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Housing project moves forward in Upshur

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

BUCKHANNON -- Grading work will begin this month on a controversial low-income apartment complex off Corridor H, according to its developer.

"We're just at the beginning stages," said Eric Kjeldgaard, executive director of the non-profit Opportunity Builders of Salinas, Calif. "We're hoping to be working out at the property within two weeks."

That is news to some city officials and the Upshur County Landlords Association, the latter of which opposes the construction of a 50-unit, low-income complex north of the intersection of Corridor H (U.S. 33) and W.Va. 20 in Buckhannon.

At a Thursday city council meeting, council members said no building permit had been filed. Chamber of Commerce officials agreed they had no actual confirmation construction would begin.

The issue came to the floor when Jody Light of the landlord group asked council to oppose the project based on lack of need. She said more than 100 apartment units represented by the association are currently empty. About 20 of those are designated for low-income renters, she said.

"Why do we need another 50 units?" Light asked council members.

Kjeldgaard believes Buckhannon's working poor will be interested in his development, however. He said Opportunity Builders has already filed for a grading permit to that end.

Five years into his quest for high-quality housing for lower-income residents, Kjeldgaard added he is not surprised to find opposition at this stage of development. When his organization developed a similar complex in Tulare, Calif., more than 150 people came to a city council meeting in opposition.

"The resistance is there until the area is built and all the units are in," Kjeldgaard said, commenting Tulare recently approved a second complex with no opposition.

"Then they look around and say, 'this isn't what we thought it would be.'"

What is proposed for the Buckhannon site -- one of several Opportunity complexes in California, Michigan, Colorado and Nebraska -- is a number of two-story, walk-up apartments, a community building that includes a computer center for residents and their children, and an on-site manager.

Renters who meet income guidelines would have a set monthly rent that does not change as their income increases. Kjeldgaard said the housing is intended to create the opportunity for renters to save enough to become homeowners at some point, not to be a lifelong home.

Kjeldgaard said rent is able to stay low, not because it is federally subsidized like Section 8 developments, but because Opportunity Builders receives development tax credits it sells to for-profit businesses as a source of income.

Light said that is not fair to landlords working in the for-profit market.

"It's going to hurt," said Light, who owns 112 units in Upshur County. "There are landlords who have put their life savings into their units."

Kjeldgaard countered the entrance of low-income housing into a community is similar to local government approving a Wal-Mart.

"If the local businesses say, 'we don't want Wal-Mart here, it will kill us' ... most of the cities are still bringing them in because they want the tax base," Kjeldgaard said. "What has to be done is an analysis. Is this going to be good for the people of Buckhannon?"

Once grading is complete, Kjeldgaard's project still must complete a series of applications and approvals in order for construction to begin.

Light believes that could be a problem, claiming the property could be a wetland and she has heard a large utility line passes through it.

Council member Harley Brown said the city council's policy is to approve any project that meets published development criteria.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403.

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