Residents want ARPA funds to help with housing, health and child care

Part of downtown Harrisonburg. (File photo)

By Charlotte Matherly, contributor

Affordable housing, robust mental and physical health care and accessible child care for working families are Harrisonburg residents’ top three needs that could be addressed using the city’s share of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. 

Those were the findings that Rob Alexander — director of the Institute for Constructive Advocacy and Dialogue (ICAD), an organization housed at  JMU — presented at Tuesday’s city council meeting after months of conducting public surveys and forums. 

The city is set to receive $23.8 million in ARPA funds, and, so far, has used a little more than $2 million. The city council has identified some priorities for the funding, such as building a permanent shelter to serve people experiencing homelessness, constructing a new fire station in the north part of town near EMU and making improvements to the Northeast Neighborhood. The research Alexander and other ICAD staff presented eventually will inform project proposals for the use of ARPA funds.

“While you ultimately will be choosing tangible project ideas,” Alexander said, “quality problem solving first starts with really identifying and taking the time to understand the need that’s being addressed in the first place.”

ICAD conducted two local surveys, open public meetings and focused input meetings. The project focused on how the pandemic has impacted, created and reprioritized the needs of the 3,219 people who engaged with the process. Housing, mental and physical health care and child care emerged as the greatest needs.

When participants were asked to rank what’s most important to them, K-12 schools and students was the top response, although in a separate survey about the community’s greatest needs, it was fourth. Behind K-12 schools and students on the overall priority list were: mental and physical health, followed by working families and then housing was fourth.

Many participants reported a household income of less than $40,000, ranging from 17% to 46% of respondents across the different research methods. In this group, mental and physical health was the most frequent response, although it was ranked second, under housing, in priorities.

Mental and physical health was also most frequently mentioned by people of color, but it ranked third after K-12 schools and students and housing, respectively.

Other needs identified by respondents were before and after school programs, student mental health, homeless sheltering, pathways to home ownership, improvement of sidewalks, bike lanes and trails and a living and competitive wage, according to Alexander’s presentation to the council.

Because Tuesday’s presentation focused on big-picture findings and overarching trends, the council will schedule a work session with ICAD staff to get further into the details and understand the full results, as well as have one-on-one meetings between ICAD staff and councilmembers and city leadership.

Public art project

The city will begin developing potential themes for a public artwork project, which will be funded by $50,000 through a community grant.

The council voted to approve an amendment to the 2021 Community Development Block Grant Action Plan to reallocate that money.

Interim City Manager Ande Banks said city staff plan to create an online survey to identify specific themes that “bubble up to the surface” in the community. Then, a selection committee — including a council member — will look through the responses and decide on themes. A window will then open for artists to submit proposals in line with the selected themes.

Council member Chris Jones said he hopes to serve on the committee. However, Jones’ term expires at the end of 2022. He fell short of winning one of the two Democratic nominations for city council seats in that party’s primary earlier this month. But he’s now running in the special election to replace council member Richard Baugh, who was appointed to George Hischmann’s seat following his retirement.

“I’d appreciate that opportunity. If not, I respect that,” Jones said. “But this is something I know I’ve been wanting to see for a long time and work with some community members on, so if there’s a seat at the table, I’ll bring a folding chair.”

Baugh asked Banks why so much money would be taken from administrative funds and given to a project like this. 

Banks said this is a common practice — the city allocates a maximum to administration so it’s able to take some out for projects like this.

Vice Mayor Sal Romero said he wants students from the high school and local universities involved in the creative process. Banks said there’s flexibility in the timeline for the project, and he hopes to include the public engagement and input portion of the process around the end of July or early August to give students a chance to engage.

Approval of homeless shelter purchase

Council approved the purchase of a property at 1111 N. Liberty St. for use by Open Doors, a low-barrier homeless shelter that’s floated around temporary housing for the past several years.

The city authorized interim City Manager Ande Banks to purchase the property from Shenandoah Presbytery for $700,000. The purchase will be subsidized by ARPA funds, which are also available for any renovations needed to tailor the space to Open Doors’ needs.

A timeline for the preparations hasn’t been laid out yet, so Open Doors will remain at D-Hub on JMU’s campus over the summer and continue to seek temporary housing until the property is ready. 

Harrisonburg Director of Communications Michael Parks said the new location may not be ready for move-in until the latter half of next year.

The action is a win for Mayor Deanna Reed, who said she’s advocated for this for 20 years. 

Jones recognized the project’s signifcance.

“I’m excited to see us building out the north end, excited to see us helping people,” Jones said. “It’s killing a lot of birds with one stone.”

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