County offers use of two houses to Habitat

Two empty houses that had been waiting for a date with the wrecking ball will instead find new life as temporary housing for those in need and those aiming to help them.

The Sussex County Council, at its Tuesday, March 30, meeting, approved a proposal to lend the use of two vacant houses owned by the county to Sussex County Habitat for Humanity.

Sussex Habitat, in turn, will renovate both properties and use them as temporary residences – one as a transitional home for families waiting to move into their new Habitat-built houses, the other as quarters for AmeriCorps volunteers constructing Habitat homes in Sussex County.

“It would appear that the committee has made a wise choice in meeting the goals of the request for proposals,” County Council President Vance C. Phillips said on Tuesday. “Ideally, this is the beginning of a healthy public-private partnering process that will lead to more opportunities for the County Council to help those in need, without creating a burden on the taxpayer.”

In January, Sussex County issued a request for proposals (RFP) from organizations interested in using three vacant county-owned homes as a means to provide decent, affordable housing for those in need.

Sussex County Habitat for Humanity was among six qualified applicants that were reviewed and then ranked by a committee that included members of the county council, county staff, the county attorney and community volunteers.

Habitat for Humanity’s proposal was scored the highest, in part because of the non-profit organization’s proven record, financial stability and proposal to renovate the homes at no expense to the county, said Gina A. Jennings, director of the county’s accounting division and one of the members of the committee.

The two houses – both located near the Sussex County Airport outside Georgetown and purchased as part of a planned runway expansion project – have been slated for demolition or removal in 2020, to make way for the runway expansion.

However, the properties were expected to remain vacant for all those years as the runway project progresses, and county officials said they wanted to find an interim use for the houses that could benefit a local organization and the community at large.

“These houses were just sitting there, some might say going to waste,” said Brandy A. Bennett, Sussex County’s housing coordinator. “We didn’t want that to be the case. We’d rather be a part of the solution when it comes to providing affordable housing for our residents.

“This proposal is a perfect fit with our goal. Habitat’s plan to revitalize these properties will help further stabilize the community, and it will help put honest, hard-working people in homes of their own,” Bennett said.

Sussex County will retain ownership of the pair of one-story houses that Sussex Habitat will use. Habitat for Humanity, though, will be responsible for all upkeep, maintenance and utilities. Final details will be worked out in a contract lease agreement to be drafted in the coming weeks. Officials said they expected an annual, renewable lease agreement would be created.

Sussex County officials said they expect Sussex Habitat to begin using the two houses sometime this summer or fall.

Meanwhile, county officials plan to further evaluate possible uses of the third county-owned house, which was not part of Sussex Habitat’s proposal but was also purchased by the county as part of the runway expansion plans.

That house, on Park Avenue, requires improvements to its septic system, or installation of a holding tank, in order to be used on-site. It is also slated for demolition sooner than the other two homes purchased for the project – to be demolished or moved in just three years.

As a result, officials said, Sussex Habitat did not put in a proposal to use the third house.

The building’s potential uses did spur interest from at least one party, as the county during the RFP process for leasing the three homes received an offer of $10,000 to purchase the home for relocation.

Phillips said county officials had consulted its legal counsel about the offer and had been told that there was no mechanism in place by which the county could accept the bid.

A separate RFP is required for the county to entertain bids for the purchase of the structure. The offer was not considered by the committee, which had been instructed to entertain proposals from organizations that would use the structures for the benefit of the community.

Since the private entity that made the offer did not plan to use it for the benefit of the community, the committee did not consider that offer.

Phillips said on Tuesday that he believed the original RFP parameters for the three properties may have been too narrow to have garnered proposals from some organizations. He said one application for lease of the properties had come in from an organization that aims to educate pregnant teenagers.

”The RFP was very narrow. We possibly could have more applications if we expand the RFP parameters,” he suggested. “We want to try to help the less fortunate, if possible, but it’s possible that other uses could be considered due to the taxpayer resources involved.”

That could include a second round of RFPs, with wider parameters, under which non-profit organizations could consider whether to aim to lease the Park Avenue property, or it could mean opening up a process for bidding on the structure with an eye toward having it removed.

County officials noted on Tuesday that Delaware state officials had them to help state staff with disposition of a property it owns in Laurel. The idea would be to do the same kind of non-profit community use for the large home the State of Delaware owns there.

Also on Tuesday, March 30, the county council approved county staff applying for a grant from State Farm. The grant, if received, would supplement funding for the county’s community revitalization efforts, such as the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program.

County officials noted that the State Farm grants were divided between non-profit entities and public or government ones, so the county’s grant requests would not be competing with those from non-profits. There is also no finite pool of funding for the grants, they pointed out, so the county can ask for whatever funding it desires and would receive whatever amount State Farm might choose to give, if any.

The potential additional funding for the CDBG program would be aimed at assisting with rehabilitation of homes in existing CDBG target areas, which have been chosen based upon a determination of where the funding will provide the most benefit.

Sussex County, in its annual request to the State of Delaware for funding for the program, inevitably receives requests for CDBG funding for much more money and many more homes than it can possibly offer. The state generally has given the county about half of the funding it has requested each year.