.

And lest you think it’s a giveaway program, consider this: Burton said that downtown lots in the construction area are valued as low as $300 or $400 a lot. It costs more than that for the city, which owns much vacant land, to maintain it.

By putting the property back into play, homes can be built and land can return to the tax rolls. As homeowners populate downtown, Burton says, businesses — perhaps small grocery stores, pharmacies or cleaners — may reinvest in downtown to serve its growing population.

“It’s a win-win,” he said, for homebuyers and for the city.

Ballou said word is getting around about the program. Last year, the Saturday class would draw perhaps 10 prospective homeowners. For the last class, held at the Carl Parker Multipurpose Center at Lamar State College Port Arthur, 50 showed.

“A lot of that,” she said, “is word of mouth.”