High hopes for scholar house idea

July 10th, 2016

Place to live for single parents seeking degrees

By DAVE GONG | The Journal Gazette

The proposed Posterity Heights Scholar House project could be a catalyst for future economic and residential growth on Fort Wayne’s southeast side, supporters and city officials believe.

“We know from a 2014 study that southeast Fort Wayne has about two-thirds of the population 55 and under – large families who need jobs and can’t afford more than $300 a month, so we have this huge mountain to climb in the number of affordable housing units that are needed in southeast Fort Wayne,” said Heather Presley-Cowen, director of the city’s Office of Housing and Neighborhood Services.

The Posterity Heights Scholar House project could begin to scale that mountain.

The project, which is being developed through a partnership between Indianapolis developer BWI and local nonprofit Joshua’s Hand, will offer affordable housing for single parents seeking to further their education. The facility plans to provide educational support to residents through partnerships with area universities and assist residents with transportation and child care. Posterity Heights was announced at a Southeast Area Partnership meeting last month.

The project is planned for the former McMillen Apartments site, 4209 Plaza Drive, which Presley-Cowen said is a great location. The first phase calls for 44 two- and three-bedroom apartments. Qualifying tenants must be at least 16 years old, Section 8 housing eligible and a single parent with primary custody of their child. Tenants must also be a full-time student, be either enrolled in high school or have a high school diploma or GED, and maintain a 2.0 GPA.

“I think when you look geographically, McMillen is central to the southeast area,” Presley-Cowen said. “I don’t take that lightly when I say I think it could be a catalyst for producing individuals who have had higher education, have better jobs and eventually move on beyond that. It could become a rung in the housing ladder of southeast Fort Wayne and Fort Wayne in general.”

Although somewhat new to Indiana, scholar houses have become fairly common in Kentucky. The Kentucky Housing Corp., for example, operates several scholar houses, including in Lexington, Louisville, Bowling Green, Paducah, Owensboro, Pikeville and Newport.  

“It’s a wonderful program that helps families become self-sufficient,” said Charla Peter, managing director for communications and marketing services at Kentucky Housing Corp. “Residents also go through credit counseling and learn some of the basic tools to be successful.”

Peter agreed that housing, transportation and energy costs can often be challenging for single parents.

“When you think about the cost burden of rental housing, it can be very difficult for a single parent,” Peter said. “They often have to work multiple jobs to afford fair market rent in many places. This gives them the opportunity to focus on their education and help break the cycle of poverty or remove barriers that can lead to poverty.”

Each scholar house program affiliated with Kentucky Housing Corp. – there are seven of them – has a different success rate. However, Peter said success rates are often higher among scholar house residents than among non-residents. Academic criteria for staying in the program also help keep success rates high, Peter said. 

But it’s not just for the parents. Peter said children in scholar house programs also benefit. The stability and engagement helps them develop a positive attitude toward education.

“So many studies show that children who have a stable environment do better in educational studies,” Peter said. “So it’s a win-win for the children, parents and the community.”

Posterity Heights is not the first scholar house project proposed for the McMillen site. A partnership between Biggs TC Development and Joshua’s Hand for a similar development fell through last fall when the development’s application for state tax credits was denied. But after being introduced to BWI CEO Gary Hobbs, Presley-Cowen said things began to change.

“Shortly after the first of the year I was contacted by the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority about another initiative they had done called ‘Moving Forward,’ ” Presley-Cowen said. “I was introduced to Gary Hobbs of BWI and heard about this really innovative initiative, unique in the nation, that combined housing, transportation and energy.”

Although the scholar houses under the Kentucky Housing Corp. are similar in that they focus on easing some of the burdens faced by students who are single parents, the Posterity Heights Scholar House proposal includes unique features.

In addition to the initial 44 two- and three-bedroom apartment units, phase one also calls for restaurant and retail space. Later phases are expected to include rent-to-own townhomes, market rate single-family homes and an urban farm.

A deal is also in the works with Indiana Michigan Power regarding a solar panel array aimed at helping residents keep energy costs low, something Presley-Cowen said is crucial for low-income residents. 

Indiana Michigan Power spokesman Tracy Warner confirmed discussions with the Posterity Heights developers.

“Indiana Michigan Power is pleased to be a part of this initiative. I&M will work with the developers to evaluate options for solar generation, energy storage and other applicable technology development,” Warner said. “This project is still in the very early stages and those options will emerge as the company talks with the project’s developers.”

Although Posterity Heights won’t solve all of southeast Fort Wayne’s housing troubles, Presley-Cowen said incorporating transportation, energy and housing into one package will go a long way toward helping families get a start on a better life.

“We know that most families spend about 15 percent of their income on transportation, and if you spend more than 30 percent of your income on your housing, you’re what they call ‘housing burdened’ if you’re low-income,” Presley-Cowen said. “That’s 45 percent of a family’s income going to housing and transportation. This isn’t going to be a silver bullet or a panacea, but it’s going to address more than just putting a roof over someone’s head.”

BWI has been working on its scholar house concept for about 31/2 years, Hobbs said. Being from Louisville, Kentucky, Hobbs said he’s known friends and family who have gone through the scholar house program to become teachers, engineers, social workers and attorneys. 

“I was a single parent for a few years, raising two children by myself and while it was still difficult, I recognize that I have a degree, an education,” Hobbs said. “That platform certainly makes it a little bit easier when you can still send your children to quality schools and get them the education they need, while still having a little left over to do other things with your kids.”

The project is still in its infancy, but Presley-Cowen said the city has been approached by BWI for letters of support. The developer is also seeking the donation of some land at the site, and some financing through HOME funds. The development needs zoning approval as well, Presley-Cowen said. 

Hobbs said his firm will apply for $3 million from the Regional Cities Initiative and $2 million from Fort Wayne’s Legacy Fund. Posterity Heights was included in northeast Indiana’s application to the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and factored into the decision to award the region $42 million in funding. 

Hobbs is confident everything will come together. 

“I think we’re confident and hopeful that the community will be behind this transformational project,” Hobbs said. “A project like this has the potential for huge returns.”

BWI plans to give a presentation to the Housing and Neighborhood Development Services board Tuesday and hopes in September to go in front of the Regional Development Authority, which controls appropriations from the Regional Cities Initiative. Hobbs said he hopes to break ground on the project by the end of the year and finish construction on Phase 1 by the end of 2017.