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Sunnyside opts to go into the HOME improvement business

Despite a staff recommendation to the contrary, the Sunnyside City Council last night agreed to join a consortium that puts the city in the business of providing affordable housing.

Tuesday night's decision came after a presentation by Page Scott, executive director for the Yakima Valley Conference of Governments.

The funds come from a federal program established with a national housing act of 1930. The program goes by the official name of the HOME Consortium Intergovernmental Agreement.

The cities of Union Gap, Toppenish and Wapato have already signed up for the program, and it's believed Grandview will also join the housing consortium.

Zillah and Moxee have opted out of the program.

Cities have until next month to sign up for the program and once they do they have to stay in it for three years. If council had decided to opt out last night, the city still could have opted in at a later time.

Sunnyside City Manager Eric Swansen is opposed to the city joining at this time, reminding council that the city has made staff layoffs and would need to re-direct resources from other areas in order to administer the housing program here.

"We're not in the housing business," said Swansen, who has worked for cities that administerd a HOME program. "Somebody would have to spend time with this in moving forward. We're just not staffed to be able to do it." Swansen said. "We can't recover enough funds to cover administrative costs."

One of his concerns is that city staff would be responsible for all record-keeping associated with the program, as well as administering the program, project development and annual verification.

Further, if there is income, such as repayment of a home improvement loan or sale of a home improved with HOME grant funds, the city would be responsible for managing the program's income. Swansen cautioned that could mean several years of managing income that's to be redirected back into the HOME program.

Mayor pro tem Jim Restucci countered that Sunnyside should pursue the funds - which would total about $160,000 - noting that if the city didn't take the money it would go to another city.

He said the program is "sending a message that we care." Restucci added that the focus on helping low to moderate wage earners into homes or in fixing up their current home creates "better opportunities for our citizens."

Councilwoman Theresa Hancock noted that the HOME program is flexible and that Sunnyside can choose a plan that meets its needs. She also said Sunnyside has time to gear up for the program, which would likely begin in July 2010.

The only council voice opposing Sunnyside's participation in the HOME program now was Tom Gehlen. He said he wasn't opposed to the program, but wondered if now is a good time for the city to pursue it.

"We are staffed thin," he said. "This program is ambiguous at best."

Despite his concerns, Gehlen joined the five other council members in attendance by voting to approve Sunnyside's partication in the regional HOME consortium.

Council member Bill Gant was absent due to a family emergency.

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