If you asked an average Joe Greensboro about Project Homestead, I think you’d get a story that goes something like this:
Project Homestead was a nonprofit homebuilder in Greensboro that received millions of dollars in handouts from the city to build low-income housing. But Project Homestead’s late leader, the Rev. Michael King, squandered a lot of that money on cruises, personal expenses, and illicit land deals for his family and cronies. Even worse, Project Homestead’s houses were shoddily built. All this happened because city staff wasn’t paying close enough attention to the non-profit’s activities. After Project Homestead went bankrupt and Rev. King took his own life, the local DA investigated the mess, chose not to prosecute anyone, and then refused to release his report.Unfortunately, some of that narrative is true, and the more sensational parts of it were well-covered in the N&R.
I got curious about how Project Homestead actually worked with the city. How much money did Project Homestead receive from the city, and on what terms? How much was squandered, and how much actually helped low-income people get into decent housing? How much money went to homeowners? What was the quality of the housing, and is anyone looking after it now? I suppose these questions are too boring to get much newspaper coverage, but I think they’re important for evaluating the whole Project Homestead affair.
I asked Andy Scott, head of the city’s housing and community development (HCD) department how much the city spent on Project Homestead, and he was kind enough to put together a report and to meet with me to explain it. Here’s what I found out.
Total funds to Project Homestead from the city between 1990-2003 were $17,600,734. About $16 million of that went directly to property owners in the form of lots donated by the city, second mortgages to homeowners, and loans to Project Homestead in partnership with other developers who specialized in building and managing low- to moderate-income apartments.
None of the mortgages were in the sub-prime category that is currently scaring the pants off the U.S. real estate industry. Project Homestead vetted its mortgagees carefully enough that the default rate on their mortgages is about 2-3%, while the default rate for adjustable rate sub-prime mortgages lately runs between 7 and 14.5%. According to Andy, the loans produce $500,000 to $750,000 a year in income to the city.
You can do the numbers yourself: over the life of those loans, the city will eventually get back its $16 million investment and more.
What about the allegedly shoddy units? When complaints started popping up in the newspaper, HCD worked closely with the city inspections department to address the problems. The city eventually identified 57 out of 625 single- and multi-family Project Homestead units that needed some repairs. Andy described the majority of the problems as either cosmetic or due to normal wear and tear or deferred maintenance.
Five houses had serious problems related to their foundations. The houses’ insurer, Nationwide, refused to repair any of them. (Nationwide wasn't on their side.) The city eventually paid about $200,000 to fix all problems for all 57 units. I guess you can look at that expenditure either as a waste of taxpayer money or as the city protecting its investment in the houses, depending on how demagogic you’re feeling.
Here’s a photo of one of the houses that needed minor repairs:
From the street, it looks like a pretty good house. I picked it at random off the list Andy gave me.
All told, fewer than 10% of Project Homestead units had minor problems, and fewer than 1% had serious problems. I don’t know the industry standard for this kind of thing, but Project Homestead’s complaint rate seems better than what people are saying about houses built by K. Hovnanian Homes, one of the country’s biggest for-profit homebuiliders.
What about that lax staff oversight? If you read the N&R’s coverage carefully, you find that staff raised concerns quite early about the way Project Homestead was doing some things. In particular, Project Homestead didn’t seem to be giving as much “instant equity” to homeowners from the donated lots as other low-income homebuilders were. HCD produced a report and a plan to address the problem, and gave it to city council in early 1997. Council took no action. Staff members who raised red flags to the council include Andy Scott, then-city manager Ed Kitchen, and assistant city manager Ben Brown.
HCD staff have always done regular on-site inspections and audits of the multifamily properties that were built and managed by Project Homestead and its partners. Andy provided me with a stack of recent audit memos that address occupancy rates, renter qualifications, monthly rents, and the physical condition of the buildings and grounds (which are also covered under the city’s minimum housing ordinance). The memos are boring to read, but they paint a clear picture: city staff holds property managers to a very high standard as a condition of receiving city loans.
Here's a photo of the L. Richardson Hospital in East Greensboro -- an historic building which Project Homestead and its partners recycled as an apartment building:
Over the years, the city also contracted with Project Homestead to provide homeownership counseling, homeowner preparation, and project planning. The city paid to rehab the Project Homestead headquarters on MLK Drive (which the city now owns, I think) and provided some other rehab loan funds. All of these expenditures were audited, and totaled about $730,000.
Unusual grants to Project Homestead were for the Cumberland Shopping Center, a Job Training Center, and the Dudley-Lee Center upfit, all together totaling about $831,000. If I recall correctly, these grants were requested by Rev. King outside of normal channels, were not recommended by staff, but were generally approved by city council, with councilwoman Sandy Carmany often the only dissenting vote.
The primary responsibility for keeping track of Project Homestead’s finances lay with the Project Homestead board of directors, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the board failed miserably in its duty to keep an eye on what Rev. King was doing. However, since the Project Homestead meltdown, the city has begun requiring mandatory, annual training for all non-profit boards that do business with the city – no exceptions allowed. Two board members, one of them an officer, have to participate.
This kind of board failure is actually pretty common, unfortunately. Maybe you remember what happened a while back with the United Way, and more recently with the Smithsonian Institution. When people are in constantly in control of a lot of other people's money, it's hard for them not to take some of it.
You can draw your own moral from this story. My view is that Project Homestead did a tremendous amount of good for the city, building better houses for low-income homeowners than the market would have provided, bringing a lot of economically marginalized people into the financial mainstream, strengthening the fabric of many neighborhoods, and just giving thousands of people decent places to live.
In a worst-case scenario – say Project Homestead squandered $500,000 of city money – we paid a 3% toll to human sin and folly. More than we’d like to pay, for sure, but hardly more than one would expect in this world.