Photo courtesy of CASA
It’s the little things that can make a big difference in the lives of Huntsville residents, especially for those who struggle to make ends meet. Something as simple as installing a handicapped ramp for a senior citizen so he or she can remain at home. Or, helping to winterize a low-income residence for the owner to save energy and reduce costs. It might entail affordable housing to revitalize a neighborhood, or providing after school programs and mentors to keep children engaged and safe while parents work.
These are all examples of programs supported by the City’s Community Development team through federally-funded grants to local agencies. It’s no great secret that these non-profits face a constant challenge in funding. There is, after all, a price to performing the priceless assistance to those in need.
However, there is growing concern about how government can and will continue to provide its assistance. The problem is two-fold: The changing landscape of the federal government has put entitlement programs in jeopardy and, secondly, the number of municipalities becoming involved in grant programs mean more slices of a pie that grows no larger.
“Every year the grant amounts fluctuate based on cities. The pot hasn’t grown in 15 years and more cities get added,” says Michelle Jordan, Director of Community Development and Planning for the City of Huntsville. “The money we have to distribute is going to get smaller every year, I’m afraid.”
The City of Huntsville includes in its annual budget contributions to a number of non-profit entities, many of which serve to enhance the quality of life for the community as a whole.
But the City has a second, equally important, role in providing assistance. It acquires grant funding from the federal and state government and distributes those funds.
Among the major grant funds are a Community Development Block Grant and a HOME Partnership Grant from the federal government’s Housing and Urban Development, and an Emergency Solutions Grant from the state of Alabama.
Jordan explains that Huntsville has met criteria to be designated “an entitlement city” by HUD. The Community Development Block Grant is typically in the neighborhood of $1.1 million annually, and by law 15 percent of that can be distributed to non-profit agencies. Any funds remaining from the previous year’s program can be funneled to the following year’s distribution.
“We get it because we qualify for our population, income and a lot of other factors,” Jordan says. “We get this grant as long as we meet the criteria. We have to do a lot of paperwork and present a plan.”
The Boys & Girls Clubs of North Alabama has benefited through “a long-standing commitment” from the City of Huntsville and receives the lion’s share of the Community Development Block Grant.
“It’s based on needs,” Jordan says. “The big need has been housing-related and job training, senior assistance. That’s where these agencies have a great track record. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to open up the process because funds keep dwindling.”
The Emergency Solutions Grant is a competitive process, awarded through the Alabama Department of Community Affairs.
“The money we got was a $200,000 grant and went through a process with agencies that help people prevent homelessness,” Jordan says. “We’re trying to help with back utility bills, rental assistance and sheltering.”
Determining the beneficiaries is a business the City of Huntsville takes very seriously, Jordan says. Open meetings are held to discuss the programs’ worthiness and an online survey is available when the decision-making time rolls around. Additionally, each appropriation must be approved by the City Council in its public meetings.
“We have a plan that identifies where the gaps are in the community and we get input from agencies, organizations, and community leaders,” Jordan says.
The challenge for Jordan, her staff and the City Council – and the agencies being assisted — is the growing gap between increasing need and shrinking funding.