December 29, 2020

What We Really Mean by Capacity Building

Rural community

A Story of Possibility and Progress From the Rural Rental Preservation Academy

In small, rural communities like Pagosa Springs, Colorado, whose primary industry is seasonal recreation, nearly a quarter of its 2,100 residents live below the poverty line. Having enough safe and affordable housing for year-round residents is critical for both the town and residents’ survival.

In 2019, concerned that old heating systems would leave residents at Archuleta Housing for the Elderly to suffer through a cold Colorado winter, Executive Director Nicole Holt chose to dip into her organization’s minimal reserves to purchase two new boilers, costing more than $10,300. This decision was both difficult and necessary. As she would soon learn, there was another way to get the new heating systems without having to lay out all that money.

Across the rural U.S., there are many owners and operators like Holt who understand and are passionate about the critical needs they are addressing in their community. However, most are challenged to keep their properties well-maintained and grow their operations through the razor-thin margins generated by affordable rents, while at the same time, navigate the complexities of housing finance and local and federal government regulations.  With few outlets to turn to for help, properties deteriorate and eventually the housing stock is lost, leaving residents with fewer options to stay in their community.

It’s precisely why Enterprise Community Partners developed the Rural Rental Preservation Academy series. The state-based academies offer no-cost training and peer learning sessions designed to help rural housing providers acquire and/or preserve U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development (RD) and HUD financed housing in their respective communities.

“The academies are designed to build the capacity of affordable developers to deal both the minor and complex challenges of managing a portfolio of properties,” said Susan Anderson, senior director, Rural and Native American Initiative, Enterprise. “If we can help academy participants improve and know more about all that goes into keeping homes affordable, protected and preserved, we give the residents who live in them more opportunities to thrive.”

In 2020, Holt was a member of the Colorado Rural Rental Preservation Academy Technical Assistance Cohort. Alongside 8 other leaders of rural housing organizations across the state of Colorado she learned about a variety of relevant topics such as property management, financing and deal structuring, and USDA rural development resources.  Even though the Covid-19 pandemic forced the Academy to be held virtually, Holt was able to connect with peers and instructors, and eventually form a network with whom she could share common experiences and practical knowledge about the issues she was facing.

“I didn't have anyone to turn to, so being a part of a cohort sounded great. I was going to meet others that have been doing my job for years and faced this problem before that can help me find an answer,” Holt said.  “And the Academy was state-centered, which I appreciate, because we've all got the same guidelines to deal with.”

It was during the academy that Holt learned about a rebate opportunity offered by the USDA. The program offered direct funding to support energy efficiency improvements for lighting, heating, cooling, and ventilation, among others, that reduce consumption.  With the help of one of the academy trainers, Holt applied for the rebate based on her purchase of the two boilers, which, fortunately, were eligible, energy-efficient models. Her organization was approved for the rebate and sent a check for $9,400. In all, she ended up just spending $915 and now has new, less-costly systems that will help both her and her tenants save money and worry. 

Holt also plans to use this newfound know-how to begin replacing the 52 furnaces at Archuleta’s sister properties. Additionally, in partnership with the local Habitat for Humanity chapter and several town planning officials, she spearheaded the formation of a new affordable housing coalition for Pagosa Springs.

“Housing is such a huge problem here. We could build it, but since we are in the middle of the mountains, doing so and getting supplies here from the cities makes it much more expensive,” commented Holt. “Through the coalition, we're trying to come up with real solutions like converting rundown hotels and preserving under our organization’s umbrella.”

The Rural Rental Preservation Academy series in Colorado was made possible through the generous support of Fannie Mae, Colorado Health Foundation, CHFA, and The Colorado Trust. Thanks to Fannie Mae’s continued commitment and new partners JPMorgan Chase and Oregon Housing and Community Services, the next Rural Rental Preservation Academy will take place in the Pacific Northwest beginning in March 2021.

Due to Covid-19, the academy will once again be held virtually. Owners and operators of rural affordable housing in Oregon or Washington interested can apply to be a participant by downloading and completing an application. Applications are due by Jan. 29, 2021.

With great need in rural communities in all 50 states, Enterprise is eager to expand the series to as many as possible. If you are interested in making a financial contribution to help the Preservation Academy series reach more states, please contact Uchenna Ofodile at oufodile@enterprisecommunity.org.  

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For more information, please contact Robin Wolff, Senior Program Director, at robinwolff@enterprisecommunity.org.

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