Leveraging ARPA Funds for Affordable Housing

This is the way it should be done – and ought to be done elsewhere.

By Donovan Rypkema

In March, Congress passed and President Biden signed the $1.9 Trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Numbers that large are virtually impossible to conceptualize, but it represents $5,828 for every woman, man, and child in the United States. And it is financed with 100% borrowed money. Even if you’re in your 20’s, your grandchildren will spend their entire working lives paying off this debt. Others can argue that this was too much or too little. Clearly the US economy needed a significant boost after a year of collapsing employment, business closures, and declining GDP.

Almost 20% of this money ($326 Billion) will be going to state and local governments – a once in three generations infusion of cash into states, counties, cities, and towns. So, governors, legislators, mayors, county commissioners, and city council members: DON’T BLOW IT!

If we are going to saddle future generations with this gigantic bill, that money needs to be invested in long-term assets from which future generations can benefit while simultaneously addressing pressing current needs. That is exactly what Macon, Georgia, the Historic Macon Foundation, and the Knight Foundation have done, setting a model for the rest of the country to follow. Here’s the story.

The unified Macon/Bibb County government will receive around $18 Million in ARPA funding. In the first round of allocations, they awarded the Historic Macon Foundation $600,000 to build new affordable rental units in Beall’s Hill, a neighborhood that has been at the center of the organization’s efforts for 20+ years. That amount was matched by long-time HMF supporters and funders, the Knight Foundation. This will allow the organization to build 12 to 16 units in duplexes on a vacant block of land they own in Beall’s Hill.

The PlaceEconomics team touring Beall’s Hill last week with Historic Macon’s Executive Director Ethiel Garlington.

Why is this the right way to spend this money?

  1. It represents investment in long-term assets
  2. It addresses a critical current need – affordable housing
  3. It leverages public dollars with an equal amount of cash from a non-public source, as well as the land and development expertise of this superb local non-profit developer.
  4. The investment is being made in an area already served with streets, water and sewer, public services, and previous public/private/non-profit investment in the urban core area of Macon City.
  5. These units will be built at an appropriate scale, design, and form that fits the existing neighborhood context. Being in a local historic district, and working with a preservation-sympathetic developer (The Historic Macon Foundation), helps assure that.
  6. This is a neighborhood that has demonstrated the success and sustainability of mixed-income and demographically diverse targeted investment.

The Historic Macon Foundation is one of the best local preservation organizations in the country. For more than three decades they have moved beyond the “education and advocacy” role of most preservation groups to becoming an effective hands-on developer doing historic rehabilitation, but also high-quality new infill construction. PlaceEconomics is currently conducting a study quantifying their impact over the last several years. HMF has developed many partners, supporters, and funders over the years, but perhaps none better than the Knight Foundation which has recognized the effectiveness of the organization in advancing not just historic preservation but a wide range of local priorities.

Not only will this latest collaboration among the Historic Macon Foundation, the Knight Foundation, and Macon increase affordable housing where it’s needed, but it will create local jobs for local workers.

This is exactly the type of capital investment that will have the greatest impact into the future. More preservation organizations need to move from being advocates to being actors in the development process. And more local governments need to invest this manna from Washington in a manner that will most directly benefit the future generations who will be repaying it.