On March 4, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced S. 437 to authorize the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative (CNI) program, with a $350 million annual appropriation. The bill is a reintroduction of legislation from the 111th and 112th Congresses. HUD proposed the CNI program in its FY10 budget request to Congress. While the program has been funded, it has yet to be authorized. Senator Menendez is the Chair of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Community Development.
CNI is the successor to the HOPE VI Severely Distressed Public Housing Revitalization program. While HOPE VI focused on grants to revitalize severely distressed public housing, the CNI focuses its resources on transforming entire neighborhoods.
“If we are going to truly transform our most distressed neighborhoods, we must take a comprehensive approach which recognizes the need to connect affordable housing with good schools, good jobs and good transportation,” Senator Menendez said in a press release upon the bill’s introduction. “That’s exactly what this initiative does by providing the tools our local communities need to leverage private investment, build on their strengths, and revitalize their neighborhoods.”
The CNI program awards planning and implementation grants to public housing agencies, assisted housing owners, nonprofit entities, community development corporations, and local governments to address the needs of eligible neighborhoods. The bill would define eligible neighborhoods as those with a concentration of severe poverty, severely distressed housing, and “a potential for long-term viability, once key problems are addressed, including neighborhoods with characteristics such as proximity to educational institutions, medical centers, central business districts, major employers, effective transportation alternatives (including public transit, walking, and bicycling) and being close to low-poverty neighborhoods.”
A potential grantee would have to submit a “transformation plan” as part of its application for CNI funds, detailing how funds would be used. Transformation plans, under S. 437, would include a long list of required components, including revitalization of housing, promotion of self-sufficiency of residents, preservation of affordable housing in the neighborhood, involvement of residents and neighborhood members in the transformation plan, and links to local education efforts.
Under the terms of the bill, any revitalized federally subsidized homes would have to be preserved on a one-for-one basis, except for a broad, up-to-20% exception for neighborhoods meeting certain requirements. Here, grantees could use tenant-based vouchers to meet their one-for-one replacement requirement if: 1) a minimum of 80% of vouchers issued over the preceding 24 months to comparable families were successfully leased within 120 days of issuance or, if a sufficient number of comparable families have not received vouchers, the Secretary will design an alternative measure; 2) existing voucher holders are widely dispersed geographically, as determined by the Secretary, among the available private rental housing stock, including in areas of low poverty; and, 3) the grantee provides a market analysis demonstrating that there is a relatively high vacancy rate, as determined by the Secretary, within the market area with rent and utility costs not exceeding the applicable voucher payment standard.