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HOME MADE

SPOKANE - Think "government" and "flexibility" is probably not the next word to come to mind. More likely, you'll picture legions of faceless bureaucrats amid towering stacks of rules and regulations that don't help you out but tie you down.

Think again. Start with HUD's Community Development Block Grant - CDBG, for short - program. It's been around for almost 40 years, providing thousands of local governments with resources to address the bricks-and-mortar housing, community and economic development challenges they face.

Yes, there are statutes and regulations outlining what CDBG grantees can - and cannot - do. Within those broad parameters, though, grantees have the flexibility to decide how CDBG can best address their needs.

Like they do in Spokane. Every year it receives between $4 and $5 million from CDBG depending on what Congress appropriates. It's used lots of ways. To fix streets and replace water and sewer lines. To spruce up neighborhood commercial districts. To upgrade parks and playgrounds. To help nonprofits shelter and serve the homeless. And the biggest chunk - about 30 percent each year - is allocated to a Single Family Housing Rehabilitation Program.

Last year, HUD reports, communities across the country rehabilitated some 1.5 million houses using CDBG funds. Kenneth Murphy's was one of them. Since 1970 he's owned a small house on Providence Avenue. No surprise, the wear-and-tear's piled up. "A roof leak got so bad," Pia Hallenberg of The Spokesman Review reported, Kenneth "took out part of the ceiling in his bedroom." The back door was so bent it never shut properly and a bathroom leak "destroyed part of the floor." With no job and lots of bills he couldn't afford to make repairs.

Until he saw a flyer explaining the City's program. It is, he read, available anywhere in the city, open to homeowners with incomes at 80 percent or less of area median income - $35,350 a year for a single-person household up to $50,300 for a family of four - who are current in their mortgage and property taxes. They can borrow up to $35,000 at a fixed, 3 percent for repairs to plumbing and heating, roofing and insulation, windows and doors, bathrooms and paintings by licensed, bonded contractors submitting the lowest bid.

Exactly what Murphy needed. "I thought it couldn't hurt to apply," he told Hallenberg. "I didn't think I was going to get any money, Boy was I surprised when they called me and said I qualified for $35,000." Which, for him, meant a new roof, new door, new floors, new windows and a test for radon and for lead paint to boot. "Now it feels good to come home," he says.

Better still, there's no debt collector's banging on his door. The City defers loan repayment for the first three years and will defer even longer depending on the borrower's circumstances. "When the house is sold, then that's when they get their money," Murphy said. And when a loan's repaid, the city's fund is replenished so still more loans can be made.

"Home rehab programs like Spokane's are one of the most basic and best thing HUD and its partners do," notes Shannon Meagher of the private company that manages the program on the City's behalf. "Families can afford to improve the places they call home. Neighbors are inspired to do the same. And, in the larger community jobs are created in the construction industry. That's three solid benefits for every dollar spent."

Simply put, it's a government program that works - well. Why? First and foremost, because there's a need. Over the last dozen years, for example, the City's rehabbed more than 900 houses, replaced more than 300 roofs. And there's a long waiting list in some neighborhoods.

It also works because of who's in charge. The broad parameters are set in Washington, D.C.. But the particulars are decided in Spokane. By folks in City Hall and in the neighborhoods that receive allocations and by the homeowners who have to decide how much to borrow and what to repair. The money flows top down from Washington, the decisions community-up from Spokane.

Homemade pies are usually the most delicious. Is it really any wonder, then, that homemade government programs are often most effective?

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