Choice Neighborhoods Grants

7 min read

Revitalizing Distressed Housing, Transforming Communities 

Launched in 2010, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Choice Neighborhoods program has been transforming communities across the nation through Planning and Implementation Grants that breathe new life into distressed affordable housing projects and surrounding neighborhoods.

By the act of rebuilding brick-and-mortar projects and the construction of parks, grocery stores, community gardens and other amenities, communities are being rejuvenated. And it’s not going unnoticed.

“Choice Neighborhoods grants are transformational,” HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge said during an April hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development. “They truly transform neighborhoods and communities. Communities that have used these resources have made significant changes—not just in the fabric of the community, based on new housing—but with people who feel better.”

Some $350 million in Choice Neighborhoods grants were awarded in fiscal year 2022-23. HUD’s 2023 Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFA) will be released in early fall, says Luci Ann Blackburn, director of the Choice Neighborhoods program. The program is run through the HUD Office of Public and Indian Housing.

“Choice Neighborhoods offers an unprecedented opportunity to take a comprehensive approach to housing redevelopment, by not just focusing on the bricks and mortar of the houses, but by also focusing on both revitalizing the surrounding neighborhood and meeting the needs of the people who live there,” says Blackburn. “Given the focus of the Choice Neighborhoods program on developing affordable housing, there is an obvious connection between the “Housing, People and Neighborhood” goals of the program and the work of the members of National Housing & Rehabilitation Association.”

Two Types of Grants: Planning and Implementation
The Choice Neighborhoods program awards two types of grants: Planning Grants and Implementation Grants. Planning Grants of up to $500,000 are used by communities to develop comprehensive neighborhood plans, called transformation plans by HUD. These plans are locally developed and born out of a grassroots effort to improve the quality of life for residents in the neighborhood. They address issues, such as bringing quality grocery stores to a neighborhood or improving access to open spaces. The plans are the wish lists for how community members hope to live after redevelopment. The planning process brings together local entities, such as local governments, community members, housing authorities, private developers, nonprofits, tribal authorities, school districts and police departments to hammer out plans to revitalize communities.

The second type of grant is an Implementation Grant of up to $50 million each. These grants pay for the brick-and-mortar redevelopment of distressed housing and for neighborhood improvements. Up to 20 percent of the grants can be used to fund certain services for residents, such as case management, job training or literacy classes. The overarching goal of the competitive grants is to redevelop HUD-assisted housing projects in low-income neighborhoods where the housing has become a blight on the community and is no longer providing safe housing. Privately owned, multifamily projects that operate with project-based Section 8 assistance are also eligible for the grants. When an affordable housing project is torn down, it is rebuilt replacing one-for-one the units lost from the initial tear-down. Each resident who has been relocated during the construction process has a right to return to the new development. The program also focuses on mixed-income housing projects with the goal of revitalizing neighborhoods with safe housing for all income levels, including market-rate housing.

“It allows us to get away from the whole idea of segregating poverty, which is something we have been doing for too long,” Secretary Fudge said of the program at the April hearing.

Stand-Out Projects
Since the program’s inception, 117 Planning Grants and 44 Implementation Grants have been awarded. Each grant is unique and distinct based on the challenges and goals of the individual communities. Across the nation, the grants have been transforming communities.

In Tulsa, OK, the Tulsa Housing Authority (THA) and the City of Tulsa received a Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant to transform the Eugene Field neighborhood into what is now the River West community. The project included the Riverview Park Apartments, a distressed public housing development; and Brightwaters Apartments, a deteriorating 200-unit Section 8 multifamily development. The Brightwaters property was owned by a local nonprofit. Working with HUD and the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency, THA integrated Project-Based Voucher (PBV) Assistance and Project-Based Rental Assistance (PBRA) units to replace the public housing and Section 8 multifamily units one-for-one.

The resulting project mixed the replacement units with affordable and market-rate units, creating a collection of 435 new mixed-income units over six phases, which ultimately included 114 PBV replacement units, 115 PBRA replacement units, 92 affordable units and 114 market-rate units.

The Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency awarded the THA a tax credit set aside, which led to a $56 million infusion in equity. The State of Oklahoma allocated $1 million, the largest ever in Oklahoma’s history, and instituted a Choice Neighborhoods set aside in its Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP). THA has received six nine percent tax credit awards in three years.

THA also worked with the City of Tulsa to incorporate into the project elements of an $11 million city commitment for planned infrastructure improvements. Ultimately more improvements were needed, and THA collaborated with the city to identify additional funding streams, bringing in an additional $35 million. Now, in addition to the initial stormwater infrastructure improvements and clay pipes replacement, the neighborhood has streetlights, sidewalks and trees.

In addition to the public funds and tax credits that helped to pull the project together, the THA also received grants from private foundations and philanthropic donations totaling over $15 million. The Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation contributed $12 million for hard and soft housing costs, and the George Kaiser Family Foundation transitioned its proposed first mortgage into a $3.25 million grant for housing, workforce development and a public park.

Earlier this year, the City of Tulsa and the THA held a grand opening ceremony for Celebration Park, a centerpiece of the River West Choice Neighborhood. The park features two garden-themed playgrounds, a multi-use sports court, a lighted sports field and picnic tables and grills.

In 2013, the Housing Authority of the City and County of Denver (DHA) was awarded a Planning Grant to revitalize the Sun Valley neighborhood, which was the lowest-income neighborhood in the city and home to a large immigrant population. Located near the Broncos football stadium, the project was ultimately awarded a $30 million Implementation Grant that targeted over 300 distressed public housing units that were torn down to rebuild new housing in strategic sites in six phases. At build-out, over 700 new units were constructed, including new affordable replacement units for project-based vouchers and units funded with Low Income Housing Tax Credits. Market-rate units were also among the mix.

The project area was considered a food desert, with the closest grocery store over two miles away. A key component of the vision for the project was bringing healthy food to the site. DHA and its partners administered several surveys on food needs within the community and incorporated three interconnected food initiatives into the project: the Decatur Fresh Market, the community’s Grow Garden, which is a partnership with Denver’s botanic gardens and a food business incubator. The garden produces huge amounts of fresh vegetables that are then sold to the residents and others. The project is managed by youth in a training program. The project includes communal kitchens as part of its food business incubator, as well as an area for food truck parking for people who want to buy from food truck businesses or start one themselves.

A Growing Program
Blackburn, director of the Choice Neighborhoods program, has seen it grow since its launch in 2010. The amount of Implementation Grants has increased as has the interest in the program.

“Choice Neighborhoods is a growing program. With increased appropriations, Implementation Grants awards are now up to $50 million per grant,” says Blackburn. “We are also looking to grow the program’s reach by encouraging mid-size and smaller communities with distressed public housing or Section 8 housing to apply for Planning and Implementation Grants.”

Secretary Fudge, at the April Senate subcommittee hearing, said she believes the program can benefit communities all over the United States.

“I do believe we need more resources,” Fudge told committee members. “I don’t know of any community that could not use the resources of Choice Neighborhoods.”  

Pamela Martineau is a freelance writer based in Portland, ME. She writes primarily about housing, local government, technology and education.